At the time of its independence in 1918, Czechoslovakia was a preponderantly Catholic nation. In 1920, a group of progressive Catholic priests and faithful broke away and formed a National Czechoslovak Church. Some of these were sympathetic to Orthodoxy, and when the church held a congress in 1921 it heard an appeal from a Serbian bishop to unite with the Orthodox Church. In September of that year, the Serbian Patriarch ordained Fr. Matej Pavlik, the administrator of one of the National Catholic dioceses, as an Orthodox bishop and leader of the emerging community. He took the name Gorazd. Only a minority of the National Catholics became Orthodox; the larger group eventually formed a Protestant church. At this point there were about 40,000 Orthodox in the country, but the numbers soon increased when a group of Greek Catholics in Transcarpathia became Orthodox.
Subsequent developments led to divisions within the Orthodox community. On March 3, 1923, the Patriarchate of Constantinople issued a Tomos granting autonomy to the Czechoslovak church, and sent Metropolitan Sabbazd to look after the Orthodox faithful there. And in 1930 the Serbian Patriarchate sent a bishop of its own to Transcarpathia. Most Orthodox Czechoslovaks, however, remained within Bishop Gorazd’s jurisdiction. In the 1931 census, there were 145,583 Orthodox in Czechoslovakia, with 117,897 of them in Transcarpathia.
During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the church was annihilated; Bishop Gorazd and his close associates were executed in 1942. (Bishop Goradz would be canonized by the Czechoslovak Orthodox Church as a martyr in 1987.) All the Orthodox priests were sent to German labor camps, and all Orthodox churches were closed. The liberation of the country by Soviet armies meant that the Orthodox could begin to reestablish themselves. But the annexation of Transcarpathia by the Soviet Union in 1945 reduced the number of Orthodox in the country again to about 40,000. In 1946 the Czechoslovak Orthodox petitioned Russian Patriarch Aleksy I for protection. He sent a bishop and created an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate that now included all the Orthodox in the country.
In 1950 the Greek Catholics in Slovakia were forcefully absorbed into the Czechoslovak Orthodox Church. This vastly increased the total number of Orthodox to about 400,000, and in the same year the church was reorganized into four dioceses. Most of these new members were lost again when the Greek Catholic Church in Slovakia was allowed to resume functioning during the brief “Prague Spring” of 1968. Church buildings, however, were left in the hands of the Orthodox.
In December 1951, in view of the church’s increased size at that time, the Moscow Patriarchate decided to grant autocephalous status to the Orthodox Church of Czechoslovakia. But this act was not recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople or the other Greek-speaking churches. In order to regularize the situation, and to resolve a controversial issue that could complicate plans for a Pan-Orthodox Council, the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued its own Tomos granting autocephalous status to the church in the Czech and Slovak Republics on September 8, 1998. The church joined the World Council of Churches in 1966.
The collapse of the communist government in 1989, and the subsequent division of Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak states on January 1, 1993, required modifications in the structure of this Orthodox church. In November 1992 the Holy Synod decided to divide into two metropolitan provinces, with two dioceses in each of the newly independent republics. A single Holy Synod continues to meet periodically as before, under the presidency of the Metropolitan of the entire church, who can be either the Archbishop of Prague or of Prešov.
Metropolitan Dorotheus of Prague died in December 1999 after leading the church for 35 years. He was succeeded as Metropolitan in May 2000 by Archbishop Nicholas of Prešov. At that time the headquarters of the church was moved from Prague to Prešov. Archbishop Nicholas died on January 30, 2006, and was succeeded by Metropolitan Christopher of Prague, who moved the church headquarters back to that city.
On April 12, 2013, Metropolitan Christopher of Prague tendered his resignation to the Holy Synod. Archbishop Simeon of Olomouc and Brno, the senior bishop of the Church (born 1926), was chosen to serve as Locum Tenens until a new Metropolitan could be elected. In January 2014 a General Assembly of the Church in the Czech Lands and Slovakia elected Archbishop Rastislav of Prešov and Slovakia as the new Metropolitan.
In Slovakia, by the time of independence in 1993, the government had returned most of the Orthodox church buildings to the Greek Catholics to which they had belonged before the confiscations by the communist government in 1950. Since that time, many new Orthodox churches have been built. According to the most recent (2001) Slovak census, the Orthodox composed .9% of the population, or 50,363 persons, concentrated in the easternmost sections of the nation. The same census revealed that 84.1% of the population claimed a religious affiliation.
The situation is very different in the Czech Republic, where the anti-religious policy of the communist government was so effective that the majority today does not identify with any religion. An opinion poll conducted in 2004 showed that 32% believed in God, and 49% self-identified as atheist. According to the 2011 census of the Czech Republic, there were 20,533 Orthodox in the country. But there may be as many as a half million Orthodox guest workers in the Czech and Slovak Republics, mostly from Greece and the former Soviet Union.
Candidates for the priesthood are educated at a seminary in Prešov that is supervised by the Holy Synod. It was integrated into Safarik University, based in Kosice, in 1990. In January 1997 the university was divided into two parts, and a new Prešov University was created from the faculties located in that city. Today the Orthodox Theological Faculty of the University of Prešov offers courses of study for seminarians, teachers of religion and ethics, and other pastoral workers in the Orthodox Church in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as continuing education for priests. It also maintains a detached department in Olomouc, Czech Republic, to provide part-time training for Orthodox faithful in that country. The church also has eight monasteries.
Location: The Czech Republic and Slovakia
Head: Metropolitan Rastislav (born 1978, elected 2014)
Title: Archbishop of Prešov, Metropolitan of the Czech Lands and Slovakia
Residence: Prešov, Slovakia