Prague's Cardinal Duka thanks Australians for helping religious prisoners

Prague's Cardinal Duka thanks Australians for helping religious prisoners

Peter Westmore

Cardinal Dominik Duka, the Archbishop of Prague, has expressed his deep appreciation to Australians who supported religious and political prisoners in his country, including himself, during the Soviet era.

In 1981-82, at a time when he had been denied a licence to serve as a priest, Fr Duka was imprisoned in the notorious Bory prison, after being convicted of being a member of the suppressed Dominican order and of circulating unapproved literature (known as "samizdat").

He was imprisoned during the crackdown on dissent following the release of Charter 77, a human rights declaration originally signed by over 240 prominent citizens of Czechoslovakia.

Charter 77 criticised the government for failing to implement human rights provisions of a number of documents it had signed, including the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia, the Final Act of the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and UN covenants on political, civil, economic, and cultural rights.

Religious persecution

Fr Duka was imprisoned along with Charter 77 signatories, including the playwright Vaclav Havel who was first President of a free Czechoslovakia after the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989.

At the time of his imprisonment, the persecution of human rights and religious activists was in full swing, with these sent to one of the harshest prisons in Czechoslovakia.

The harrowing conditions in these prisons were documented in a paper, Prison Conditions in Czechoslovakia, written by a US law professor, Herman Schwartz, and published in January 1989 by the Western human rights group, Helsinki Watch.

It said, "Prisons and jails are miserable places but those in Czechoslovakia seem exceptionally inhuman. Inmates are often packed into overcrowded, stuffy, smelly, filthy, dark cells that are too hot or too cold; guards brutally abuse them, physically and verbally; medical care is almost always grossly inadequate; food is usually meagre, tasteless and poor in nutrition; ... prisoners are terrorised by fellow inmates, often with the encouragement of the authorities who give the most hardened criminals official responsibility for discipline, order and work; disciplinary punishments are unfair and harsh; exercise and recreation are usually negligible; religious practices of any kind are prohibited."

Within the Bory prison was a factory to produce high quality Moravian crystal for the Preciosa company, a leading manufacturer of luxury precision-cut lead crystal. Prisoners were forced to work six days a week at least, with three shifts per day, while "wages" were confiscated to pay for their imprisonment.

It was into these conditions that prisoners began receiving letters of encouragement and support from people in Australia and other countries. Many Australians were asked to send letters and postcards to prisoners, at the request of Czech refugees living in Australia and the UK's Keston College, the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism, which documented religious persecution in the Soviet bloc.

Over a number of years, many thousands of letters and cards were sent to prisoners, of whom Cardinal Duka was one.

He told me, "When we received letters and postcards - from people we did not know in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - we were astonished and delighted. It lifted our spirits and also ensured that we received better treatment. We were then treated as VIP prisoners, because people outside knew of our existence and our imprisonment."

He asked me to thank personally those who had supported people unjustly imprisoned and persecuted.

Despite his imprisonment, Fr Duka continued to fulfil his vocation as a priest, both within the prison and after his release.

Although the Dominican order had been suppressed after the communist coup in 1948, Fr Duka became a vicar to the Provincial of the Dominicans in 1976, and from 1986-98 he was Provincial in Bohemia and Moravia, including time when the order was still officially illegal.

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