PRAGUE -- Calling former Czech President Vaclav Havel a "friend and fellow prisoner," the president of the Czech bishops' conference said the entire nation owes Havel a debt of gratitude for its freedom and the new flourishing of Czech life and culture.
Archbishop Dominik Duka of Prague, who was imprisoned with Havel by the communists, asked that the bells of all Catholic churches in the Czech Republic ring at 6 p.m. Dec. 18 in memory of the former president who died that morning at the age of 75.
The archbishop, who met Havel in prison in 1981 and continued to meet with him after the end of communism in 1989, was scheduled to celebrate Havel's funeral Mass Dec. 23 in St. Vitus Cathedral.
"He knew the loss of freedom, the denial of human dignity, oppression and imprisonment," Archbishop Duka said in a statement posted Dec. 18 on the Czech bishops' website. "I am convinced that everyone across the country, regardless of political or religious beliefs, owes him honor and thanks."
Havel, a playwright and essayist, was one of the founders of the Charter 77 movement, which began criticizing the communist government of then-Czechoslovakia, particularly for its lack of respect for human rights, in 1977.
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He served four years of hard labor and nine months in prison for dissident activities before becoming head of state after the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" that toppled communism. He resigned in 1992 when Slovakia declared its independence, but was elected president of the Czech Republic six months later.
Havel met Pope Benedict XVI during the pope's trip to Prague in 2009. He met Blessed John Paul II at least five times, three of them in Prague, and Havel attended the late pope's funeral at the Vatican in 2005. The two men admired one another and saw each other as participants in the same battle for freedom, human rights, human dignity and respect for the cultures of Eastern Europe.
In an interview with a Polish Catholic news agency in 2000, Havel said, "John Paul II is someone very close to me, who continually startles me with his personality and inspires me."
"His language, constantly stressing human dignity and recalling the rights of man, has been a novelty in the papacy's history. If the pope had been someone else, from another part of the world, without the historical experience of Poland, he probably wouldn't have had such a clear attitude to totalitarianism. John Paul II's services in this area are undeniable," he said.
He also told the interviewer that in April 1990 he made his confession to Pope John Paul during the pope's first Czech pilgrimage while under the spell of the pope's "charismatic personality."
"I suddenly realized I was in fact confessing in front of him, even though I'm not accustomed to going to confession, since I'm not a practicing Catholic. I felt the need because of the great will to understand the other person that emanates from the person of the pope," Havel said.
L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, noted that Havel attended a Mass of thanksgiving in St. Vitus Cathedral immediately after his inauguration in 1989, restoring a practice Czech leaders had followed for centuries until the communists came to power.
"That ceremony was not only the recovery of an ancient liturgy that united politics and tradition, culture and religion, but represented the beginning of a new history, a history of freedom of which Vaclav Havel was the most important symbol," the newspaper said.