Church takes cathedral claim to Constitutional Court

Praha

The Czech Catholic Church has filed a complaint with the country’s Constitutional Court over a 2007 verdict by the Supreme Court according to which the state is the rightful owner of Prague’s famous St. Vitus Cathedral. The move is the latest round in a protracted legal battle between the Church and state over the famous Prague landmark.

It took more than seven centuries before the Gothic cathedral of St. Vitus, one of Prague’s most visible landmarks, was consecrated on May 12, 1929. Eighty years later a battle over ownership rights rages on. The famous cathedral was confiscated by the communist regime in the hardline 1950s, and although the Catholic Church did in fact get the cathedral back in the 1990s, its ownership rights were short-lived. Two years ago, the Supreme Court overruled all previous verdicts in the case, giving the cathedral back to the state. The court reached the verdict on the grounds that back in 1992, the Catholic Church should have filed a different kind of lawsuit: a suit of restitution instead of declaratory action. But Petr Zděrčík, the attorney representing the Catholic Church, says this argument does not hold water since the cathedral was confiscated illegally even under 1950s communist law.

“The case has been treated as if it was a case of property restitution. But this is no restitution precisely because the communist regime did whatever it felt like. There were special institutions to oversee the churches but in this case, they were left aside and the regime simply decided how things would be – the cathedral was confiscated in the name of the communist president.”

The Church also says that the judge who ruled in this case was biased; as a former member of the Communist Party, which took the church away.

Miloslav Vlk
“The process did not fulfil the requirements of just civil proceedings. The judge had close ties to the communist regime and his ideas and attitudes on the case could be prejudiced without him being aware of the fact. Because as I said, what happened in the 1950s was not the execution of state power; instead, the communist party leadership just stole all real estate at Prague Castle.”

The fact that the cathedral is fraught with symbolism for the Catholic Church as well as for the state makes things even more complicated. The Bohemian Crown Jewels are kept in the St Wencelas Chapel; it is also the burial site of many Czech kings, including the cathedral’s founder, Emperor Charles IV. Many argue therefore that the church should remain in the hands of the state. Prague Archbishop Miloslav Vlk is the head of the Czech Roman Catholic Church. He says there are less noble motives involved.

“The dispute is not just about the Cathedral – that in itself brings little profit. But there are several profitable houses around the cathedral, from which the Prague Castle Administration does get funds. So the whole issue is also a financial one. Also, they get extra money for selling tickets to the entire Prague Castle compound when in fact most people only come to visit the cathedral. That means that our cathedral is a source of great income for the Castle. In the past years, this was some 70 million crowns a year. That’s not insignificant.”

The court will now consider the Church’s complaint but experts say it’s unlikely to rule in its favour. If that should happen the Catholic Church says it is prepared to take the dispute to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.