by Kazi Stastna, Keston News Service, 23 November 2000

Controversy still surrounds the Slovak state's concordat with the Vatican, which was four years in preparation and is awaiting ratification by parliament. Prior to governmental approval in mid-August, some media criticised the government for what they claimed was its preferential treatment of the Catholic Church. Catholic representatives have told Keston News Service that the concordat will help other Churches secure their rights, but not all agree, some viewing the concordat as a symptom of preferential treatment towards the Catholics that the amendment to the religion law guaranteeing religious equality (see KNS 22.11.2000) will go only some way to addressing.

Since the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, the Holy See has signed concordats defining the position of the Catholic Church within a country with many Eastern European states, most recently - on 8 November - with Latvia.

According to 1991 census figures, the Roman Catholic Church is Slovakia's largest religious community, with roughly 3.3 million members (out of a total population of roughly 5.3 million), followed by the Augsburg Lutheran Church with over 350,000 members, the Greek Orthodox Church with 180,000 members and the Reformed Christian Church with over 80,000.

Supporters of the concordat argued that it is an international agreement between states rather than between church and state. Nevertheless, many of the most sensitive points - financing, education, access to the army and police - were left out of the final version, with only a declaration that separate agreements on these issues will be signed at a later, unspecified, time.

The spokesman for the Slovak Bishops' Conference, Marian Gavenda, told Keston by telephone on 13 November that fears of discrimination are `unjustified'. In his view, the concordat only anchors more firmly relations that already exist, and the `prestige of an international agreement' provides a `certain guarantee' - for example, if the regime changes. He argues that the more rights and privileges the Catholic Church manages to get at the international level, the better for all churches, since the state must adopt corresponding domestic laws. Michaela Moravcikova of the state-funded Institute for Relations between Church and State agreed, telling Keston on 13 November that the Catholic Church has `paved the way' for other churches.

Despite having initiated a counterweight to it in the form of the amendment, the Ecumenical Council sees the concordat as positive. According to the secretary of the Ecumenical Council, Jan Oslik, the concerns over discrimination were more general rather than specific contentions with the agreement.

Daniela Horinkova, secretary of the Augsburg Lutheran Church, alleges that parts of the concordat discriminate against other churches, for example in the area of education, where she sees a de facto `catholicisation' of the school system.

The chairman of the Seventh-Day Adventists, Emmanuel Duda, however, considers the Catholic Church's claim `an opportunistic statement'. `I don't see [the concordat] as a positive step. It has given rise to tension,' he told Keston on 14 November. Specifically, Duda points to Article 20, which he feels will guarantee the Catholic Church full financing from the state budget `at the expense of other churches'.

The chairman of the Slovak Methodist Church, Pavel Prochazka, told Keston on 13 November that he does not see the concordat as discriminatory but feels that although the Catholic Church does not receive preferential treatment de jure, de facto it has a privileged position. `But the problem lies elsewhere: if you sign an international agreement with one church and then with others [you discriminate]; if you sign them at the same time, you give them the same worth.'

This view was echoed by Horinkova: `The relationship between church and state should first be clarified in Slovak law and then internationally; not first with the Roman Catholic Church and then with others.'

Timing was the key focus during the drafting of the amendment. The Ecumenical Council insisted that it be approved prior to the signing of the concordat. Both were approved by the government simultaneously, with the amendment being passed in the National Council at the end of October and currently awaiting the President's signature, whereas the concordat still has to be ratified by the National Council. (END)