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Slovakia: Church Opens Debate About Closing Shops On Sundays

According to last year's census, Slovakia is a more religious society than it was a decade ago, with four out of five people professing religious beliefs. Now, the head of the country's second-largest Christian denomination says Slovakia's laws should reflect this by keeping Sunday sacred and restricting the opening hours of the nation's shops.

Prague, 16 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One aspect of life particularly appealed to Julius Filo during the five years he spent working in Switzerland -- most shops shut their doors on Sundays.

Filo is general bishop of Slovakia's Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, a Lutheran church and the second-largest Christian denomination in this mainly Catholic country. He says Switzerland's shopping-free Sundays showed the country had respect for family values.

"Sunday was protected. There was peace on Sundays. People were together and had time for each other. I think it's simply a Western European standard, that Sunday is set aside for family and for everyone to devote themselves to personal spiritual improvement as they see fit."

This is one of the reasons why Filo wants Slovakia to follow suit and make Sunday sacred. At his traditional New Year's meeting with the press earlier this week, he said he wants a law enacted that would ban shopping on Sundays.

Last year's census in Slovakia showed a growing number of people professing religious beliefs -- 84 percent, up from 73 percent a decade earlier. But it's not just a religious issue, Filo says.

"Put simply, I think it helps society. It protects families, those who are employed in these supermarket chains, because they have to promise that they can work any time and all week. On Christmas Eve, they can't go home till late at night. I think it's unfair to demand this of these families. So there are very pragmatic reasons for it, on the one hand. And on the other, the fact that European culture keeps one day a week for the family, and I think it would be very good if it was like that here, too. I'm surprised that there's been practically no legislative move started in this direction so far."

Most of the big supermarket chains -- and some smaller stores -- are open on Sundays in Slovakia. But Filo says closing the stores on Sundays need not harm the economy.

"I think it wouldn't have any negative effect as long as they extended their opening hours during the week. Most shops in Slovakia shut at six [p.m.] or earlier. People leaving work can't shop then. And Saturday isn't used so much as a shopping day, so they could stay open late."

Just 7 percent of the Slovak population is affiliated with Filo's church. But the Catholic Church in Slovakia -- whose congregation is about 10 times larger -- says it backs Filo's initiative and sees support growing to keep Sunday special. The Slovak Bishops' Conference has sent a letter on the subject to all its parishes, which it wants read out at Masses this Sunday.

Still, Sunday shopping is popular, and people have become used to it, says Eduard Vrabel. He's the financial director in Slovakia for Billa, a chain of Austrian supermarkets. But he admits it's hard to say if a ban would lose customers for his stores, or if they would shop during the week instead.

"I think that people either do not have time or it is more comfortable for them to go shopping on Sunday. [But] it's possible that people would reorganize their time so that they can shop during the week, so that there wouldn't be any impact on sales. But it's hard to say now if there will be any effect or not."

If Filo's initiative is successful, it won't pose any problem for Slovakia as a candidate for eventual entry into the European Union. That assurance comes from Andrew Fielding, the European Commission's spokesman on employment and social affairs.

"As far as I can see, no, it wouldn't [cause any problems], for the simple reason that issues of religion -- if that's the issue with Sunday trading -- are entirely within the national competence. In other words, community law cannot affect a decision by a member state to keep Sunday sacred."

Practices vary widely across EU member states. For example, shops in both Austria and Italy are closed on Sundays except in tourist areas, but Italy allows exemptions for bakeries and flower shops.

Christelle Maes is an adviser on social affairs for Euro Commerce, which represents retail, wholesale, and international traders to the EU. She says Germany is clearly the most restrictive country in this respect, requiring most shops to be closed on Sundays.

"In most of the European countries, you can find some exceptions to the rules which lay down that you have to close your shop on Sunday. For instance, in the U.K., you have no restrictions at all, and in Sweden [too]. In France, it's particular, because you can open your shop on Sunday -- there is no legislation [in France] which forbids the opening of shops on Sundays -- but there is some legislation which forbids work for salaried people on Sundays. So there is a sort of paradox."

Maes says trade unions often question the financial sense behind Sunday trading, arguing that Sunday shoppers are more likely to browse than spend. Pressure from labor unions is one reason the stores stay shut, she says, but there are other reasons.

"It is first linked with some practices from the 19th century because you had to work for six days and then the seventh one you had to have rest. Maybe it's also linked with religion. But now this is clearly linked with labor market practices and also the labor law, because you have some hours which [you] are allowed to work in the week, and then if you do more than that, you need to get extra pay. Also, you have rules for health and safety, which forbid that people work more than a certain number of hours."

Filo says he has no plans to organize petitions in Slovakia but will continue to keep the debate alive and discuss it with the country's politicians.

And he thinks ordinary people will understand his initiative. After all, he says, keeping the Sabbath day holy is one of God's commandments.