Czech church thrives - in private homes

In a darkened apartment, a few spare candles flicker over a small wooden crucifix. The small group of faithful, boys and girls, men and women, ranging in age from 2 to 60, lower themselves to their knees. They pray. They sway. They chant. This is Czechoslovakia's ``underground church.'' Because of state restrictions on religious activity, a thriving independent alternative has sprung up. Priests stripped of state licenses give mass in homes. Groups, uncomfortable praying in police-infested churches, hold informal meetings.

``The state-sponsored churches simply don't satisfy many people,'' says Jiri Kaplan, a Catholic activist. ``They want something more spontaneous, more informal, more free.''

This freedom is illegal in Czechoslovakia. Just this May, Ivan Polansky, an elderly Catholic layman, was sentenced to four years in prison for publishing underground religious literature.

``You can get two years for just saying mass if you are an unlicensed priest,'' says the Rev. Vaclav Maly, who was stripped of his license and has spent several years in prison. ``The state insists on controlling all religion.''

By most accounts, the informal networks outside state control are growing, though no one knows just how large they are. Only seven people showed up for the recent meeting; the organizer blames summer vacations and says that as many as 100 people crowd into the apartment at other times. The ecumenical service brings together Protestants and Catholics.

``It is not an `underground,' some sort of secret, separate church,'' Augustin Navratil says. ``It is just part of the legal church ... illegally suppressed.''

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