Although the Orthodox Church has a relatively small congregation in this country, it has a long and colourful history in the Czech lands. It was the Orthodox Saints Cyril and Methodius who first brought Christianity to this part of the world when they converted Great Moravia in the ninth century, and Moravia was actually the place from where Orthodox Christianity later spread eastwards to Ukraine and Russia.
Although the Czech Lands subsequently aligned themselves with Rome, their links with the Eastern Church were revived in the fifteenth century, when the reformist Hussite movement initially sought to join the Greek Orthodox Church before this plan was eventually thwarted when Constantinople was conquered by the Turks in 1453.
Centuries later, when democratic Czechoslovakia was founded after the First World War, many Czechs were attracted by the pan-Slavic nature of the Eastern Church and took advantage of new religious freedoms to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Lots of churches were built and the congregation swelled to around 145,000 people before the outbreak of World War II.
The Church suffered greatly during the Nazi occupation, primarily because Bishop Gorazd, the head of the Orthodox Church in Czechoslovakia, allowed those who assassinated Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich to shelter in the Orthodox chapel on Resslova Street in Prague. When these resistance fighters died after being discovered by the Nazis, the occupants quickly set about taking reprisals against the Orthodox Church. Altogether, 256 priests and laymen were rounded up and executed, including Bishop Gorazd, who has since been declared a saint.
Church life did not recover from this crippling blow until after the war, when it began to revive slowly. Moscow made the Czech Lands and Slovakia an autonomous patriarchate in 1951 and this was formally recognised by Constantinople in 1998.
Today, the Orthodox congregations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia still remain canonically unified even though the countries have gone their separate ways politically. Although today’s congregation in the Czech Republic is relatively small and only numbers around 30,000 to 50,000 people, masses are well attended and the church is attracting a lot of new members.
The Czech and Slovak branch of the Orthodox Church is currently headed by the Czech-born Archbishop Krystof. He says that many people have become interested in religion here since the fall of communism and that quite a few have been attracted by the very traditional nature of the Orthodox liturgy: “A lot of new people are looking for a new connection with Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Orthodox way is mystical and traditional. For this reason a lot of people are coming to the Orthodox Churches to pray and to seek the ‘old Christianity’ in our country. They are looking for a church with the old traditions and with some mystery.”
Igor Strelec is one Czech who has converted to Orthodox Christianity. He says that the church’s historical links to this country – stretching back to the time of the Great Moravian Archibishop Methodius in the ninth century – was one of the things that appealed to him.
“I feel like I’m continuing the tradition of Methodius and of our Hussite movement and Bishop Gorazd. I am proud that I come from the Czech Republic, where the Orthodox Church began in Great Moravia and then spread eastwards to Ukraine, Russia and other countries. It’s a proud part of our history.”
Archbishop Krystof says that the church has also been making inroads in the Czech Roma community: “We have a lot of projects with gypsies in the Czech Republic. We have built a Roma community with a Roma priest. It is the first time a member of the Roma community became a priest in the whole Czech Republic. For this reason it is very auspicious for us. The Roma priest is very active and the Roma [Orthodox] community has a future here.”
Besides new Czech converts, the Czech Orthodox Church’s congregation has been boosted by new arrivals from other countries. These include a number of Greeks who have moved here to conduct business since the Czech Republic joined the EU, but they mostly comprise guest workers from the states of the former Soviet Union.
Archbishop Krystof says that although this increase in numbers is welcome, the fact that new arrivals come from different traditions also poses a challenge in terms of maintaining unity in the Czech and Slovak Orthodox church: “There are more new Orthodox believers coming from the former Soviet Union – from Russia and Ukraine. For this reason we have more and more members. This is very nice for us but we have to create some sort of solidarity between them, not just for the original Czech believers but to try and ensure spiritual care for all our believers.”
Another challenge for members of the Orthodox Church is that its calendar is out of synch with the Catholic Christian calendar that prevails here. As a result Orthodox churchgoers have to adapt to public Christian-based holidays like Christmas and Easter being celebrated here on different days to those of their own church. Igor Strelec, however, says that instead of this being a problem, he and his fellow Czech co-religionists can enjoy the best of both worlds: “For me and my family – and I think for most Orthodox families in the Czech Republic – this is not a problem because we have twice as many celebrations. We celebrate both Christmases. I must say that we celebrate Christmas according to the Czech calendar like every family here because we love this celebration. And then we celebrate according to our Orthodox calendar in a more religious manner.”
Any religion in this country also has to face up to the highly secular nature of Czech society, which means that most faiths have to contend with a lot of indifference in this country or even suspicion. Archbishop Krystof, however, says that this issue has been overstated. He maintains that many Czechs are in fact open to the idea of religion and that the Orthodox Church has an opportunity to prosper in their midst: “I have to say that Czechs are a people without a church but they are not without faith. Everybody from the Czech population has some faith, but it is not connected with any church, regardless of whether it is Western, Eastern or Protestant. We have our own kind of faith but we are not people without faith. The Czechs are a people without a church. We just have to find the right church. That’s the main issue.”