Slovakia is a small republic of 5.5 million citizens located within the Eastern European zone. This part of Europe was exposed to Christianity for the first time during the Roman occupation, however, this religion did not become widespread until the fall of the barbarian Avar Empire. Since the beginning of the 9th c., when missionaries Cyril and Method spread Christianity across this region, and the first church in Nitra was consecrated, Slovakia has been considered a Christian country. Religion instantly became a powerful tool that provided people a community cohesion, security and confidence for centuries. It became people’s personal salvage, and the hope for better future especially in the times of crisis that frequently challenged the evolution of the Slovak Republic. Many also believe that the religious cohesion was the prominent driving force which empowered Slovaks to fight against Bolsheviks and to reclaim their homeland in 1989.
Nowadays, Christianity is slowly losing its value amongst the local population. According to the most recent statistics, the number of believers in this country is gradually falling. This is mainly due to naturally developing changes in the local society accelerated by the revelation of controversy within the Roman Catholic church, the largest religion in Slovakia (62%). Bitter articles and comments on centuries long ‘Christian oppression’ are invading social media, and Slovakia has experienced a strong wave of official demands for complete separation of the Church from politics and national funds.
Despite that, Slovaks with affiliation to any religion remain a largely dominant group, currently representing ca 75% of the total population. Religious routines are being continuously practiced, and gods and saints portrayed in the form of sacred arts, symbols and architecture are often rigorously worshiped. The value of the sacred properties holds the status of being an inseparable element of the everyday lives, cultural identity, and sentiment of a large number of Slovaks.
Since the fall of communism, when religious properties were returned back to the Church in a devastated state, national and international funds are being provided for the restoration, regeneration and protection of sacred sites. Volunteers are passionately involved in these projects, and Slovakian authorities do not hesitate to seek international assistance. Due to their specific cultural context and significance for modern Slovakian society, a number historic churches were listed as World Heritage Sites in 2008, and a group of 10 feudal churches in south Slovakia are in the application process.
Despite these measures and the recent improvements of legislation on the protection of heritage and the trafficking of cultural objects, Slovakian sacred sites are often deliberately vandalised, and robbed. According to the police, an estimated 70% out of reported 150 items of cultural value that are illegally taken every year are sacred. The thefts are often pre-ordered, and, due to the open borderlines within the EU zone, virtually freely trafficked to private collections abroad where they are difficult to track down.
Who is vandalising religious sites in Slovakia, and what is the reason behind it? Why do the Slovaks loot and sell their own identity without looking at the possible consequences? What is the fate of the stolen objects? What can be done in order to protect these sites? And how can we make the public realise the recklessness these actions, no matter how strong their beliefs or what their religious affiliations are?
While researching the mechanisms of the plunder of sacred sites in Slovakia, I am hoping to answer these questions. I know that Slovakia wants and deserves calmness so it can peacefully flourish. And the easiest, yet most important step, will have to be the change in attitude, and the development of compassion.