Lower house passes controversial church law

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The lower house of parliament passed a law on Tuesday redefining the relationship between religious organizations and the state, overriding President Havel's veto. Supporters of the law say it will help smaller churches and religious societies, but some critics say the law will have a negative effect on church activities in health and social services. Pavla Horakova has the story.

There are currently 21 officially registered churches and religious societies in the Czech Republic, and many others are active but unregistered because previous legislation required them to collect 10,000 signatures. Under the new law, just 300 signatures will be enough. This will initiate a ten-year waiting period until recognition is granted, regardless of the size of the religious community. Moreover, during the new ten-year waiting period, these religious groups will have to submit annual reports to the government on their activities.

Some observers, therefore, are unhappy with it. The Helsinki Commission, a United States human rights body which monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords, says this legislation will actually make it more difficult - not easier - for smaller religious groups to be placed on an equal legal footing with other currently recognized groups. But Tomas Hancil, a philosophy teacher from the Protestant Theological Faculty, is concerned that on the contrary, the law could make it easier for potentially destructive sects to gain legal recognition.

"The new law actually makes it easier for the new and dubious sects to be registered by the state and makes it more difficult for the old, stable and established churches to run their usual business like social work."

As far as social and health services are concerned, one paragraph in the law stipulates that church charities will have to re-register separately from the churches themselves and will be held fully accountable to the interior ministry. This will for example include dozens of church-run hospitals around the country. Church representatives argue that charity and social work are an integral part of the church's activities. Technically speaking, church-run charities will not be prevented from doing their work, they will just have to re-register in a different way, like other charities have to. Tomas Hancil again.

"If churches are traditionally doing social work, they are doing it under their own circumstances and under their own agenda. The state should be actually grateful and recognize this work. Everything the churches are doing is actually covered under the church law. To split the activities of the church into two realms, one under the church law and the other under the common civic law doesn't really help the churches to effectively work."

The Catholic Church too is heavily critical of the new law. They say the legislation is proof that politicians simply don't understand the very essence of church work. The text of this law, says the Catholic Church, is symbolic of the hostile orientation of some political parties towards organised religion.