State heritage institute decides UNESCO listed landmark should be returned to Catholic Church

Church of St. John of Nepomuk at Zelená Hora

One of the Czech Republic’s iconic landmarks will be handed back to the Roman Catholic Church following a decision by the country’s custodian of historic buildings and sites, the National Heritage Institute. The decision forms part of the settlement with religious institutions following the confiscation of most of their property by the former Communist regime. Decisions about other significant sites are also pending.

Church of St. John of Nepomuk at Zelená Hora | Photo: CzechTourism
The star shaped pilgrimage site and church of St. John of Nepomuk at Zelená Hora is one of the Czech Republic’s architectural jewels. The Baroque Gothic masterpiece of the Czech architect of Italian descent Jan Santini Aichl from the start of the 18th century was listed in 1994 on UNESCO’s worldwide list of cultural sites.

But as part of the wide ranging clampdown in the 1950’s, which in particular targeted the Catholic Church, the landmark was given as a ‘gift’ to the state. The church argued that heavy pressure forced that donation and called for the Zelená Hora site to be handed back as part of an historic, but controversial, cash and property restitution settlement finally approved in 2012.

The National Heritage Institute has been managing the whole site since 2001 and has spent the last 12 months looking into the claims of the Catholic Church for it to be handed back.

Church of St. John of Nepomuk at Zelená Hora | Photo: gampe,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Simona Juračková is head of the institute’s external relations. She said that the case itself was not that complicated: “The decision was not that complicated or demanding from a time and technical perspective. The National Heritage Institute called a few times for the applicant to supply further documentation which was needed to evaluate the demand. And the institute itself approached a range of bodies and archives for further material which could be used to assess the case. That amounted eventually to 200 pages of documents which were evaluated by a legal firm and the legal section of the National Heritage Institute.”

Restitution is still a very live issue in the Czech Republic with the main party in the left-of-centre government, the Social Democrats, pushing in the last months, without visible success, for the already agreed settlement to be reopened. But Juračková said the pressure of dealing with such a high profile case did not play any role in the process: “Church restitution is a subject which occupies public opinion a lot in the Czech Republic. There are two extreme positions for and against which are very vocal publicly. But as a state established body we have to act absolutely according to the rules and were given the room to make this decision in cooperation with the Brno diocese without any pressure. All the conditions of the law on restitution had to be fulfilled for the return of property and, according to our assessment in this case as regards Zelená Hora, they undoubtedly were. ”

Church of St. John of Nepomuk at Zelená Hora,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
Wednesday’s decision has raised hopes within the Catholic Church that it will be successful with more of its claims which are still being examined by the heritage institute and other state institutions. The church has lodged demands for the return of around 2000 buildings and around 116,000 plots of land.

The heritage institute has in total 47 restitution cases to examine with the latest decision undoubtedly being the biggest and most significant so far. A much more complicated case, that concerning the UNESCO listed Bishop’s Place and surrounding land at Kroměříž is still being looked into. But the institute has already thrown out the demand by the Order of Teutonic Knights for the return of the Bouzov castle near Olomouc on the grounds that it was not covered by the restitution agreement.