Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Czech church and state seal historic restitution deal

The Czech state and national religious groups and churches have signed off on an historic deal aimed at compensating them for Communist-era dispossessions of their considerable assets.

The overall property settlement has been the subject of talks for over 20 years, with the thorny issue representing one of the biggest unresolved issues hanging over from the Communist regime that collapsed at the end of 1989.

The last part of the deal, covering how long the state would continue to pay clergy salaries and pay a modest sum for the upkeep of churches, was hammered out on Thursday, with the Czech state agreeing to continue making payments over a 17-year transition period.

The main part of the deal, under which the state agreed on how, and how much, religious groups should be compensated for their confiscated property, was already agreed at the start of August, with the state being faced with a Kč 59 billion bill to be paid out over 30 years and a commitment to return 56 percent of confiscated property.

Churches and religious groups were major owners of real estate in former Czechoslovakia before the Communist confiscations. Their assets comprised buildings and thousands of hectares of farmland, forestry and ponds.

The sizeable hand back of this property portfolio still remaining in state hands and forming the assets of state-owned companies — such as forestry company Lesy ČR, and the Czech Land Fund (PF ČR) — has been one of the major hurdles to a deal in the past.

The main beneficiary of the property deal will be the Catholic Church, which will get 80 percent of  compensation cash and property. 

The remaining 20 percent will be shared out  between other churches and religious groups, such as the Baptists, Evangelicals, Hussites, Othodox Church and the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic.

The head of the Czech Catholic Church, Archbishop Dominik Duka, described Thursday’s final deal, announced by Culture Minister Jiří Besser (TOP 09), as “almost ideal.” 

The original proposal for a 20-year transition period before the state cut all funding was shortened to 17 with payments petering out over the period starting in January 2013.

“For the first three years, the state will pay the full costs of church wages and administration, that is around Kč 1.4 billion a year. From the fourth year, the amount will be cut every year by 5 percent,” Besser explained.
Political opposition
Although the church and state have finalized their deal, it still needs to be approved by the two chambers of the Czech Parliament — and that could torpedo the historic deal. 

The smallest government party, Public Affairs (VV), has already come out against aspects of the confiscation settlement and warns that it could vote against the deal if the government makes further deep budget cuts to cover its costs.

VV also expressed strong reservations about the large amount of property finally being handed back by to churches and religious groups. 

The two biggest opposition parties, the Social Democrats (ČSSD) and, predictably, the Communists (KSČM) have come out resolutely against the settlement.

The Czech Parliament helped block a previous settlement hammered out by the center-right coalition of former Civic Democrat (ODS) prime minister Mirek Topolánek. 

That deal — offering more cash but the return of less property — was opposed by the lower house of parliament’s committee dealing with the settlement. 

The government itself fell in mid-2009 before the issue was put to parliament as a who with the follow up caretaker government shunning the explosive issue.
Communist persecution
The Catholic Church and other religious groups were subject to systematic persecution by the Communist regime, especially at the start of the 1950s. 

The Vatican was viewed as a rival power base, with the party seeking especially to undermine strong support for the church in areas such as southern and eastern Moravia.

Top clergy were persecuted, in some cases tortured to death, and subject to show trials with property confiscated once it became clear that the Catholic Church would not fall in line with party demands. 

At one stage the Communist Party even tried to create a rival church with the help of a turncoat priest, Joseph Plojhar, who also at one stage served as Health Minister.

In spite of the clear victimization, many Czechs, in what is one of the most atheistic countries in Europe, have little sympathy for the large sums of money and property that are heading back to the church and religious groups. 

One survey suggested three quarters of Czechs why the state should be compensating for confiscations carried out more than six decades previously at a time when it is squeezing public spending.