PRAGUE - Six years after the collapse of communism, the Czech people are braving the ups and downs of life in a democracy.
Increasingly adrift and searching for direction, they are turning to cults and marginal religious groups.
Though he had a lucrative job with the Czech government, Petr Konecny said he was miserable. He and his wife, Ivana, felt their lives lacked meaning. So, in April 1993 the couple abandoned their comfortable lives and, with their two teenaged children, joined a sect through which they could improve themselves and "do some good for the world."
Nine months later, Mr. Konecny was impoverished and on the brink of mental collapse. He had been kicked out of the sect, having been deemed "unclean" by its leader, and had been spurned by his own family. His wife and children were eventually kicked out of the cult as well. And, like Mr. Konecny, they suffered severe withdrawal symptoms.
"This cult is deadly dangerous," says Mr. Konecny, who now works in the administrative offices of a Czech construction company. "It almost cost us our lives."
Others agree. Zdenek Vojtisek, of the Society for the Study of Sects and New Religious Directions, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to gather and disseminate information on sects and new religious groups in the Czech Republic, is concerned that certain segments of Czech society are "in danger of being swallowed by cults.
"People here have no religious background, and cannot determine right from wrong," he said, "Today, Czechs are as naive as Americans were before Charles Manson. The situation is a time bomb."
Enjoying the lion's share of media attention are extreme sects like Messengers of the Holy Grail, the Czech cult that attracted the Konecny family.
Its leader, Jan Dvorsky, 31, has convinced his followers that he is the Messiah, destined to deliver them from a world corrupted by evildoers who have been reincarnated several times over. Like many other self-proclaimed messiahs, Mr. Dvorsky warns of a pending apocalypse.
The cult included about a hundred members two years ago, and fewer now. Mr. Dvorsky decamped from his base in western Bohemia, and is running from authorities who want to arrest him on the pretext that he is keeping his young children from school.
Still, the police consider the cult to be extremely dangerous; members remain devoted to him. This is disconcerting given that his book, Son of Human, which was published in 1993, damns not only his mother-in-law, but also public figures such as President Vaclav Havel and Pope John Paul II.
Mr. Dvorsky's influence over his followers is so profound that ten of them tried to kill themselves when, like Mr. Konecny, they were banished from the cult. Mr. Dvorsky had assured them that they would be resurrected at the end of the century when a "new kingdom" would arise to replace present-day society.
Like Mr. Konecny, many people donated their life savings to the cult.
"We wanted to do some good, and the cult provided us with a sense of unity with the world," Mr. Konecny said. "We thought that the world was out of joint, and that we could improve it. We were very arrogant in this way. We were too idealistic."
Not all Czechs who have explored unorthodox religions are interested in helping others. "An individual should care only about himself," said Jiri Valter, founder of the Church of Satan in the Czech Republic.
The Society for the Study of Sects and New Religious Directions claims that there have been one homicide and one suicide connected to Satanists. Vojtisek says that a sacrificial altar was found in north Bohemia in 1994.
Dr. Prokop Remes of the Psychiatric Clinic-Prague Bohnice has treated former members of Mr. Dvorsky's cult, a handful of whom attempted suicide. "Czechs were, for a long time, used to some sort of leadership. First it was the Nazi occupation, then the Communist regime.
"Now that they have embraced a Western lifestyle, their lives are chaotic and they are depressed. They are searching for guidance. That is why they are joining various sects."
This trend, he said, "comes from the West. It started in America, spread through Western Europe and is moving further east. It is connected to the opening of borders, and the fact that it is now possible for these groups to exist legally."
Czechs have recently been introduced to groups long established in the West. Included among these are Hare Krishna, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Unification Church (whose members are followers of the Reverend Sun-Myung Moon).
The Unification Church came to this country during the 1968 Prague Spring, a brief period in which Czechoslovak citizens enjoyed an easing of Soviet control. When Soviet tanks rumbled into Prague, however, Unification Church members went underground until 1990.