Sacred Heritage in Slovakia Regenerated?

30th July 2015

by Barbora Brederova

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, religion played an important role in the history of Slovakia, mainly because it invoked community cohesion and confidence in the times of crisis, such as the Soviet military occupation (1968-1989). At that time, the strong ties of this small and vulnerable nation with Vatican represented a major obstacle in the enforcement of Stalinist policies. And, finally, the Candle Demonstration, organised by Roman Catholic dissident groups in 1988 in Bratislava, the first mass demonstration against the oppressive regime, is considered to be the most important movement towards the reclaim of Slovaks’ freedom.

The over 20 years long totalitarian regime had an enormous impact on religious heritage, especially the Roman Catholic Church. While many bishops, priests, monks and other religious officials were removed from their positions, persecuted or even imprisoned, the majority of churches and monasteries were closed down, confiscated, vandalised, looted, or simply left to decay. This way the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, as well as its First Protocol, to which both the USSR and the former Czechoslovakia were parties at the time of occupation, were heavily breached. The Soviet Union further ignored the 1949 Geneva Convention, more specifically the GC IV, Art 147 providing that “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” are grave breaches, and the GC IV, Art 53 emphasising that “any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property […], is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations”. Why didn’t Slovakia enforce the obligation to prosecute offenders breaching the Hague Convention given by Article 28 of the Convention? Even if the Article wasn’t as vague as it is, there is simply no way Slovakia would have the courage and capacity to impose penal or disciplinary sanctions upon the former Russian occupants.

According to vague statistics, ca. 900 properties were returned back to the Church since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. However, the precise number and details of these objects is somewhat unknown. Religious officials strictly avoid discussing this issue, and neither Ministries (apparently) hold adequate inventories and registers of ownership. Surely nobody cares much about the millions of euros worth properties? Or is there something being hidden behind their backs? Did some individuals enrich their personal wealth in the course of restitution processes? There were several deadlines for publishing the data, and police were also involved in investigating the issue, but all attempts suspiciously ceased into silence.

It is also important to mention that, despite restituted properties should be returned in their original condition, a large number of them were given back desolated. Although Slovakia has established national cultural heritage department that enforces the national legislation regarding the safeguarding of heritage, many small, as well as major, sacred architectural objects remain ruined. This is mainly due to the fact that the renovation works are typically very time consuming and expensive, and, due to the ownership issue, it is not always clear who is in fact responsible for their maintenance.

Despite all these major obstacles, a number of local communities make their effort, and invest their own time and money to the regeneration of sacred heritage. Some projects even do not hesitate to seek international assistance in terms of financial aids and specialist advices. And yet again, we can observe a situation, in which the real interests of the powerful ones are far from what they should be, and the future of Slovakian history, tradition and culture is mainly in emancipatory social actions.