Government split over proposal to tax churches’ restitution money

Jiří Zimola, photo: Filip Jandourek

The Czech government has failed to agree a common position on a controversial call to tax money being returned to churches in restitution. While the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats are opposed, ANO have angered coalition colleagues by backing the proposal.

Jiří Zimola, photo: Filip Jandourek
At a cabinet meeting on Wednesday ministers failed to agree on a joint position on a proposal to tax the monetary part – more than CZK 60 billion – of a restitution package for Czech churches.

The 2012 law redressing the communist-era confiscation of church property (also including CZK 75 billion in material assets) was deeply divisive.

The idea of taxing the financial part has been floated by Jiří Zimola, the Social Democrat governor of the South Bohemia region.

“All we are saying is that all tax subjects should be liable to pay tax. If we want entrepreneurs to pay tax, if we all pay tax as employees and if all companies pay tax, I don’t know why churches shouldn’t pay.”

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has dismissed the proposal from Mr. Zimola, a party colleague, as a ploy to help him win reelection this autumn. He also says it would likely be shot down by the Constitutional Court.

By contrast Finance Minister Andrej Babiš – who previously backed a similar call from the present-day Communists – supports the idea.

The ANO leader argues that the original deal was a “con”. In his view the amount the state was judged to owe churches was massively exaggerated and the government now needs to claw back some of the money.

“It’s necessary to tax it. Because the state has handed out CZK 54 billion more than necessary. If this goes through, we would get compensation from the churches of CZK 12 billion or CZK 13 billion.”

The Christian Democrats, many of whose supporters are churchgoers, have been particularly incensed by Mr. Zimola’s call. Marian Jurečka is the party’s minister of agriculture.

Marian Jurečka, photo: Filip Jandourek
“When this coalition was formed we had a gentlemen’s agreement not to interfere in church restitution in any way, including retrospectively. So I have to unequivocally reject the proposal and the principle; it’s like if I steal something from somebody, return it and then tax them for it. It’s just illogical.”

Christian Democrats party leader Pavel Bělobrádek has gone even further, suggesting that as the plan would also impact the Federation of Jewish Communities it carried a “whiff of anti-Semitism”.

The matter is now set to be debated by the lower house of parliament.