Pope Benedict XVI recalled the evils of the communist era Saturday as he began a three-day pilgrimage to the Czech Republic, and he urged the fiercely secular nation to rediscover its Christian roots.
At a welcome ceremony at Prague's Ruzyne International Airport, the 82-year-old pope spoke of how the communist regime overthrown in 1989 ruthlessly persecuted the Roman Catholic Church. "I join you and your neighbors in giving thanks for your liberation from these oppressive regimes," Benedict said, hailing the collapse of the Berlin Wall two decades ago this autumn as "a watershed in world history."
"Nevertheless, the cost of 40 years of political repression is not to be underestimated," the pope said. "A particular tragedy for this land was the ruthless attempt by the government of that time to silence the voice of the church."
"Now that religious freedom has been restored, I call upon all the citizens of this republic to rediscover the Christian traditions which have shaped their culture," he added.
Scores of pilgrims poured into Prague for the nation's first papal visit in a dozen years. But most Czechs seemed to shrug it off as irrelevant _ and some were openly hostile.
"It's just a waste of money," said Kveta Tomasovicova, 56, who works at Prague's National Library. "At a time of economic crisis, when our salaries are going down, the visit is a useless investment."
Even the Vatican acknowledges the 13th foreign trip of Benedict's papacy casts the pope as an apostle among the apostate. Secularism is so ingrained in the modern Czech Republic, "the practice of religion is reduced to a minority," said the pope's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Under communism, which ended with the 1989 Velvet Revolution that drew hundreds of thousands of Czechs to mostly nonviolent street protests, the church was brutally repressed.
The regime, which seized power in 1948 in what was then Czechoslovakia, confiscated all church-owned property and persecuted many priests. Churches were then allowed to function only under the state's control and supervision.
An enduring symbol of that struggle is the 14th-century St. Vitus Cathedral, the iconic Gothic centerpiece of Prague's medieval Hradcany Castle. Two decades after the collapse of communism, the church is still fighting to recover it from the government. That bitter restitution battle has left a sour taste in the mouths of many Czechs. And some _ claiming the church cares more about property than souls _ have drifted away from the faith. In 1991, 4.5 million of the country's 10 million people said they belonged to a church. In 2001, a census showed that number had plunged to 3.3 million.
Recent surveys suggest the freewheeling drop continues: About one in two respondents to a poll conducted by the agency STEM said they don't believe in God. Another 28 percent said they considered themselves believers, and 24 percent were undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
Moreover, the Czech Republic is one of the few nations in the world that has not ratified a standard treaty with the Vatican that spells out church-state relations.
"Czechs are getting less religious every year," said Klara Kucerova, a resident of the southern city of Brno, where the pope will celebrate an open-air Mass on Sunday.
"They are more interested in horoscopes or other kinds of magical predictions," she said.
Underscoring the hostility toward the church, a group calling itself Condom Positive planned to distribute condoms bearing a likeness of the pope wearing one on his head and the words: "Papa said no! And you?"
Another group, Condoms for the Pope, said it would inflate prophylactics to condemn Benedict's assertion earlier this year that condoms are not the answer to Africa's severe AIDS problem. The pope's position "clearly shows us that he is more interested in preserving dogma than saving the lives of African women, men and children," it said in a statement.
Even so, Czech organizers of the pope's visit expect 100,000 faithful to pack an airfield for Sunday's outdoor Mass in Brno _ the highlight of the visit. Some were expected to make the trek from neighboring Austria and Poland.
Later Saturday, the pontiff will visit Prague's Church of Our Lady of Victory, home to a revered statuette of the infant Jesus. The pope also was to meet with President Vaclav Klaus and other current and former leaders, including Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-president who led the 1989 anti-communist uprising.
After Sunday's Mass in Brno, the pope returns to Prague to meet with local leaders of other religious faiths and with scholars at Prague's castle.
On Monday, Benedict visits the basilica of St. Wenceslas _ the nation's patron saint _ in the town of Stara Boleslav, a popular pilgrimage site just northeast of the capital. He then lunches with Czech bishops back in Prague before returning to Rome.