Castle row puts divisive church restitution back in news

Prague Castle, photo: Filip Jandourek

A row over whether the Roman Catholic Church has the right to the return of buildings and land at Prague Castle has put the issue of church restitution back in the news. The debate has seen tempers fray – and, if a left-wing government is formed, could prefigure a roll-back on some aspects of the restitution law.

Prague Castle,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Under a long-discussed deal struck last year by the then centre-right Czech government, the state agreed to return church properties nationalised by the Communists.

Assets valued at CZK 75 billion are being handed back. At the same time, more than CZK 60 billion in financial compensation will go to the churches over a 30-year period in lieu of properties not being returned. After that the churches will receive zero state funding.

At the end of last week, the interior minister, Martin Pecina, said the caretaker government was going to fast-track an amendment aimed at placing Prague Castle beyond the legislation.

This was in response to a reported claim from the Roman Catholic Church for a number of buildings and parcels of land at the Castle.

Mr. Pecina, an election candidate for the leftist Zemanites, said the Church was reneging on a deal made with the former and current presidents, under which it would keep its hands off Prague Castle.

However, the Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Dominik Duka, says the gentlemen’s agreement, as he calls it, was more nuanced.

Martin Pecina,  photo: CTK
The Church, he says, is not demanding all the buildings it could, and is willing to leave those used for security purposes in state hands. This includes the HQ of the president’s police detail. It only seeks the return of structures such as the All Saints Church, which it is already using.

On Monday, caretaker Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok poured cold water over Mr. Pecina’s bill, saying he hadn’t been aware of it in advance and that the matter was not urgent.

“If somebody thinks it is necessary to make a political decision and to change the law that is valid and in effect, then that definitely will not be my government in resignation”

However, the subject has not gone away. The usually calm and measured Cardinal Duka lost his cool when questioned about it on Czech Radio.

Gradually raising his voice, the head of the country’s Catholic Church said Czechs were in danger of throwing away the freedoms they had won.

“If our society accepts this measure, I will know we are not living in a democratic state where neither the rule of law nor principles apply. We are returning to the Communist flag and the hammer and sickle…”

At that point the primate was cut off for breaching the public broadcaster’s pre-election impartiality rules. Fuming, he thanked the host for a “censored interview”.

Nevertheless, the cardinal’s outburst illustrates how keenly the issue of church restitution is felt, with many on the left believing just as strongly that is should never have happened.

Dominik Duka,  photo: CTK
The Social Democrats, who want to slash the financial compensation, have become involved, calling for Prague Castle to be excluded from the restitution. They also want a one-year freeze on all returns.

The left-wing president has also spoken on the matter, saying recently that the next government could amend the law.

Legislation that took more than two decades to see the light of day may in the end not be as definitive as it appeared when it was passed.