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Another 'Wenceslas' Leads Czechs via 'the Power of the Powerless' : Revolution: The swift rout of communism by Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries is viewed in the context of Easter.

April 14, 1990|GEORGE W. CORNELL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

He was a beloved king, Wenceslas, sainted and celebrated in song and story, elevated to Czechoslovakia's throne in 922 in a popular uprising against an anti-religious tyrant who had seized power by force and murder.

A statue of the good king presides over Prague's historic gathering place, Wenceslas Square, where 10 days of huge protest marches culminated Nov. 17 in the overthrow of another dictatorship and the choice of another leader named Wenceslas.

That is the Latinized form of the Czech name "Vaclav," which is the first name of Vaclav Havel, the repeatedly imprisoned playwright and straight-talking dissenter against authoritarianism, now the country's president.

Plainly surprised, even awe struck at the spontaneous rise of the populace against 40 years of Soviet-armed Communist rule, Havel called it one of those strangely true contradictions, "the power of the powerless."

This is the sort of paradox manifested in the Easter events, the crucifixion of Jesus, his disciples scattered, in hiding, but then his resurrection in glory.

"He was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God," Scripture says.

On a temporal level, the sweeping overturn of communism across Eastern Europe has brought another kind of rebirth, also astounding.

"It's a spiritual resurrection," said Olga Hruby, Czech-born editor of the U.S. documentary journal, Religion in Communist Dominated Areas. "Freedom had been buried for a long time. Now it's alive.

"People . . . underwent terrible agonies and suffering. Now they have been restored to citizenship and given back their spiritual freedom. They've been resurrected."

In cobblestoned Wenceslas Square, half a mile long and 200 feet wide in the "golden city" of medieval towers and baroque domes, Havel's Dec. 29 elevation to the presidency was greeted by firecracker salutes, streamers and an embracing, singing throng.

"Your government, my people, has been returned to you," he said in his first televised address to the nation Jan. 1, paraphrasing a 17th-Century Moravian religious reformer, John Amos Comenius.

"Everywhere in the world, people were surprised at how these malleable, humiliated, cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia . . . found the tremendous strength to cast off a totalitarian system in an entirely peaceful and dignified manner within a few weeks," Havel said.

"We ourselves were surprised at it."

Proclaiming amnesty for political prisoners and those convicted of nonviolent crimes, he urged people "to help them in a Christian spirit . . . to find in themselves what our prisons could not instill: repentance and a desire to lead a good life."

Havel, 53, who served five years in prison for criticizing repressive rule, ascribed the new freedom to the suffering of others who had struggled courageously in the Soviet Union, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.

Referring to the years of persecutions, with many dying in prisons, many executed and thousands of lives destroyed, he said, "It was these great sacrifices which wove . . . the backdrop of our newly charged freedom.

"All human suffering concerns each human being" he said.

This is a biblical principle--that humanity is interlinked and that abuse of anyone, anywhere, imperils everyone, everywhere.

Christianity holds that those who share the cross of Christ, in bearing their own cross for others, share ultimately in his triumph of resurrection.

"Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole," Scripture says.

Czechoslovakia's aging, once imprisoned Catholic Bishop Frantisek Tomacek helped lay the groundwork for upheaval in 1985, gathering 600,000 signatures on petitions demanding religious freedom.

When the November demonstrations prompted beatings and arrests, Tomacek risked new arrest by recalling the previously ignored plea and commending "this huge protest against injustices committed against us for decades."

All around, he said, countries "have broken out of the prison of totalitarian systems. We must not wait any longer. It is necessary to act."

Such encouragement helped push crowds in Wenceslas Square to a half million despite 20-degree weather. "For the first time, we aren't scared anymore," exclaimed Martin Jestrik, a cinema student and demonstration organizer.

The undaunted marchers forced out the Communist autocrat, Milos Jakes, and the entire party resigned Dec. 3. It was replaced by a provisional, non-Communist coalition, Civic Forum, whose initial moderator and chief spokesman was the once imprisoned Catholic priest, Vaclav Maly.

In the Prague demonstrations, he leaped to the platform and led demonstrators in the Lord's Prayer.

Freely competing political parties were authorized and a new cabinet was installed Dec. l0, involving several prominent Christians. Among them were Jan Carnogursky, a Catholic lawyer freed from prison in November, as deputy premier and Czech Brethren theologian Josef Hromodka as vice president.

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