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Czechs dispute church property

NCR Staff

A leading Czech politician accused Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague of “disloyalty” and “communist behavior” Feb. 5, referring to Vlk’s demands for the return of church property seized during the communist era, as well as his opposition to including a former communist on a government panel looking into the dispute.

A spokesman for Vlk shot back on Feb. 8 that these comments from Deputy Premier Pavel Rychetsky, the government’s point man on the property issue, were “incomprehensibly tough, insulting and mostly untrue.”

The spokesman, Daniel Herman, accused politicians of not keeping their word on earlier promises to give the property back, of falsely interpreting the law and of expediently slowing down the process of settling relations between church and state.

The highly public war of words unfolding in the Czech media is emblematic of the thorny problems facing religious leaders and governments in Eastern Europe as they attempt to fashion new church/state relationships.

The controversy over property has simmered since the collapse of the communist regime in 1989 but was put on hold while the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated in the early 1990s.

Recently a commission created by the Czech government to study the problem issued its report. That report concluded that since the church had only limited ownership rights under the Austro-Hungarian empire -- which was the last era during which a comprehensive church/state agreement was brokered in the country -- the Catholic hierarchy cannot now press claims to the property. Instead, the rightful owner is the state, the report said.

The holdings in question include not just parish buildings, administrative centers and churches, but also landed estates and even swatches of forest spread throughout the country.

Church leaders immediately rejected the commission’s conclusions. Czech president Václav Havel also called the report inadequate and offered to help mediate the dispute.

In 1998, Vlk wrote a letter to European Union officials complaining about the way the Czech government was handling the property dispute.

Some Czech politicians close to the Catholic church have called for financial compensation for the property as an alternative to returning it. Such suggestions elicited further criticism from Rychetsky, who said he was “shocked” at the church’s materialism.

His comments were echoed by other government officials.

Rychetsky also claimed that even if the church got the property back, it would not be able to effectively manage even a fraction of it. “It seems to me that this is simply how stupidly and with what lack of knowledge the discussions are being carried on,” he said.

In late January the government named members to an advisory body to conduct further negotiations on the issue. The appointment of a former communist to the group was bitterly criticized by Vlk, which led Rychetsky to charge that the cardinal was using “communist tactics” in attempting to silence and intimidate opposition.

Leaders of several Christian denominations and representatives from the Jewish community in the Czech Republic were also named to the panel.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999