New initiative demands final settlement of disputes between Church and State

Last week's Supreme Court ruling, which handed control of Prague's St. Vitus' Cathedral to the Czech state has once again focused attention on the tense relationship between the Catholic Church and the Czech government. Besides the thorny issue of returning property to the church, which was confiscated by the former communist regime, other bones of contention between the two sides include the church's official status in Czech society and the ratification of a treaty between the Vatican and the Czech Republic. Now a Catholic civic association has submitted a petition to the Czech president calling on the authorities to resolve these longstanding issues once and for all.

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk in St.Vitus' Cathedral,  photo: CTK
The Moravian-Silesian Christian Academy and Society for Dialogue between the Church and State has ubmitted a petition containing 15,000 signatures to the office of the Czech president and both houses of parliament, demanding that steps be taken to ensure more harmonious cooperation between the Catholic Church and the Czech state.

Jiri Konicek is one of the people behind this initiative, which is supported by the head of the Czech church Cardinal Miloslav Vlk. Mr Konicek says the state's unwillingness to return property confiscated from the church under communism is one of the main issues, which prompted him to take this action:

"It primarily means that all the things that were established in law by the communist regime - particularly the confiscations of property which were carried out - have not yet been rectified in any way. On the contrary, they have actually been legitimised, as the recent ruling on St Vitus' Cathedral has illustrated. This was also illegally confiscated by the communists. Now the courts have ratified this action by not returning the cathedral to the church."

St.Vitus' Cathedral
Besides the failure to return church property, Mr Konicek is also unhappy that Czech religious legislation means that the Catholic Church, which has two and three quarter million adherents in this country, is not economically independent and does not have full control over its own spiritual and charitable activities:

"We are demanding a new amendment to the law on freedom of religion, the status of the church and the restitution of property so that the Catholic Church can be financially independent. We want to reverse the situation where the state takes church property and gives funds to the church. This is simply a communist way of doing things and is not compatible with a democratic system. In addition, we also want to ratify the treaty between the Czech Republic and the Holy See. The fact that this hasn't been done has been repeatedly due to a lack of political will, not for legal reasons."

A treaty was actually concluded between the Czech Republic and the Vatican five years ago, but it was never ratified by parliament with opponents saying that it gave the Catholic Church too much of a special status in the country. Nevertheless, ratification of the treaty has been included in the new government's coalition agreement. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has also intimated that he would like to finally settle outstanding issues surrounding the relationship between the church and state.