PRAGUE (Reuters) - Pope Benedict urged Czechs on Saturday to rediscover their Christian roots, battered by four decades of totalitarian rule until the fall of communism.
The pope arrived in Prague on Saturday for a three-day visit to support the Czech Catholic Church, the biggest in a country that has one of the lowest proportions of religious people in the world.
Speaking on arrival at Prague airport, Benedict recalled the bloodless Velvet Revolution that overthrew the Communist rulers in November 1989.
“Now that religious freedom has been restored, I call upon the citizens of this republic to rediscover the Christian traditions that have shaped their culture,” he said.
Unlike in neighbouring Poland, most leaders of the Czechoslovak state that emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 were avowedly secular, or more in tune with the reformist tradition of the medieval Bohemian priest Jan Hus than with Catholicism.
Four decades of Communist rule starting in 1948 suppressed religious activity, and the government closed monasteries and jailed many priests and believers.
Fewer than 3 million of the 10.5 million population claim to be Catholic, and few of those attend church regularly.
At a meeting with public figures including the former anti-Communist dissident and later national president Vaclav Havel, the pope urged more Christian involvement in public life.
“I wish to underline the irreplaceable role of Christianity for the formation of the conscience of each generation and the promotion of a basic ethical consensus that serves every person who calls this continent home,” the pope said.
The pope will celebrate two masses -- in the second biggest city, Brno, where many Poles and Slovaks are expected to attend; and in Stara Boleslav, north of Prague, where the Czech patron saint, Wenceslas, was murdered in the 10th century.
Benedict a church in the medieval quarter of and greeted families there as well as a crowd of a thousand outside.
A banner on a building nearby called for the rehabilitation of Hus, who was burnt at the stake as a heretic in 1415. Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II recognised Hus as a reformer but he has not been fully rehabilitated.
Relations between Prague and the Vatican have been clouded by the fact that the Czechs have not ratified a treaty on ties, and politicians have rejected proposals that would settle claims for the restitution of Church assets seized by the Communists.
Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer said on Saturday after meeting Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, second in the Vatican hierarchy, that the two sides had agreed to set aside the restitution issue for now, given the economic crisis.
Additional reporting by Phil Pullella and Jan Korselt; Writing by Jan Lopatka; editing by Kevin Liffey