Court rules St Vitus' Cathedral belongs to Catholic Church

St Vitus' Cathedral, photo: CTK

If you think of Prague, one of the first things that springs to mind is the magnificent 14th century Saint Vitus' Cathedral, towering above the city's skyline. But who does the cathedral actually belong to? After a thirteen-year legal battle, a district court in Prague has ruled that it is the property of the Catholic Church. This may seem obvious, but in a country where the church has had a troubled history, the whole issue has been raising strong emotions. Czechs are a largely secular nation and many people treasure St Vitus' Cathedral - and Prague Castle, at the heart of which it stands - as a powerful symbol of Czech statehood rather than a place of worship.

St Vitus' Cathedral,  photo: CTK
The mighty Zikmund bell has been ringing out for 400 years over Prague from the cathedral tower. For most of that time Saint Vitus has belonged to the church, but in 1954 - at the height of Stalinist rule - a law was passed, saying that Prague Castle belonged to the people and the monuments in it should be managed by the Office of the President. The Catholic Church argues the way the cathedral was transferred to the state was not lawful. Martin Horalek is the spokesman of the Czech Bishops' Conference.

"We certainly welcomed this decision of the court because we think that it is the first sign that the law and rules are more important than political activity and political pressures. We have more cases that are similar but because this is about St. Vitus' cathedral being the symbol of the Czech state, it is the most important and of course the media paid most attention to it. But this case could serve as a model for the other cases."

The state, represented by the Office of the Government Representation in Property Affairs, is going to appeal against the verdict. Adam Halmosi is a spokesman for the office.

"The office is ready to appeal the judgement. Since it was founded, the Cathedral has been the symbol of Czech nationhood and it was also built from dues of people regardless of their religion and it was completed in the last century. That is why we feel that there should be justice in the decision on who should be the owner of the cathedral."

Czech politicians have been reserved in their comments, except the Communist Party which dismissed the verdict arguing the cathedral was built as part of Prague Castle and belonged to kings and emperors. The Culture Minister Vitezslav Jandak says he is convinced that if the church ever wins ownership of St Vitus' Cathedral, it will donate it to the Czech nation.

The ownership of St Vitus' Cathedral is a very sensitive issue. Here's what a few people in the streets of Prague had to say.

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk
"It should belong to the nation. Both the state and church because of the way it was built since the time of Charles IV. The court has simplified it."

"I am an atheist but I would say it should belong to the church. It was theirs and they built it. I would have to think about it more but I tend to prefer the church."

"It belongs to the state, to all of us. It's not the church's property. I think it has always been a place associated with the ruler, with the leadership of the state, rather than the church. They must have gone mad."

"Because it is the legacy of emperor Charles IV, I think it should belong to the state, to all of us."

One thing that Prague's Archbishop, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk has promised, is that he won't transport the cathedral - stone by stone - to the Vatican.