The Czech Republic is known as one of the most secular states in Europe, with almost half the population identifying themselves as atheists. However, that does not deter some faith groups, such as the Mormons, from proselytising here. But what is it actually like trying to make converts in such a non-religious country?
Despite Prague’s nickname as the city of a hundred spires, the Czech Republic is renowned for being unusually atheistic. With the country’s tumultuous history, religion has become a sensitive topic for many Czechs. Petr Mucha, a Religious Studies professor at New York University in Prague, explains:
“Most people after the fall of communism got some sort of interest in religion. However, due to the communist education in the past, most of them have wrong knowledge, or less knowledge about the religion. There are a lot of misunderstandings about religious belief, about the religious history and it creates a big problem in communication about religion.”
In a 2007 opinion poll, forty-eight percent of respondents polled identified themselves as atheists, one of the highest percentages in the world. But the president of the Mormon Missions in the Czech Republic, Marv Slovacek, says that atheist is perhaps not the best way to describe how Czechs feel about religion:
“The term atheism is perhaps overused. I don’t think most people are strong in their belief that there is no God. But they do not have an active belief in God. They believe that there is something. And I think we are seeing more and more people turn to that. And they are seeking for some answers and reasons, the purpose of life. And so we are finding more and more people talking to us, wondering, looking for answers and they don’t know where to find them.”
Young Mormon missionaries go through intensive Czech language and culture classes in order to be able to proselytize in the Czech’s native tongue. Dressed smartly in suits for the men missionaries who are called Elders, and skirts for the women missionaries who are called Sisters, they set out to talk to whoever will listen. Stopping Czechs randomly to talk about religion, a topic that most Czechs don’t like to discuss, requires them to be prepared for any response that comes their way. Elder Alex Trost explains:
“We get everything, everything you could imagine. We get people who don’t say anything, and we get people who really stop and talk to us for a long time, but in the end have no interest, and we also have people who want to meet and become great friends. That range of people is great. It’s tons of different reactions.”
But still the dominating response is scepticism, says Protestant evangelist Tomas Uher, who previously worked at Cambridge University in the UK.
“The general response is usually suspicion. Suspicion? Yea, suspicion is probably the word that would summarize the reaction of most people. They are more reserved, they are not as hungry as I found the Chinese students were at Cambridge, they don’t come after us and say we’ve heard something about Jesus can you tell us more about him, no. That’s definitely not what’s happening here. I’ve heard it said that for a student to become a Christian in the Czech Republic, it takes one and a half year or up to two years. I can perfectly agree with that. I think it takes a lot of friendship, lot of investment… friendship is the main vehicle which helps that.”
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