Prague, 12 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech Republic may be one of the most atheistic nations in Europe, but many Czechs are converting to Islam in their search for spirituality.
Vladimir Sanka says he is one of several hundred new converts to Islam throughout the country and one of some 10,000 Muslims nationwide. Sanka heads the Islamic Center, based in the Czech capital, Prague.
Sanka says that only now, 15 years after the end of communist rule, are Czechs getting in touch with Islam. Czechs are predominantly atheists and Roman Catholics, with some 40 percent of the population describing themselves as each.
Sanka is in his 40s and was born into an atheistic family. He had an atheistic education at school and in university, where he studied geology. He worked as a geologist for 15 years. Nine years ago, he converted to Islam. In 1995, Sanka became the head of the Islamic Center and an imam in Prague's only mosque.
Sanka says the spiritual journey that led him to convert was a long and painful one.
"Everything was oriented here in our society to [material things] and activities. I was missing spiritual, something spiritual. I found God. I believe that God exists. He created the universe and is above everything and brings justice and so on. People who do something bad, it doesn't mean that there will be no punishment," Sanka said.
In the end, he says he came to understand that only Islam fit his vision. Islam also attracted him, he said, because it does not reject the messages of Judaism and Christianity but is a "continuation" of them. "For me, Islam is very simple, very clear, practical and presents a logical way for daily life," Sanka said..
Sanka says he has twice visited Mecca and performed the hajj. He is learning Arabic and is able to communicate in the language of the Koran.
Sanka says he is not the only Czech to convert to Islam but admits that the majority of Muslims in the country are people who emigrated from the Middle East, Chechnya, Bosnia, or Iran.
Ondrej Mashatov, a 26-year-old Czech, converted to Islam in 1998 after a long spiritual quest. "I was atheist almost all my life, but when I reached the age of 17, I started to look for some, maybe, spiritual way of my life. And through many, many experiences -- I spent several years in a very strict Catholic monastery in France -- [found it]. So, I am coming from this background. And then I visited Egypt, and Arabic culture started to be somehow more clear [to me]," Mashatov said.
Mashatov says his spiritual journey was a shallow one until he met an Arab woman, who later became his wife.
"On my way through these spiritual experiments, I met my wife, a girl from the Arab world, and I converted to Islam," Mashatov said. Muslim men may marry Christians, but it is forbidden for Muslim women to marry non-Muslims. Mashatov had little choice but to convert.
He says that now his life is balanced, but says he prefers not to openly express his religious beliefs. "You can show it by acting in life. You don't need to say that, 'I am a Muslim. I am a Christian.' You can just act like this and nobody doesn't need to know who you are. The important [thing] is acting, how you deal with people, how you deal with yourself to God, how you deal with spirituality," Mashatov said.
Both Mashatov and Sanka say they feel safe as Muslims in the Czech Republic.
Tomas Halik is a professor of philosophy and religion at Charles University in Prague. In an interview with RFE/RL, Halik said the Czechs' general lack of knowledge about religion often leads them to be easily influenced.
"I think [Czechs] are not very well informed in general about history of religion, about Christianity at all. And there's a special situation in the Czech Republic because in the Czech Republic religion was so suppressed by the communist government, and even now churches are not much present in public life. So many people have no experience with a living religion, and they've got some prejudices against religion as such. So, if they meet some [interesting] religious people, they are open to the conversion," Halik said.
"Everything was oriented here in our society to [material things] and activities. I was missing spiritual, something spiritual."
He says it has been his experience that recent converts to Islam also adopt many of the political attitudes of the Arab Middle East. "Some of them are under the influence of a little bit one-sided propaganda of the Islamic countries with some prejudices against the state of Israel and so on," Halik said.
He also says some of the converts to Islam may be doing so in protest to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. He says there is a feeling that fear of Muslims helped spark support in the United States for the invasion. In that sense, he says, conversions to Islam are a form of protest against that war.