Czechoslovakia is determined to keep churches in line

Czechoslovakia's hard-line communists appear to be more concerned about the example of the Roman Catholic Church in crisis-ridden Poland than by its independent unions.

The shrill attacks by party leaders and news media against Solidarity continue unabated. But, behind the scenes -- and increasingly publicly, too -- a tougher campaign is being waged against Czechoslovakia's religious congregations.

The initial spur for new pressures seemed to be the identification of members from all the churches with the Charter 77 human- rights movement. Clergy, theologians, and lay christians were among its early adherents. Its present spokesmen are Roman Catholics.

Clearly, however, it is the influence of the Catholic Church in Poland -- and the regime's acknowledgment of church support in the present crisis -- that is prompting the Prague regime to impose harsher restraints on religious practices.

Recent harassment of Charter 77 activists followed the seizure of a French leftist couple whom Czech authorities charged with having brought subversive material into the country. Although they were ultimately released and deported, the 30 or so Chartists picked up at the same time may still find charges being pressed against them.

Details leaking out indicate that in the past year pressures on religious activity in general have built up to levels reminiscent of the Stalinist 1950s. The prime target is the Roman Catholic Church, which traditionally commands adherence of 60 percent of the population.

Prague's post-Dubcek leaders have balked at the kind of modus vivendi achieved between the Vatican and the Hungarian government or between the authorities and the Protestant communities in East Germany. Both of those countries have defused conflict and allowed the churches a much freer existence.

The Czech regime's anxiety has been evident ever since Poland's Karol Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. It has become more obvious as the church's role has expanded since strikes erupted last August.

For some years, according to the churches, there have been approximately 100 clergymen and lay Christians in Czechoslovak jails. Most were minor figures in rural centers, jailed because of contacts with foreign church bodies or the dissemination of forbidden religious literature.

Their trials were not "spectaculars." But the effects are crippling to the churches' activity. For years, neither Catholics nor other denominations have been allowed to fill long- vacant bishoprics, although candidates are available. Thus the ordination of new priests is restricted.

Over the past year there has been a more systematic endeavor to eliminate many who had been ordained by withdrawing their licenses to officiate at mass. Priests popular among young people have been singled out. Some priests have been put on early pension; others have had driver's licenses canceled by the police, allegedly because of poor eyesight.

If a replacement is not installed within three months, the parish is struck off the register. Considering all the limitations imposed, this often happens.

In a recent pastoral letter, the Catholic primate, Frantisek Cardinal Tomasek , told believers, "Our ranks are thin," and urged them to "stay close" to priests who might have to celebrate mass in 11 scattered churches in a single Sunday.

A clandestine church has existed in Czechoslovakia since shortly after the communist takeover in 1948. Cardinal Tomasek himself was secretly ordained in that period.

Under the more recent repression, a "secret church" has been developing. Priests whom the state has refused to authorize have been secretly consecrated. They may not officiate openly, but they take part in religious services and seminars in private homes.

The Dubcek era's relaxations vis-a-vis the churches, including religious publications, have been rescinded. But a considerable samizdat church literature is now circulating.

The official attitude is to minimize and brand this new church movement as an attempt to revive the political "clericalism" of Czechoslovakia's early years, which culminated in the puppet Catholic Republic of Slovakia created by Hitler after he dismembered the country in 1939.

Behind this charge, however, press comment indicates that the regime's principal cause for concern is the situation in Poland. The new unions and the influence of the Catholic Church there represent a degree of "pluralism" and social partnership whose impact on Czechoslovakia is much stronger than the Prague lea ders want to admit.

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