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Pope Calls On Czechs To Find Their Christian Roots

Pope Benedict kneels before the "Infant Jesus of Prague" on September 26.
PRAGUE (Reuters) -- Visiting Pope Benedict XVI has called on Czechs to rediscover their Christian roots, battered by four decades of totalitarian rule until the fall of communism 20 years ago restored religious freedom.

The pope arrived in Prague on September 26 for a three-day visit to support the Czech Catholic community, the biggest church in a central European country that has among the lowest proportion of religious people in the world.

Speaking on arrival at Prague airport, Benedict recalled the forthcoming anniversary of the bloodless Velvet Revolution that overthrew the Communist rulers in November 1989.

"A particular tragedy for this land was the ruthless attempt by the government of that time to silence the voice of the Church," he said. "Now that religious freedom has been restored, I call upon the citizens of this republic to rediscover the Christian traditions which have shaped their culture, and I invite the Christian community to continue to make its voice heard as the nation addresses the challenges of the new millennium."

Unlike in neighboring Poland, leaders of the Czechoslovak state that emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 were distinctively secular, and many were closer to medieval reformist movements than Catholicism.

Four decades of Communist rule starting in 1948 suppressed any religious thought, and the government closed monasteries and jailed many priests and believers.

Fewer than 3 million of the country's population of 10.5 million claim to be Catholics, and few of those attend church regularly.

The pope will celebrate two masses during the visit, in the second biggest city of Brno, where many Poles and Slovaks are expected to attend, and in Stara Boleslav north of Prague, the site of the murder of the Czech patron saint, Wenceslas, in either 929 or 935.

Benedict has visited the Czech Republic once before, in 1992, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

His predecessor, John Paul II, paid three visits to Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, after the country split in 1993.