Banska Bystrica, Slovakia; 2 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - On an August night nearly two years ago, Slovak police conducted a four-hour search of the palatial residence of Rudolf Balaz, Bishop of Banska Bystrica and chairman of the Slovak Bishops' Conference.
The bishop was away on a holiday. The police claimed that the search was to investigate allegations that Balaz was illegally trading in religious antiques.
The move prompted public protests. Some 3,000 people were reported to have joined a subsequent protest demonstration in Banska Bystrica, the largest town in central Slovakia, against what they said was an attempt by the state to intimidate Church officials.
The police search came after police seized a 16th century triptych, known as the Veneration of the Three Kings, painted by an unknown Dutch artist. The director of the bishop's office, Jozef Hrtus, says the bishop decided to sell the triptych to raise money to pay off a loan for constructing a seminary.
Hrtus says the picture was not a part of Slovakia's heritage and was not classified as a "protected monument." He says the triptych was originally on public view in the bishop's reception room. It was given to a restorer to repair and to find a buyer. For more than half a year, no one had expressed an interest in purchasing it at its appraised value of between $25,000 and $37,000.
An intermediary turned up and offered to pay considerably more for the triptych -- the equivalent of nearly $190,000. The man, claiming to be a Swiss citizen by the name of Graubner, bought the picture, only to be seized by police at a nearby gas station.
The police not only seized the triptych and searched the bishop's residence on Banska Bystrica's main square, but they also confiscated the money Graubner had paid for the picture.
Hrtus says the search made no sense since it was not the church which misappropriated the picture.
The picture has become "the most famous picture in Central Europe," says Hrtus.
It is still an unsolved case, Hrtus says, adding that the Church lost both the triptych and the money. As he puts it, there are those who question "whether this case will be solved at all as long as the current constellation of government stars" remains in power.
Hrtus says he believes the case was an "intelligence trick," apparently by the Slovak intelligence service, or SIS.
Bishop Balaz has been openly supportive of Slovak President Michal Kovac in his continuing power struggle with Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. The bishop has also incurred the governmentUs ire by speaking out against the adoption of a new criminal code.
It was an attempt to discredit Bishop Balaz, Hrtus said, adding that while the operation was relatively well prepared, it was not thorough and the organizers failed to find out that the triptych was not classified as a protected object and thus could be sold and/or exported.
Hrtus noted that Graubner was stopped by the police not at a border crossing during a customs check but rather at a gas station where the police would normally have no cause to control the contents of a person's car. During subsequent police interrogation it was determined that Graubner's passport was counterfeit as were the license plates of his car. All these elements, Hrtus said, suggest that this might have been a provocation directed against the bishop.
Hrtus said he does not expect any resolution of the case in the foreseeable future since the prosecutor's office and other investigative bodies are all subordinate to the Meciar government.
Hrtus said that the case has united the priests in the diocese and the church hierarchy in other parts of Slovakia. He also said that Balaz's authority has grown as a result of the incident. The bishop is now a frequent guest in packed halls and churches all across the country.