members of religious orders condemned to work camps during the Stalinist period. But the overthrow of Dubcek in 1968 marked a renewal of the attack on religion, par ticularly in Slovakia. The centre for the study of Religion and Communism at Keston, Kent has supplied us with this article by P. F. ANTHONY.
Czechoslovak religious 'purge'
AT ABOUT midnight on April 13, 1950, units of the Czechoslovak police and workers' militia armed with machine-guns and grenades knocked at the doors of the country's 226 monasteries. On August 30 it was the turn of 720 convents. If the doors were not opened at once the nocturnal visitors forced their way in.
Once inside, they took the community's keys and gained entry to the living cells, allegedly to prevent the destruction of compromising material.
They called all the occupants together in one of the larger rooms and explained that by government decree the religious house was declared State property and the religious would be resettled elsewhere. This was because of espionage for the Vatican and concealment of weapons in religious houses, they said.
The government had been preparing the occupation of monasteries and convents and the detention of religious for some time. But the trial of a few community superiors was the immediate cause. This belonged to the classical show trials of the period.
The accused were of course condemned to long years of imprisonment for "high treason" against the People's Democratic Republic. But everyone knew that the real reasons lay elsewhere. The Government needed a pretext for the attack on religious communities.
A further rcason for the occupation was to be found in the secret transmitters, weapons and anti-communist pamphlets which were allegedly hidden in the convents and monasteries. These were in fact found there.
But the police "discovered" only what they had placed in the cellars on a previous visit. There were many fallacies surrounding the affair, but in a country where the accused has no rights they could not be pointed out.
Once the police had explained the reasons for nationalising monasteries and convents they gave the occupants about an hour to pack essentials. Everything else ssould be sent on. Then the religious were loaded on to buses. "They are taking us to Siberia," everyone thought, expecting the worst.
The police did not permit the community superiors to travel with the others. They subjected them to long interrogations, demanded to be given all the keys, exerted pressure to obtain all the community's valuables — particularly golden liturgical vessels.
If the house did not possess such articles, or if the superior refused to hand them over to
the police, firmer methods were employed. Many superiors lost
teeth in the process and others had to be taken directly from their community house to hospital — supposedly because of a "road accident."
After a few days the religious houses looked as if they had been pillaged by the barbarians.
Precious objects, money, provisions and the community wine — _if the house had vineyards — had been "rescued" by the guardians of the People's Democratic Republic. What remained was taken by the State.
Valuable manuscripts, books and collections were sold abroad. Some property found its way into State museums and anything left over was scrapped. The officials of the secret police and their Soviet advisers decided what was and was not valuable.
Former occupants of the houses were first sorted into separate orders. After one month they were taken, again at night, to large "concentration convent monasteries."
From there one group after another was driven to work camps, which were numerous in Czechoslovakia at that time. The absence of the religious was felt above all in the hospitals and schools — not to mention pastoral care.
The offensive against religious communities was accompanied by a general attack from all the communications media. Almost 13,000 innocent people or, more precisely, highly admirable people — were deprived of their civil rights. Furthermore, an attempt was made to rob them of their honour.
With the aid of films and the press, and particularly at training courses for Communist activists, it was given out — and is still gi,yen out — that sex orgies and bacchanalia took place in the religious communities and that the members were preparing a counterrevolution.
It was said that the Communists' attentive eye had discovered these crimes and the People's Democratic Government had taken radical steps against them. In this way the religious were doubly wronged. They lost their freedom and their honour.
The Secretariat for Church Affairs, founded in 1949 by the Government supposedly to protect Church interests, naturally took part in the campaign against religious houses. Fanatical Communists were chosen as secretaries of this "Church Office."
They were among the most pitiless accusers of the communities. In this way they show
ed their true face and at the
same revealed the Government's real aims in founding the "Church Office."
The broad mass of the population did not believe the official propaganda and did not approve of the Government's action. Of course they had no way of opposing the measures.
The Communist Government had already so firmly established itself and the population's ability to resist had been so broken by mass arrests that no one dared to offer resistance — not even in Slovakia, where only a year before it had proved impossible to arrest the parish priest in many villages because the whole village guarded him day and night.
But the Government was not entirely sure that there would be no mass resistance. So they sent hundreds of policemen and militia to the villages and urban districts where action was taken against the religious communities. During the night of the attack a policeman stood by almost every house.
No lawyer and no legal body dared to stand up for the religious, for the simple reason that it was the State, the "guardian of the law," which liquidated the laws and the entire legal system. The authorities did not dare to take the religious before a court because their "guilt" was not of a criminal or political nature but was philosophical or religious.
They were guilty of being Christian activists and witnesses to Christian idealism in a State which had declared total war on religion. Of course this could not be publicly brought as as a charge. Hence the religious have never discovered the true reason for their arrest and no one has told them the length and type of sentence.
The democratic thaw of the Dubcek era brought relief for the members of religious orders. But many did not survive to experience it.
Some succumbed to the consequences of their ill-treatment; others broke down from the heavy work and from illnesses brought on in the work camps. Many nuns died of tuberculosis.
In 1948 there were 258 monasteries in Czechoslovakia with 2,221 religious . In 1970, two years after the fall of Dubcek, no monasteries existed. Only 881 religious were living dispersed throughout the whole republic.
The sisters had 720 convents in 1949 with 10,448 members. In 1970 there were no more convents. A total 3,247 sisters failed to survive the work camp period. The "Prague Spring" of 1968 brought freedom. The religious simply left the work camps. Many of the priests began pastoral work as parish priests and chaplains, and the sisters found employment as nurses, social workers, teachers of religion, parish helpers or simply as factory workers. They lived in small groups of three or four or more in flats which they bought from common savings. The "normalisation" under Husak renewed hard Stalinist persecution. A new federal structure for the State also had negative consequences for the Church.
The Slovakian Socialist Republic, particularly its Ministry of Cults, began to develop a policy of cold liquidation of the Church, in an area of Czechoslovakia where even today more than 72 per cent of the population profess religion.
One point on the programme of the Slovakian Government was the capture of religious still living in freedom. The driving force for the attacks on nuns was Dr Pavlik, the Secretary of the Office for Church Affairs at the Ministry of Cults in Bratislava.
At the end of March, 1973, he telephoned the Director of Caritas, Fr Elemir Fib, and commanded him to tell the sisters that they should make a written request to be transferred to the "concentration convents." If they refused they would be forced.
But they would have to pay the transport costs themselves. Fr Fib o gave the sisters this information on March 27, 1973. But the sister understood what was afoot and tried to offer resistance.
The Ministry reacted very quickly. After two weeks, on April II, 1973, the forced transfer of the sisters to "concentration convents" began. Their flats were taken over by the State. This time one group after another was dealt with, and the operation was not carried out all at once. The final forced transfer, which aroused widespread protests among the people, took place on July 30, 1974, in the town of Trnava.
The Ministry of Cults in the Czech Socialists Republic behaved much more humanely towards the religious, although they were permitted to work only with mentally handicapped children, old people and the incurably sick.
In the whole of Czechoslovakia there are now 40 "concentration convents" — a "Gulag Archipelago" for religious. The sisters live there under strict supervision. The aim of the "concentration convents" is the same as that of the Nazi concentration camps: elimination of what the State considers "undesirable elements."