Lower house approves restitution of church property

The lower house of the Czech Parliament has passed a controversial bill on the restitution of church property. Under the draft legislation, 17 Czech churches and religious groups would get tens of billions of crowns worth of physical property confiscated by the communist regime, plus financial compensation. The bill will now be put to vote in the opposition-controlled Senate which is likely to turn it down, and send it back to the lower house for final approval.

Photo: ČTK
It took nearly six hours of debating in the lower house of Parliament on Friday before the bill on the restitution of church property was finally put to the vote a few minutes after midnight. The result: 93 MPs out of the 182 present supported it, 89 voted against.

If approved by the Senate and the president, the bill will return 56 percent of the property confiscated by the communist regime – buildings, fields, forests, ponds, and the like – to the Roman Catholic Church along with 16 smaller religious groups. That property is worth 75 billion crowns, or nearly 3.6 billion US dollars. For the rest, the churches would receive financial compensation of 59 billion crowns plus interest spread over the period of 30 years. The bill would also end state support for the churches which amounts to 1.4 billion crowns a year, and would introduce a complete separation of church and state.

Phоtо: Robert Aichinger / Stock.XCHNG
For the centre-right Czech government, the church property restitution bill is a major point on its agenda. Government officials say it will rectify the wrongs of the past and end the dependence of churches on the state. The government also believes the deal remove obstacles in the development of many municipalities which cannot use the disputed property, frozen in the early 1990s.

But the opposition sees the deal, which will lead to one of the biggest property transfers in modern Czech history, as unjust. Social Democrats argue it is not quite clear which property was confiscated, and express concerns that the Church might receive land and other real estate that it had not owned for years before the communists took over in 1948. Social Democrat Senator Jan Žaloudík explains their point of view.

Jan Žaloudík
“This is not only related to the property confiscated by the communist regime; it goes further back to the beginning of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and it even goes back to the era of the Habsburg monarchy. So what we object to is that the bill contains no list enumerating the demands of the churches both in terms of property and financial compensation. As it is, we cannot really support the legislation.”

The idea of giving churches back property is highly unpopular with Czechs, a majority of whom are not affiliated with any religion. In a poll which took place last December, 69 percent of Czechs rejected the deal, while a mere 8 percent of those polled said the confiscated property should be given back.

The bill will now be debated in the Senate where the opposition has a majority, and the outcome of the vote is fairly easy to predict, says Senator Žaloudík.

The Senate
“I can only assume but I think I can I clearly say that because of the missing list of property and other demands, Social Democrat senators – who have a majority in the Senate – as well as some other senators, will vote against the bill.”

If the Senate indeed rejects the draft legislation, it will return to the lower house where the coalition will have to muster 101 votes to overturn the veto. The three coalition parties – the Civic Democrats, TOP 09 and LIDEM – can now rely on at least 105 MPs which should be enough to push the bill through. But the lower house will vote on the bill in September, a month before Senate and regional elections. That might put coalition MPs under pressure to reject the controversial legislation, and end the process of church property restitution for years to come.