Commemorate 75 years in Czech Republic

Members revere events that led to freedom of worship

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Members of the Church in the Czech Republic and neighboring Republic of Slovakia gathered here July 24 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the dedication of Czechoslovakia for the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ by Elder John A. Widtsoe.

They came from branches throughout the countries and met for a special program in the Prague chapel. The program included various musical numbers and speakers who recounted the history of the Church in the Czech Prague Mission, which covers the countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Members then took a 45-minute train ride to Knezi Hora, or Priest Hill, a hill above the majestic Karlstejn Castle, a famous landmark in the Czech Republic. At the top of the hill, surrounded by a forest rich with oak trees, they gathered around a monument made of stone with a bronze plaque commemorating the dedication of Czechoslovakia for missionary work in 1929.

As members hiked to the top of the hill, they exchanged memories of the past, those events that made possible the freedom of worship enjoyed today. They celebrated by singing songs and sharing testimonies.

Jiri Snederfler, who faced possible imprisonment in an effort to obtain government recognition of the Church in the early 1990s, compared the saints in the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia to the strong oak trees surrounding the clearing.

He stated how these pioneer members were unwavering in their desire to worship freely and had the strength to stand tall and strong until their time came. Resting his hand on the monument, he admonished members to be as strong as the stones holding the monument together in order to build the Church in these countries.

In a time of peace, before the communist take-over, the Church had established roots in Czechoslovakia. On July 24, 1929, Elder Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve, and then president of the European Mission, dedicated the land for the preaching of the gospel. The dedication took place on Knezi Hora. There were seven members in the country at the time.

In March 1939, the German army occupied the country and regular missionary activity ceased. In July of that year, the Gestapo arrested four missionaries; their arrest eventually resulted in the expulsion of all missionaries from the country.

Following World War II, in June 1946, three missionaries re-entered Czechoslovakia and missionary work resumed. However, a free Czechoslovakia didn't survive long as the communists took control of the government in 1948. Missionaries and members came under state surveillance.

In January 1950, two missionaries disappeared with no word of their whereabouts for 11 days. They had been arrested by the state police and put in prison in Olomouc. After 27 days, the communist authorities agreed to release them if all missionaries left the country. Again missionaries were expelled, leaving members to struggle on their own.

By April 1950, public activity of the Church had been prohibited.

For more than 40 years, members kept their faith in silence, unable to worship publicly or to enjoy any regular contact with the Church beyond Czech borders. Members were watched by state police and endured repeated interrogations. Many were threatened with loss of employment or imprisonment if they refused to spy on Church activities.

Because assembling to worship became illegal, priesthood leaders often visited members one by one or in small groups to administer the sacrament, comfort and teach. Church materials that found their way into the country were typed on old typewriters with nine carbon copies at a time and then passed around to members in different locations. Severe consequences would come to members if they were caught.

After many years of fasting and great faith, circumstances began to change. In February 1989, the communist government fell and religious freedom was established. On Feb. 6, 1990, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve climbed Priest Hill and offered a new prayer of dedication and gratitude, reconfirming the prayer Elder Widtsoe had offered six decades earlier.

Through the efforts of President Thomas S. Monson of the First Presidency, Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy, who is a native of Switzerland, and then-Czechoslovakia District President Jiri Snederfler, the Church was granted recognition in 1990.

When the Church began the process for recognition, reported President Monson, "The government leaders had said to us, 'Don't send an American, a German or a Swiss. Send a Czech.' "

Because admitting one was a Church leader during the prohibition of religion was tantamount to imprisonment, Jiri Snederfler put everything on the line when he offered his assistance and went before government leaders .

He had asked for the prayers of the members and had told his wife he didn't know when, or if, he would come back. But, he loved the gospel and knew he must follow the Savior, President Monson said.

"With that spirit of faith and devotion, he acknowledged to the government officials that he was a Church leader and was seeking for a restoration of the recognition the Church had once enjoyed." (Church News, March 9, 1991, p. 3.)

Government leaders deliberated and then told Brother Snederfler they had decided to grant recognition. "Once again missionaries could come back and the Church could provide a haven for freedom of worship in that nation," President Monson continued.

After a 40-year absence, missionaries re-entered Czechoslovakia in 1990. By that time there were 345 members. Today, there are two districts, 16 branches and about 1,700 members in the Czech Prague Mission.

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