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Czech Republic: Prague Meeting Focuses On Religion's Role In Modern Society

A three-day international conference on religious freedom that brings together theologians and secular academics is taking place in Prague this week. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten has attended the conference's discussions, which focus on the relationship between religion and the state in modern society. Here is his report:

Prague, 10 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- One of the central paradoxes discussed at the conference was recognized by the Greek philosopher Socrates back in the 5th century B.C. It is that governments -- because of their desire to remain in power -- frequently undermine the character and virtues needed for their nations' own long-term survival.

Adapted to today's realities, this means that politicians in secular states often marginalize or ignore the role of religion in their societies. But by doing so, according to conference participants, they risk the destruction of their fellow citizens' moral fiber, since it is precisely religious organizations that tend to inculcate moral values in any society. And without moral education, as the ancient Greeks recognized, human beings make poor citizens. Kevin Hasson, president of the U.S.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which sponsored the conference, put it this way:

"The free cultivation of human religious potential is not only essential to individuals, it is essential also to social harmony. Not only does religious repression give rise to civil strife seemingly as durable as the religious impulse itself, but social cohesion depends on the transmission of those virtues typically fostered by religious participation."

Professor Tomas Halik, a noted Czech academic and Catholic theologian, who was active in the dissident movement during the Communist era, chided Western economists and their disciples in Eastern Europe for advocating a market-economy cure for every ill:

"The idea that the mere existence of a free market and the privatization of property will give rise to a new, better human type, is as naive as was the Marxist expectation that a new man could be fashioned through collectivization and socialism."

Halik added that by neglecting the spiritual dimension, politicians had failed their post-communist electorates. Halik said the spiritual void left by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was slowly being filled by the rebirth of religion. He emphasized that the process should not be forced and would take a long time yet. But he said it was important for politicians to recognize the role of churches in society and provide safeguards for the freedom.

One of those freedoms includes the right to property seized by the former Communist regimes. The thorny issue of church restitution still dogs many Eastern European states. Miloslav Cardinal Vlk, Archbishop of Prague, said that until the Czech government deals satisfactorily with the issue, it will not have lived up to its democratic ideals.

"The most difficult situation is in the area of property freedom and rights. Although the church does not see this as a priority, the fact remains that over the past 10 years, a free democratic state has been unable to redress the injustice committed towards the church in this area by the Communists. "

Polish philosophy professor Ryszard Legutko noted that, ironically, the communists were keenly aware of man's spiritual dimension. They recognized the need to fill the void left by their abolition of religion. According to Legutko, this was the key to their temporary success. He enumerated the similarities between communist ideology and a religious system:

"There has always been, in the socialist and communist tradition, a touch of religiousness, not only in the enthusiasm felt by its adherents, but also in the comprehensiveness and profundity of the project it was meant to accomplish: a unifying set of ideas, a church-like organization, a system of dogmatics, a selected group of interpreters of those dogmatics, a belief in 'the book,' a secular revelation, Communist prophets, the importance of social compassion, etc., etc."

But the abysmal failure of communist ideology, Legutko noted, proved the danger of a government assuming the role of moral inculcator -- something, he said, best left to churches of all denominations.

Paradoxically, the Prague conference is devoting as much time to the dangers of extreme secularism as to the dangers of state-imposed religion. In keeping with their ecumenical tradition, participants have stressed the importance of faith -- but not of a particular confession. They emphasize the need for all human beings to be able to choose their religion and even to change it, as guaranteed by article 18 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A state's imposition of a religion on its citizens, participants agreed, could be as detrimental as the desire to destroy it.

In this respect, several conference speakers singled out Russia for criticism. Father David Jaeger, one of the architects of the Vatican's agreement establishing relations with Israel, took Russia to task for its 1997 law limiting the number of officially recognized faiths. The law gives the Orthodox Church preferential status among faiths sanctioned on Russian territory.

In Jaeger's words:

"It is impossible to overlook the predominant apparent purpose of the legislation, as being to protect the turf -- so to speak -- of the Moscow Patriarchate."

Tomas Halik of the Czech Republic used even stronger language, accusing the Orthodox Church, under the leadership of Patriarch Aleksii II, of being an accomplice to state authorities in encouraging nationalism.

"Despite all its negative past experience, the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church again today is giving itself over, for the most part, to the uncritical service of nationalism and the state. It does not hesitate to justify the crimes of today's Russia, such as the genocide in Chechnya."

No Russian Orthodox representatives were present at the conference to rebut those views. It would appear that attempts to heal the thousand-year old rift between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches still have a long way to go. But then again, the Prague conference did not aim to resolve any intractable issues -- only to provide a forum for their discussion. The fact that the world's religions have an essential contribution to make to society is a point on which all could probably agree.