Sudetenland: The least religious place in secular Czech Republic
The neglected village and its dilapidated sanctuary lie in northern Bohemia, the most atheist region in the generally secular Czech Republic, where religion was crushed during World War II and under more than 40 years of communist rule.Zlovedice -- Only a large wooden cross resists the ravages of time in a church with a collapsed roof and walls overgrown by wild bushes in the small village of Zlovedice.
The neglected village and its dilapidated sanctuary lie in northern Bohemia, the most atheist region in the generally secular Czech Republic, where religion was crushed during World War II and under more than 40 years of communist rule.
"When I came to Zlovedice for the first time, a woman told me: 'It's been 40 years since I last saw a priest,'" friar Josef Cermak told AFP.
During his visit to the Czech Republic Saturday to Monday, Pope Benedict XVI will stop in Prague, Brno and Stara Boleslav, but not in this borderland region formerly known as the "Sudetenland", once inhabited mostly by ethnic Germans who were forced to leave their homes after World War II.
"But it is not a God-forsaken region at all," Cermak insists.
"I am proof of this. I'm here, I live with the people," says the modest 57-year-old friar, who oversees 17 parishes from his seat in Kadan, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northwest of Prague.
But he is quick to point out that some of the parishes exist only "on paper" since many of them were located in deserted villages that have long disappeared from the vast military area surrounding the region.
Religious belief found itself in steady decline in the region following the expulsion of German-born Catholics and then because of the policy of the 1948-1989 Czechoslovak communist regime, which labelled the Church the people's enemy.
Jana Michalkova, spokeswoman for the diocese in Litomerice -- a town about 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Prague -- says about half of 1,135 churches and chapels in the area are in very poor condition.
"The work of clerics here is much more difficult compared to other parts of the country such as the strongly Catholic southern Moravia," she said.
"They have to move a lot to be with their parishioners. Sometimes they serve a mass for just one or two people," added Michalkova.
She said the "intentional liquidation of the Church and its institutions by the former communist regime" was one of the reasons behind the current situation.
The social and economic conditions in the region have also deteriorated since the fall of communism in 1989.
The region flourished under communism owing to a fast-growing heavy industrial sector and coal mining, but once the state economy collapsed unemployment spiked.
Despite the pitiful condition of St Michael's church in Zlovedice, friar Cermak regularly goes there on Good Friday and Christmas Eve "to pray", as he says, after celebrating a Sunday mass with about 20 mostly elderly believers in Mastov, another village in the region, with a population of 725.
The Mastov church bears the name of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary -- a feast that is celebrated with pomp in neighbouring Austria, Poland and Slovakia on December 8, while in the Czech Republic it is practically unknown.
A majority 59 percent of Czechs did not identify with any religion in the last census in 2001, up from 39 percent a decade earlier.
Meanwhile, the percentage of believers tumbled from 43.9 percent to 32.2 percent between 1991 and 2001, according to figures from the Czech Statistical Office.
But ecclesiastic circles say the data is imprecise, and insist instead that the actual number of people professing to belong to a faith in the 10.2-million-strong Czech Republic is significantly higher.
"According to our statistics, the number of Catholics in our diocese comprising 10 vicarages reaches 280,000 and remains practically unchanged, while the number announced by the statistical office was 160,000," said Michalkova.