Pope visits Czech Republic 20 years after fall of communism
The trip will take the head of the Roman Catholic Church to Prague, Brno in the south and Stara Boleslav, a pilgrimage site north of the capital, dedicated to the country's main patron saint Wenceslas.Vatican City -- Pope Benedict XVI will pay his second visit to eastern Europe when he travels to the Czech Republic for a three-day visit beginning Saturday, as the region marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism.
The trip will take the head of the Roman Catholic Church to Prague, Brno in the south, and Stara Boleslav, a pilgrimage site north of the capital, dedicated to the country's main patron saint Wenceslas.
During his visit, the pope is due to discuss European themes, including the historic importance of Christianity and democracy in Europe, his spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
But the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism is bound to play an important role as well.
The Velvet Revolution, which overthrew communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia in late 1989, was "an event of great significance not only for the Czech Republic but for neighbouring countries and the whole world as well, and the pope will not be able to ignore this anniversary," a Vatican diplomat said.
German-born Benedict "will certainly broach this topic and we can see that as a sign of appreciation for what has been achieved in our society over the past 20 years, and what the Church has brought people," Jan Balik, spokesman for the Czech Episcopal conference, told AFP, noting that the visit would be Benedict's only trip to a former communist state in this anniversary year.
Benedict in 2005 succeeded Polish-born John Paul II, who is seen to have played an important role in the fall of the Iron Curtain and the emergence of democracy in eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, this weekend's visit will coincide with the feast day of Saint Wenceslas, the Czechs' patron saint, on Monday, which is commemorated in Stara Boleslav, the site of his martyrdom.
There, Pope Benedict will celebrate a mass on Sunday, which Czech President Vaclav Klaus is due to attend, as every year. Some 35,000 people are expected, including a large number of young people, according to Jan Balik.
The main mass will be held however on Sunday morning at Brno airport. Some 130,000 faithful will attend, and some 10,000 will travel from abroad, including neighbouring Slovakia, estimated Martina Jandlova, spokeswoman for the Brno diocese.
Despite a long Christian tradition, the Czech Republic has become very secular and only a third of the population now calls itself Catholic.
"The communist era falsified history and portrayed the Church as an enemy of the people," noted Marcel Smejkal, a member of the Roman Curia, or Church government, in charge of central Europe.
"It also put priests under control and banned the Catholic press and Catholic associations," he added.
"The Czech Republic is located geographically and historically at the heart of Europe and after going through the dramas of the past century, it needs, like the rest of the continent, to rediscover the reasons for faith and for hope," Pope Benedict noted during his Angelus service on Sunday.
The theme of the pope's trip -- "The love of Christ is our strength" -- was chosen to "encourage the Church to feel that she can bring vitality, hope and charity to society," noted Lombardi.
One issue that will not be openly discussed during the visit will be the return of Church property confiscated by the communist regime.
"I do not think that the pope will discuss these sensitive questions in public," Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, Archbishop of Prague and Primate of Bohemia, told the Czech newspaper Dnes.
"The Vatican secretary of state ('prime minister' Tarcisio Bertone) will have a talk with Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer, there we can expect such a debate," he said.
The trip looked set to bother at least a few tourists: Prague Castle, one of the capital's main sights but also the seat of the presidency, will be closed over the weekend.
The visit will be Benedict's first to the Czech Republic as pope. John Paul II went to then Czechoslovakia soon after the fall of the communism in 1990, then to the Czech Republic in 1995 and 1997.