After two decades of always precarious and often, as now, tense relations between church and state in Czechoslovakia, Roman Catholic Frantisek Cardinal Tomasek has for the first time directly charged the Communist authorities with discriminating against religion, its believers, and institutions.
He did so in a letter addressed to the head of the government office for church affairs, Mr. Vladimir Janku, in which he demanded ''fundamental changes'' in official policy and appealed for ''a more fruitful alternative to this old, continuous, superfluous conflict.''
For many years the position of the churches in Czechoslovakia has been more difficult than in any other country within the Soviet bloc, except for Albania, where religion is totally banned. The Catholic Church has, of course, been the principal target.
The situation worsened for the Catholic Church last year after the Vatican decree barring priests from party or political activity. Both the Holy See and Cardinal Tomasek himself made clear the decree applied to Catholic priests associating with the pro-regime Pacem In Terris (Peace on Earth) organization in Czechoslovakia.
For the authorities it was a further confirmation of their apprehensions about the Polish Pope and the possibility that his influence in his native country could spill across the border into Czechoslovakia itself.
It was, in fact, the signal for a campaign against what one government minister called a Vatican attempt to ''change the position of the (Czechoslovak) church according to the Polish pattern.'' This year the campaign was widened into a general and more-abrasive-than-usual antireligious drive before John Paul II visited Poland in June. It has shown little sign of abatement since.
His letter to the government followed a program on the state-controlled TV which he said denigrated religious believers and presented a false picture of the church and its activities.
''Catholic believers wished to contribute to the cultural, ethical, and moral development of society,'' he said. ''But this requires mutual respect and freedom of religious belief in accordance with law.''
In practice, however, believers were often placed ''beyond the law.'' Large groups of citizens are discriminated against at work and in schools (where no practicing believer may teach), and it has been declared official policy to combat religion by all means.
The cardinal roundly challenged government claims that it supports the churches by providing funds for restoration or the stipends of priests. He also contested its assertion that there are no numerical restrictions on training for the priesthood.
In making these claims, he said, the government does not mention that funds for restoration were derived from confiscated church properties, or that, though the church paid his salary, a priest could not be sure he would be permitted to perform his duties.
The primate had never spoken so forthrightly in public about official policy. His decision to finally do so is thought to have been prompted by feeling within the church itself, especially among its younger members, that he has been too ''accommodating'' without getting anything from the regime in return.
It is official awareness of a strong growth in the church's appeal to youth -- more marked in Czechoslovakia than elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Poland apart -- that seems to make Prague leaders increasingly loath to be ''accommodating'' on their side.