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Keeping it Christian, Keeping it Real?

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In Central Eastern Europe religion is alive and kicking. Church attendance is rising and its influence in nations like Poland far reaching. But more than ever its place and role in these new democracies is questioned by a growing number of people.

With Europe's enlargement to the East comes the thorny question of religion and its influence in these soon to be European Union member states. Despite a shared history and culture, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, also known as the 'Visegrad' countries, differ in how they deal with the crucial question of separation of Church and State.

Poland: is Catholicism a national stereotype?

Deeply Catholic Poland, the ancestral home of Pope John Paul II, is a staunch advocate of mentioning Christianity in the preamble to Europe's future constitution. During the country's recent Communist past, the Church actively backed the country's pro-democracy movement. But in 1989, after the fall of Communism, it faced a backlash . A growing number of Poles resented its meddling in government affairs as it tried to push its more conservative social agenda. The recent signing of a concordat between the Polish government and the Vatican will offer the local Church a stronger pedestal on which to effectively defend its social policies. Mushrooming new churches and sects and a growing demand for abortion rights are some of the pressing issues this powerful institution has to fight off. In a nation where religious education is taught in state schools and crucifixes hang in the Republic's upper and lower House of Representatives, the debate on the separation of Church and State, that is raging in much of Western Europe, is non-existent in ultra-Catholic Poland. In strongly Catholic Poland, where religious education is taught in state schools and crucifixes hang in both chambers of Parliament, the debate on separation of Church and State, that is raging in much of Western Europe, seems trivial and faint.

Hungary: a storm in a coffee cup?

The Church, its funding and its role in contemporary society are hotly contested issues in Hungary. The recent ban on a homosexual student by the Gaspar Karoli Reformed Church University further ignited the debate as a growing number of people questioned the increasing influence of Churches that, for the most part, depend on public money to function. Funding regulations were recently changed by the Hungarian legislature so that subsidies can be distributed according to the size of the Church rather than as a flat 1% fiscal donation. In Hungary, like Poland, 100 individuals are enough to create an officially recognised and publicly funded Church. It's much harder in the Czech Republic and neighbouring Slovakia where it requires the recognition of thousands of active members.

Slovakia: on its way to becoming a clerical state?

In Slovakia political parties openly brand themselves as Christian or their programmes mention the country's Christian heritage. But while church benches are filled by a growing number of practitioners, religion and its place in society remains a hotly contested issue. A storm over the high cost of the Pope's most recent visit to Slovakia and the recent introduction of compulsory choice between ethics or religious course in all grades of elementary state schools, are pushing some to say that the country is becoming a clerical state. Some steps in the opposite direction have been taken – namely a proposal for the separation of Church and State by the Communist Party, which won parliamentary seats for the first time since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and a recent decision to cut the number of faith-based organisations eligible for public funding.

The Czech Republic: the black sheep of the family?

The Czech Republic clearly differs from the others. A majority of Czechs (59% according to a recent poll) say they are atheist. In the Czech Republic 5% of Catholics regularly attend church compared to 58% in Poland. These statistics place the Czech Republic in line with Western Europe where church attendance is hitting record lows. The rapid decline in religiosity in the past 15 years can partially be blamed on Communism and the atheist traditions that dominated Central and Eastern Europe for a significant part of the 20th century. Added to this are bitter disputes pitting Church and State against each other over the restitution of land seized by the Communists. Of all the Visegrad countries, the Czech Republic remains the only one not to have signed a concordat with the Vatican.