Churches accept government’s restitution proposal

Jiří Besser (à droite) et Dominik Duka, photo: CTK

More than twenty years after the fall of communism the Czech Republic stands another chance to establish a new relationship between the state and the country’s churches and redress the wrongs of the past. Church representatives on Thursday accepted the government’s proposal for property restitution and a gradual phasing out of financial contributions from state coffers.

Tomáš Kraus, the secretary of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities, Dominik Duka, Joel Ruml, the head of the Ecumenical Council of Churches, photo: CTK
Efforts to agree on a settlement for property confiscated by the communist regime and put the country’s churches back on the road to financial independence have repeatedly hit the rocks over the past twenty years. Most recently in 2008, when an agreement between the country’s churches and the government was rejected by Parliament. Now the Nečas cabinet may have found an acceptable solution. Under the proposed arrangement churches would get 56 percent of their property back and would receive 59 billion crowns in compensation for the rest, payable over a period of thirty years. The state, which currently gives churches 1,5 billion crowns annually from state coffers would gradually phase out state support over a period that has as yet to be agreed on. Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka said on Thursday a settlement which would give churches financial independence was long overdue.

“I think it is important for this process to take place primarily so that people do not feel that they are being forced to contribute to something that means nothing to them. And I think it is good for churches to regain their independence and with it a sense of responsibility for their own affairs.”

The point that remains to be settled is for how long and in what measure the state should uphold its annual financial contributions. There is general agreement that 20 years would suffice, but while the government would like to reduce the sum of 1,5 billion crowns by five percent every year, smaller churches who will get less property back and less money in compensation would prefer for the present level of support to be sustained for a period of 5 years before the sum starts to dwindle.

Although the state currently gives churches 1,5 billion crowns annually, the property to be restituted generates a much higher sum of 4.5 billion crowns a year. Three fifth of that with go to the Catholic Church which will also get the lion’s share of the compensation money with over 11 billion going to Evangelical, Orthodox and Jewish churches. Although the smaller churches feel somewhat disadvantaged by the settlement, they badly want the issue resolved and are ready to accept the deal.

Its fate will depend on support for it in Parliament where opposition parties have criticized it for being too generous at a time of need. However Culture Minister Jiří Besser says this is an opportunity not to be lost.

Dominik Duka, Jiří Besser, photo: CTK
“I firmly hope that this admirable compromise will win approval not just from the coalition parties but from the opposition benches as well. I would draw MPs attention to the fact that the present offer amounts to a mere third of that which was rejected by the lower house in 2008. Churches have agreed to it and the opportunity to finalize this matter should not be lost. It is time to give churches what is rightly theirs and to some extent redress the wrongs of the past.”

Assuming the final details are settled and the bill passes through Parliament it could come into effect in 2013. Among those pushing for it to happen are dozens of towns and villages whose assets have long been blocked by unresolved church restitution claims.