Lucia Greskova was a short-term Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute in fall 2019. She works as a state counselor in the Ministry of Culture, Department of Church Affairs in Bratislava, Slovakia, and is a university professor at Comenius University. As a government counselor, she directs a project that engages religious leaders in discussions promoting religious pluralism and preventing extremism and radicalization. After struggling to find a meaningful and effective approach to these issues, Lucia has focused on games as a way to break down barriers, change attitudes, and promote understanding across religious groups. While at the Collegeville Institute in October, she sat down with Susan Sink for a discussion of her work.
Tell us about your efforts to engage religious leaders in Slovakia on preventing extremism.
What the EU wanted us to do, gather religious leaders in a room and discuss issues like extremism and human rights, is just impossible in Slovakia. The various religions have too much history and too many painful associations, as well as long-established stereotypes that keep them apart. Some Catholics, most famously Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest and politician—he was prime minister of The Republic of Slovakia when it was under Nazi control— collaborated with the German Nazis in deportations of Jews during World War II. Later the communist state systematically persecuted the Catholic Church and liquidated its structures. It took action against male and female religious orders as well as against the Greek Catholic Church, which was almost completely liquidated through violent integration into the Orthodox Church. Hundreds of priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople were imprisoned for long sentences.
I quickly learned that we wouldn’t get anywhere without first doing some work at healing these historical wounds.
What is the situation with organized religion in Slovakia, especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union during the Velvet Revolution of the late 1980s?
Slovakia is a very traditional Catholic country. Sixty-two percent of the population identified in the last census as Roman Catholics (according to the Pew European Value Survey, 48% reported church attendance of at least once a month). The next largest group are “without religion,” at 13%. There are 18 religions recognized by the state government, making up the other quarter of the population. To be an officially recognized religion requires at least 50,000 people who assent to the theology and practice of a given religion.
Because religion is state-sponsored, official religions receive part of their budgets from the government. This, along with historical experience, is a source of distrust for the population. The people go to church for Eucharist and for the transcendental aspects, but they tend to distrust the institution. Despite the high number of people reporting religious participation, confidence in the Church has fallen by half in 20 years, from 65 percent in 1999 to 35 percent in 2017.
In your scholar proposal, you refer to “moral panic” in Slovakia related to religious groups and the broader culture. Can you explain what that means?
Moral panic occurs when the media and outside institutions portray religious groups or organizations as dangerous or a threat. Such portrayals result in suspicion, fear, and animosity toward religious groups other than one’s own. A review of publications by my students, for example, didn’t find a single positive or neutral article about any religious group. You can see a moral panic in the United States and many places in the West over Islam, promoting all Muslims as extremists. This is not true in Slovakia, where there are only 3,000 Muslims. Islam is not likely to become an official religion in Slovakia. Due to restrictive immigration policies, the Muslim population is unlikely to grow by much. Moral panic in Slovakia is seen between the official religious groups.
The media is missing the good being done by religious groups. For example, there is a strong prejudice against Roma people, which is particularly upsetting given their long history in the country. However, churches are doing beautiful work with the Roma and also with improving community life in small towns. The media could promote these efforts.
How do you engage faith leaders in your work given this distrust?
My goal is to meet with smaller groups within a single religion and to use games to try to heal some of the historic wounds and break down religious stereotypes. What is needed is healing— from the wounds of the post-war era, from communism and the 1968 invasion by the Soviets and the entire Soviet era. Because we never talked about these wounds, they have never healed. For example, there has been no real reconciliation or even processing of the trauma caused by the persecution of Greek Catholics under communism.
I use games that were developed to heal psychological trauma. It is not helpful to go into a group and give them information about a group they distrust.
I use games that were developed to heal psychological trauma. It is not helpful to go into a group and give them information about a group they distrust, or try to make progress by providing knowledge. Before that, the hurt must be addressed. The group members need to understand and address their prejudice before we can introduce knowledge. Over the course of three to five meetings, a group can become more open and even change their perceptions.
What are some examples of these games?
One thing I do is to have a member of one religious group attend a seminar for a different group. I take the whole group through a series of simple questions about mundane preferences, like “coffee or tea,” “morning person or night person,” things like that. Then when we’re talking about the answers, I reveal that the one person is from a different religious group. Then we can ask why when the subject is religion we suddenly begin to jump to conclusions when we don’t if we’re unaware of a person’s religious affiliation or when we’re talking about tea or coffee. The exercise helps expose both self-perceptions and prejudices.
Another game has the participants identify a symbol to represent another religious group. Let’s say they choose a knife for a group they perceive as extreme. Then we ask how we can come to see our neighbor as something besides a person with a knife. Sometimes within one session the group will come to a new idea or symbol, one that doesn’t focus on extremism but on regular people in that faith tradition.
Where did you get the idea to use games?
This idea came in part from seeing my son in a therapeutic setting. He is dyslexic and dysgraphic, and he struggled in the traditional education system available in Slovakia. He became very depressed and unable to talk about his feelings, even to a therapist. In one session, she asked him to choose a picture card that represented him, and he chose a bare tree and began to talk about the ways he resembled the tree. It was a big breakthrough. I thought, “Maybe I can use this with angry men.”
Do you think the experience of religion is changing in Slovakia? You mentioned a growing distrust of religious organizations, but attendance is still high. What do you think will happen?
I am very encouraged by the ability of young people to speak up against injustice and corruption. Those of us with experience before the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union are unlikely to speak up. My mother told me when I was young that if I disagreed with any authority, I should just be quiet, show no emotion, and then go home. But last year, when a bishop told his congregation to vote for the establishment candidate, young people walked out of the church. That is unimaginable for me. That is new. My son speaks up and is engaged in movements for change in Slovakia. It reminds me of my own school days in the 1980s and I feel very hopeful about the future.
What has your experience been like as a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute?
The Collegeville Institute has been a wonderful experience. When I arrived I was so tired from my jobs, my family, everything. I was thinking that when I got back I would become more of a paper-pushing bureaucrat who just does the minimum and give up this difficult work. After all, I’ve been doing it for 20 years. While here, I planned to keep my head down and stay in my apartment and just rest.
That is the magic of this place. You get a new view of what you are experiencing in your culture and life.
Then I found out my next-door neighbor was Russian. I have never had an interest in making friends with Russians. My husband’s uncle was killed by a Russian tank in 1968. I was forced to learn Russian in school, and I am fluent in Russian, but I have never once used it since Slovakia’s independence. So, the most surprising thing happened—I became great friends with this Russian next door! That is the magic of this place. You get a new view of what you are experiencing in your culture and life. In the seminars, Friday night dinners, and other experiences on campus, we see we are shaped differently by the river of our lives, but we can enjoy and understand each other and even become friends. In other words, I went through my own process and I also changed!
And I’m energized about my work again. I see its importance and can see the successes, however incremental. I am looking forward to returning home and diving into it again.