Government offers churches less money, more land in property restitution

The Czech government has come up with a new proposal for the restitution of church property confiscated after the communist coup of 1948. Under the new draft, Czech churches and religious groups would get back around 60 percent of the property seized by the state while the rest would be paid in cash. Representatives of Czech churches have welcomed the move but said a detailed analysis was needed before taking a definite stand on the issue.

Jiří Besser
Three years after a previous government effort to deal with the sensitive issue of church restitution was turned down by the lower house of Parliament, the centre-right Czech cabinet has come up with a new proposal for settling one of the last property restitution cases inherited from communist times.

Culture Minister Jiří Besser announced on Monday the government was ready to physically return 59 percent of church property confiscated by the communist regime worth around 75 billion crowns, or over 4.4 billion US dollars. The rest – another 59 billion crowns – would be paid in cash over a period of either 15, 20 or 30 years. Compared to the proposal from 2008, the churches would receive more in physical property – mostly fields, forests, ponds, and the like – and considerably less in cash. Mr Besser said the government would now wait for what the churches have to say about the new proposal.

“Now the ball is in the churches’ court, so to speak. We have agreed that all the members of all the relevant committees will be available for debates even during the summer holidays, and we would be very happy if we could get the standpoint of the churches and other religious groups by the end of July.”

Altogether, 16 of the country’s Christian churches as well as the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic are set to receive their property back. The Roman Catholic Church is set to receive by far the largest, 85-percent share of the settlement although around 95 percent of the property seized by the communist regime was Catholic.

The churches have cautiously welcomed Monday’s proposal as the first step towards a final settlement. Joel Ruml is the head of the Ecumenical Council of Churches, a body representing most religious groups in the country.

“We are glad to have received the proposal because it ends a period of speculation. Now, our experts can sit down and analyze it, and they can also get together with the governmental commission to talk about it. It’s a good move and we can get down to specific work.”

Joel Ruml
The churches have some room to manoeuvre but they find themselves under pressure to make a deal with the state. The issue is very sensitive in the Czech Republic where most people are self-proclaimed atheists. In a 2008 survey, a mere 36 percent of those polled agreed with the restitution of church property. If the proposal gets rejected by the churches, the coalition parties would have to show a lot of courage to return to the issue ahead of the next general elections, scheduled for 2014.