by Kazi Stastna, Keston News Service, 22 November 2000

Non-Catholic Christian leaders have welcomed the approval by parliament, the National Council, of an amendment to the law on freedom of religion and the status of churches and religious organisations explicitly stating that `all churches and religious organisations have an equal standing before the law' and allowing the state to sign separate `mutual co-operation contracts' with any of the registered churches and organisations. However, officials and Christian leaders have told Keston News Service that the amendment is of a `declarative' and `preemptive' nature and will not result in any practical changes. Non-Christian faiths have felt themselves outside the debate (see separate KNS article).

The `little amendment', which added two new articles to the religion law, was approved on 31 October and comes into force on 1 January 2001. It was introduced in parallel with the government's approval of the concordat between the Slovak state and the Vatican (see separate KNS article), and its raison d'etre is very much tied to this document.

Churches in Slovakia are governed by the same law, 308/1991, as their counterparts in the Czech Republic - Slovakia's former partner in the Czechoslovak federation before the two split in 1993. Similarly to the Czech Republic, in 1992, the Slovak National Council adopted a law which was meant to supplement 308/1991 by requiring churches to have a minimum number of members to qualify for registration by the government. In the Czech Republic this was set at 10,000, while in Slovakia law 192/1992 outlined it as 20,000. Financing of churches in both countries is still governed by a Communist-era law dating back to 1949 (218/1949), under which the salaries of clergy are subsidised by the state.

The declaration that all religious groups are equal before the law was implicit in the original law and flows from the Slovak Constitution, and thus, as the director of the Culture Ministry's Department of Churches, Jan Juran, told Keston News Service by telephone on 9 November, the article has a strictly `declarative' character and was formulated largely as a reaction to the Vatican agreement. `Some of the other churches had the feeling that their rights were being curtailed,' he said, adding that `there was a certain psychological factor there'.

None of the church representatives approached by Keston felt that the 1991 law was discriminatory but several agreed with the secretary of the Ecumenical Council, Jan Oslik, who told Keston on 13 November that the law was `inadequate to a certain degree' in that it did not explicitly mention this equality between churches.

But even the Ecumenical Council, which spearheaded the amendment, admits that the amendment was a `preventive solution_ so that misunderstandings don't arise'. Asked how the position of churches will change as a result of the amendment, Oslik declared: `It won't.'

The secretary of the Augsburg Lutheran Church, Daniela Horinkova, sees the amendment as a `protection for the future' but denies that it came about only as a reaction to the Vatican concordat: `That equality was always missing there for us,' she told Keston on 13 November.

However, there is little doubt that the article regarding contracts between church and state was directly inspired by the concordat. `There was a certain jealousy among the small churches; they wanted something similar,' Michaela Moravcikova of the state-funded Institute for Relations between Church and State told Keston on 13 November.

Asked about the likelihood of non-Catholic churches making such agreements with the state, Oslik said that it was small but depended on how the political situation in the country developed and especially what stance the state took on financing of churches.

Undoubtedly, the issue of financing was one of the main driving forces behind both the Vatican concordat and the amendment. Amid debates about separation of church and state, the possible abolition of law 218/1949 and the government's intention to reduce funding of church schools, both Catholic and non-Catholic churches are looking to cover themselves pre-emptively.

Juran of the Culture Ministry admitted it is hard to predict the exact form of the contracts that the government and churches may sign, but that they could include co-operation on charitable and social work - for example, with the Romani population. Three churches have expressed interest in such contracts: the Lutheran Church, the Old Catholic Church and the Adventists.

The Lutheran Church and the Adventists confirmed to Keston that they had begun to prepare contract proposals, which were likely to touch on financing, the church's role in the school system and freedom to practice without state interference. (END)