New law on churches evokes controversy


This week the Lower House of the Czech Parliament defied Senate and church opposition by approving a controversial bill redefining the relationship between religious organisations and the state. The law's advocates say that it will greatly help smaller churches and religious societies, but its critics claim that it will give the state sweeping new powers. Daniela Lazarova reports on how the law has been received by church representatives.

There are currently 21 officially registered churches and religious societies in the Czech Republic and many others who are active but unregistered because present legislation requires them to collect 10,000 signatures. For instance Muslims have long complained that they have only been able to register as cultural organizations, and the Anglican Church dealt with the problem by registering as the English-speaking parish of the Old Catholic Church. Under the new law all a church will need to register in its own right is 300 signatures. I asked Prague's Anglican chaplain John Philpott how he felt about the new law -

"As we are already registered it is not a great issue for us at present. But looking at a wider perspective it must be very welcome to smaller churches, perhaps those who've started since the days of the fall of communism. They will welcome it as a sign of freedom and being trusted by the state."

Under a two-tier system newly registered religious organisation will be committed to paying taxes, presenting the culture ministry with an annual report on their activities and updating the number of their followers. After a ten year period comes a second registration which gives them the right to establish their own schools, be active in hospitals and the army and to apply for state financing. The culture ministry reserves the right to turn down a request from what it ascertains to be a destructive or suicidal sect. John Philpott says that a certain degree of caution is understandable.

"Sometimes the state does need to be cautious with some who claim a religious motivation for the work they seek to do, but I hope that when these things are considered they will be considered by people who have an understanding of the dynamics of religion and not by people who have no religious understanding whatever their faith might be."

Father Daniel Herman is the spokesman for the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference in Prague, and he is heavily critical of the new law, claiming that politicians have shown just the lack of understanding that John Philpott refers to.

"During the Parliamentary debates on this law we recognized that some Church representatives don't really understand the very essence of our work and mission. The text of this law is for us a signal of a non-friendly orientation of some political circles to the churches."

One paragraph in the law has particularly upset the Catholic Church. It stipulates that church charities will have to re-register separately from the churches themselves and will be held fully accountable to the interior ministry. For example there are dozens of church-run hospitals around the country. Daniel Herman argues that charity and social work are an integral part of the church's activity.

"This social work is one of the very important moments of the service and activities of the Church. It is practically the incarnation of the Christian faith and Christian message into the normal daily life of society. Are you unhappy enough about the law to want to see it challenged in court? We are waiting to see how President Havel feels about it and then we shall decide."

It seems likely that President Havel will refuse to sign the bill, but he does not have a power of veto and in all probability, his decision will be overridden by parliament and the bill will become law.