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Czech Republic: Pope Begins Visit To Czech Republic Tomorow

By Michael Galant

Prague, 24 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - A bishop in Prague says that Pope John Paul's trip this weekend to the Czech Republic will be a motivational boost for Catholics and a message for non-believers.

When the pope arrives tomorrow night in Prague to begin the 76th trip of his papacy, he will be coming to a country where only about two-thirds of the population professes to believe in any religion. Prague Bishop Jaroslav Skarvada says that about 37 percent believe in Catholicism, but he admits that only about 10 to 15 percent of those are practicing Catholics.

Given those figures, it seems somewhat odd that the pope is making his third trip to the Czech lands in the past seven years. But Skarvada told RFE/RL this week that the pope's visit will convey an important message. Skarvada said: "It's a sign that there are still believers in our country. After 40 years of communism, there are many who think that all religion is already overdone. Now they will see that the Catholics, the believers, are still alive."

The pope will be in the Czech Republic to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Adalbert, the first bishop of Prague. The highlights of his itinerary will include a mass Saturday for young people from throughout the Czech Republic in the Bohemian city of Hradec Kralove, and a mass at Letna Plain in Prague.

Organizers of Sunday's mass in Prague say they expect a crowd of 120,000. Nearly 1,000 buses are due to bring participants from Moravia, regarded as the most devoutly Catholic section of the country, to the mass. A mass at Letna, held in the rain in the pope's last visit to Prague in 1995, attracted a smaller than expected crowd.

Skarvada says the pope's first Czech visit in 1990, soon after the fall of Communism, evoked what he called "great enthusiasm.." He says. "The pope was fresher, younger and he delivered some very good speeches." Giovanni Coppa, the papal nuncio to the Czech Republic, told our correspondent that he hopes that this visit will, in his words, "help all the healthy forces of society to come together once again, as in 1990."

One of the main events of the pope's visit in 1995 re-ignited centuries-old tension between Czech Catholics and Protestants. The pope canonized Jan Sarkander, a priest martyred by Protestants, who accused him of trying to eliminate Protestantism during the Counter-Reformation. Representatives of some Protestant churches boycotted a Prague meeting with the pope, who asked for forgiveness for injustices committed toward non-Catholics throughout Czech history.

Skarvada says tension between Catholics and Protestants was often used by the Communists to convince non-believers that, in his phrase, "the church was always against our nation." Skarvada adds: "This is our difficulty. The pope wants to help us with this."

The pope's visit also may be an attempt to improve relations between the church and the current Czech government. Skarvada notes that Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus once called the church, which is still fighting for the restitution of property confiscated during Communism, "a club of tourists." Critics say that the church's on-going fight for restitution hurts its image, but Skarvada contends that "we want the property only to live." He notes that non-believers also resent the fact that the church is still financially supported by the state. He says: "The majority of the nation are non-believers, so they ask: why should a non-believer pay for the church?"

Skarvada says that what he describes as "a 40-year-long brainwashing" has much to do with the current tension between the Czech Catholic church and state. He notes that church officials hoped that Catholicism would be revived after the fall of Communism. But he acknowledes: "We had to realize that it was not so. There is now no Communist government, but there are still Communist people with Communist heads and hearts. It's not so easy to change the people. It's a question of generations."

But the pope, who is in frail health and will be 77 next month, has a more immediate message on a trip taking place two weeks after an apparent attempt to assassinate him during a visit to Sarajevo. Says Papal Nuncio Coppa: "The message of the pope here will be an invitation to rediscover Christian roots, which have been the wealth of this nation from its very beginning."

Skarvada says that he hopes the pope's visit will make the government realize that, in his words, "the church is alive and strong. (Czech) Catholics will not be ashamed to be Catholic. The visit will be an encouragement for them."