New proposal could settle church property claims

After 17 years, property settlement between the Czech state and the churches active in the country finally seems to be is sight. Culture Minister Vaclav Jehlicka announced on Sunday that a governmental commission in charge of property settlement issues arrived at an agreement with church representatives, and that the first draft of the settlement bill is ready. Although the situation is somewhat more complicated than that, Czech churches and religious associations in the country do finally have good chances of their property claims being settled.

The relations between the state and churches in the Czech Republic, the Catholic Church in particular, are burdened by a number of issues: the settlement of Catholic property confiscated by the communist regime is perhaps the most important as well as the most persisting one. In arguably the most atheist country in Europe, where some 2.7 out of 10 million inhabitants claim to be Catholic, it has taken Czechoslovak and Czech governments 17 years before they arrived at an agreement with the Church. Daniel Herman is the head of the information department for the Czech Culture Ministry.

"At the moment, negotiations concerning property settlements between the state and churches are at their most advanced stage ever. The whole problem has lasted for 60 years; it originated due to the injustices committed by the communist regime and it has been dealt with for the last 17 years, since November 1989. A draft bill has now been prepared that is now in the comments procedure."

The Culture Ministry has been working on the proposal with a commission of experts nominated by the various churches. There is perhaps only one discrepancy between the state and the Catholic Church: Minister Vaclav Jehlicka told Czech TV that the agreement had been reached between the state and the churches themselves. Marcela Gavulova explains this is not quite accurate, according to the Archbishop Jan Graubner, the head of the Czech Bishops' Conference a body officially representing the Catholic Church.

"According to Archbishop Jan Graubner, the chairman of the Czech Bishops' Conference, the draft of the property settlement between the state and the churches came from discussions held by experts representing individual churches and religious associations. The committee of church representatives as such did not participate in it, and expects further negotiations. He also said that the Church is looking forward to an invitation to the talks as promised and hopes that the Church will not be just asked for comments."

The property at stake, confiscated by the communists and today owned by the Czech state, is worth about 100 billion crowns, or more than 5 billion U.S. dollars. According to the bill prepared by the Culture Ministry, about 83 billion crowns worth of property cannot be physically given back, but will be compensated by annual payments to the Ecumenical Council of Churches in the Czech Republic that will distribute it among the individual churches and other religious associations.