Friday, December 21, 2007

Church, state sign historic deal

A landmark Dec. 13 agreement between 17 church orders and the government looks poised to settle a 60-year-old dispute.

A government committee and church representatives reached a deal by which a large amount of land — a reported 226,000 hectares (558,000 acres) — that used to belong to churches before it was nationalized in 1948 will be returned.

Compensation in the amount of 83 billion Kč ($4.6 billion) will be paid for the unreturned land.

“The committees managed to work out a successful solution, the proposal will be sent to the cabinet and also the public will be informed about the proposal,” says Marcela Žižková, a spokeswoman for the Culture Ministry.

The proposal still has to pass parliament and be signed by President Václav Klaus.

“We will try to push it and we want the law to be discussed as soon as possible,” Žižková says.

The property has been in state hands since February 1948, after the communist putsch. A gradual shift back toward church control started immediately after the Velvet Revolution, according to Daniel Herman, a spokesman for the Culture Ministry.

“Already in December 1989, many restrictive laws and orders were cancelled,” he says. “Before 1989, when the vicar wanted to have a mass, he first had to ask for permission to run a mass.” Meetings between church and state, regarding started the following year. In 1990, some monastery buildings were returned so that the religious orders could start their existence again,” Herman says.

Since then, discussions have continued.

“This problem is 60 years old and it has taken 18 years to try to solve it,” he says.

Returning the property “is a matter of justice,” Žižková says. “The fact that [this issue] hasn’t been solved yet has a bad impact on the Czech Republic’s reputation abroad and it also makes some things more difficult within the [country].”

But it’s not just goodwill that’s propelling the government to act. After the settlement, property that had previously been in limbo and will remain in state hands (in return for monetary compensation to the church) could now be developed.

Terms and conditions

About a third of all the property the agreement affects will be returned outright. The government will pay the 83 billion Kč in compensation for the rest of it.

“The religious orders and congregations will be allowed to get back their actual property. The churches and religious groups will receive a financial compensation,” Žižková says.

The terms of the payments haven’t yet been released, and the Finance Ministry declined to answer questions about them posed by The Prague Post, until the proposal is sent to the cabinet.

However, a Czech News Agency (CTK) story reports that the money will be paid out gradually over a period of 60 to 70 years.“If you divide the sum into decades, it is not that high,” Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, told CTK.

Besides, Žižková says, the agreement is a deal for the land.

“The state will get a property whose price is higher than 83 billion Kc,” she says.

The property that will be given back is valued at around 110 million Kc and consists of 226 hectares, CTK reports.

The majority belongs to the Catholic Church.Church leaders have said they are pleased with the plan.

“Thursday’s agreement of the two commissions on the basic points of the planned bill is very gratifying. We firmly believe in the successful completion of the bill in the government and parliament,” Juan Provecho, head of the Czech Catholic Bishops’ Conference press center, told CTK.

“Today’s agreement… brings us joy.”

By all accounts, the agreement is likely to pass parliament since it was part of the coalition agreement of the current government.

Chamber of Deputies Deputy Chairman Jan Kasal told CTK that he believes Klaus will sign it.

It could go into effect as soon as January 2009, according to the CTK report.

The agreement will not affect St. Vitus, the high-profile cathedral that sits in the center of Prague Castle and has been the subject of an ongoing lawsuit between the state and the Catholic Church.
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