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Returning church property plagues Czechs.

Communists took Catholic lands in 1948

PRAGUE, Czech Republic - Political and economic reforms have come swiftly since the communist regime fell three years ago, but the question of how to return property to the Catholic church has plagued Czech politicians.

Unlike Poland and Hungary, most property belonging to the church still is in state hands.

The issue has aggravated relations in the ruling coalition of right-wing parties, pitting the two Christian parties against the so-called "civic" parties.

The disagreement, which has threatened to break up the coalition, centers around a philosophical argument about whether the church has a special role to play in society and whether the state should help the church recover from four decades of decimation at the hands of the communist regime.

The two Christian political parties last month said the state should return more than 600,000 acres of forest and farmland to the church. The two civic parties, the Civic Democratic Party, CDP, and the Civic Democratic Alliance, ODA, rejected that proposal, saying it would grant the church special property rights.

Parliament members in the CDP said such a generous restitution of property could damage the economy because, they said, the church lacks the expertise to manage purely economic holdings.

Talks between the coalition parties broke down again at the end of May. Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, the leader of the CDP, told reporters he was skeptical of any proposal that elevated the church above other organizations.

The quarrel over restitution is "neither a question of Christianity or Christian ideals and values, nor about the good and the prosperity of a society," Klaus said in a radio interview. "It is exclusively and only a concern of property - and certain advantages, political and otherwise, linked with that."

The Czech public seems to share some of Klaus' skepticism when it comes to the church, which some associate with the dominance of the old Austrian Hapsburg empire. According to a February survey, only about 20 percent of Czechs think the state should return property to the church; 40 percent think the state should not return agricultural land.

Church representatives say returning the property is the best way to complete the separation of church and state because it would allow religious organizations, which still depend on government subsidies, to become self-sufficient.

"I can say as a former Catholic activist we never wished for anything else than a real separation between the church and state," said Pavel Tollner, a parliament leader of the Christian Democratic Party, CHDP, "because it was damaging for both the state and the church."

The dilemma of restitution is in many ways a hangover from the former regime, which confiscated all church property after coming to power in February 1948. The state closed church schools and orders, subjected clergy to show trials in the 1950s, discriminated against church members in education and hiring, and even sponsored atheist "institutes." The regime subsidized what remained of church activities, and many church properties fell into disrepair over the years.

Despite this systematic oppression of religious organizations, Catholic clergy and activists played a crucial role in ousting the former regime. Politicians from the Christian parties say returning some of the property to Catholic and other churches would at least acknowledge the injustice committed against religious organizations and their members.

Deputies in the Civic Democratic Party say that the state should return to the church only those buildings that are primarily religious or charity-related and that most of the farmland and forests should be auctioned off to private owners. The CDP also has proposed delaying any return of property for at least three to five years.

Vaclav Benda, CHDP chairman, called that proposal "absurd."

"If the churches are to become economically independent and if the returned property is to serve them," Benda said, "they cannot be expected to lie for several months or years, deprived of the state subsidies they have been paid so far, and wait that sometime in the foreseeable future they will be given back their ruined property."

The Czech and Slovak republics have lagged behind Hungary. The Hungarian parliament decided to return property mostly related to church or charity activities. Politicians in Budapest, though, have heatedly debated how to subsidize religious organizations.

In Poland, religious property does not present the same dilemma. The former communist regime never nationalized property to the same degree as did Czechoslovakia's. And the state allowed the Polish Catholic church a relative amount of independence, so the church never totally lost control of its property.

In Slovakia, the church traditionally plays a more influential role. But Slovak politicians have been too preoccupied with establishing their state and the declining economy to tackle the property question.
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Author:DeLuce, Dan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Aug 13, 1993
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