I.  TWO MAJOR CZECH CHURCHES LOOK FOR MORE THAN NEW

RELIGION BILL II. STALEMATE ON ROMANIAN ORTHODOX-GREEK CATHOLIC COMMISSION III. AZERBAIJAN REGISTERS TWO PROTESTANT CHURCHES, DECLINES JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES Friday 24 December 1999 TWO MAJOR CZECH CHURCHES LOOK FOR MORE THAN NEW RELIGION BILL by Felix Corley, Keston News Service Following the adoption by the Czech cabinet of a draft bill on religion on 13 December, two of the Czech Republic's major Christian Churches have told Keston News Service that resolving property issues and the question of state financing for the Church remains their major concern. Representatives of both the Catholic Church - the largest single religious group in the country - and the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren raised no objections to the draft bill as currently framed. Culture Minister PAVEL DOSTAL said on 13 December that the cabinet had approved the principles of a draft bill that would broaden the ability of religious groups to be legally recognised. The new bill, which must still be fine tuned and presented to the Czech parliament, would lower the number of signatures needed to initially grant a religious organisation legal status from the current 10,000 to 300. This legal recognition would give them a legal status comparable to that of other non-profit legal persons, in particular granting preferential terms of taxation on a par with civic associations. After 10 years of existence and the fulfilling of certain conditions, an organisation could obtain a second level of legal recognition which would grant it rights to enter the educational, health and charity sectors and work in prisons and the armed forces. It is only on reaching this second level that religious groups would be eligible for state subsidies. Only marriages conducted by second-level groups would be equivalent in law to civil ceremonies. Dostal added that the 21 religious organisations in the Czech Republic that were legally recognised at the second level would have their current rights renewed immediately under the new bill. The bill, if passed by parliament, would allow the legalisation of religions hitherto disadvantaged, such as Muslims, Buddhists and several new religious movements, but also smaller congregations of more traditional denominations, including the Anglicans and independent Christian groups. Dostal said the Ministry of Culture would draw up the final text of the bill by the end of 2000. Government sources have described the bill as the first in a series of legislative moves to redefine the relationship between the State and the religious organisations. GERHARD FREY-REININGHAUS, Secretary for Ecumenical and International Relations of the Synodal Council of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, told Keston from Prague on 23 December that his Church was happy with the draft bill. `There are no objections from the side of the ECCB,' he declared, pointing out the discussion involving religious groups that had preceded the government's decision to adopt the draft. `However, we are still expecting the principal solution of the relationship between the State and Church in this country, including the problem of financial subsidies (the salaries of the clergy) and property. We expect new negotiations next year.' Likewise, a spokesman for the Catholic Church pointed to financial and property issues as being more important. `The proposals for the new law provide something additional only for churches and religious societies which have not been registered up to the present,' STANISLAV KOSIK, director of the press service, told Keston from Prague on 16 December.  `On the practical level, the new proposals do not mean any progress for the traditional Czech churches.  Unresolved problems, such as adequate financing of the churches, are still unresolved.  At present, this question has not yet even been placed on the agenda of the expert commission of the Ministry.' Kosik too recalled the involvement of religious communities in producing the draft bill. `The proposals for the law were framed on the basis of  highly complicated and prolonged meetings of two ministerial commissions for the resolution of questions pertaining to relations between churches and the Czech state.  The first of these commissions is a governmental or political commission; the second, a commission of experts.  The churches and religious societies participated in the work of the second commission, the commission of experts.' After initial controversy over whether a former Communist should be allowed to sit on a single commission, the Ministry of Culture formed the two separate commissions earlier this year. The political commission, including politicians from different parties, first met in March, while the expert commission, including Christian and Jewish representatives, first met in May. According to data from the last census in 1991 about 37 per cent of the population of what is now the Czech Republic claimed to be Catholics. However, average attendance at Sunday Masses in 1998 was less than 5 per cent of the total Czech population of 10.3 million. The ECCB has a membership of just over 150,000. Religious groups are registered by the Ministry of Culture, although they are not required to seek registered status. Registered communities receive state subsidies in proportion to their membership, which finances salaries of clergy, charitable and educational activities and the maintenance of property. Groups without registration may function freely, but cannot legally own property communally. One of the largest unregistered groups is the Islamic community, which estimates its numbers at up to 30,000. The first mosque was opened in Brno in July 1998. The Islamic community has discussed the possibility of registration with the Ministry of Culture, but has so far not submitted an application. The issue of the restitution of religious property confiscated during the Nazi and Communist periods has been highly contentious. Some Christian and Jewish property has been returned, especially places of worship. However, local authorities and private citizens have been reluctant to return other property. (END) Friday 24 December 1999 STALEMATE ON ROMANIAN ORTHODOX-GREEK CATHOLIC COMMISSION by Janice Broun, Keston News Service High hopes raised of reconciliation between Romanian Catholics and Orthodox by the charisma of POPE JOHN PAUL II’s visit last May have been dashed by continuing Orthodox obstruction. The fourth session of the Commission for Dialogue between the Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches, which was formed in October 1998, met in Oradea on 4 November. According to ‘Service Orthodoxe de Presse’ no. 243, the meetings were led by METROPOLITAN ANTHONY PLAMADEALA of Transylvania and MGR LUCIAN MURESAN, in the presence of Vatican envoy MGR PIO TAMBURINO. Although the joint communique issued at the end of the session spoke of ‘a continuing spirit of ecumenism’ and each party’s commitment to pursue dialogue ‘on the basis of truth, justice, sincerity and charity,’ it admitted that progress had been ‘modest’ and that ‘bitterness and misunderstandings still persist’. On the basic problem, the return to the Greek Catholics of property they owned before 1948, no significant progress has been made. The Orthodox delegation has again declared itself ready, as far as possible, to subsidise the construction of new churches for Greek Catholics where pastoral needs justify them, while the Catholics state their willingness to help Orthodox build new churches where they restore contested buildings. VIORICA LASCU, President of the Greek Catholic Lay Association, told Keston, ‘Dialogue with the Orthodox is at a standstill. They lack the universal dimension, think in terms of the frontiers of the state, which they consider as mono-ethnic and mono-confessional. They haven’t given us back a single church [as a result of the conversations - Ed.] and they have no intention of doing so. Because our bishops renounced our right to reclaim our property in entirety, in the hope of reaching an amiable settlement, they took it for a sign of weakness and refused to hand back even a token number of cathedrals and churches. Furthermore, they claim that the Orthodox Church should be recognised as the “National Church”.’ Lascu reports that a further meeting has been arranged. So far the Catholics have regained only 137 of over 2000 churches and three of their six Cathedrals still remain in Orthodox hands. During the discussions their bishops have renounced recourse to lawsuits to regain property, though in some cases, as in Cluj Cathedral in 1987, these were successful. The fact that the proposed new Law on Religion (see KNS 22 November) does not specifically deal with restitution of property confiscated from a religious group during the communist period and now in the hands of another religious group can only confirm the Orthodox Church’s stance. Article 48 states that ‘religious cults have the right of ownership over (property) already existing or acquired with their own means, state contributions of private donations.’ Most of the church buildings the Orthodox now retains were transferred to it by the state in return for its cooperation in absorbing Greek Catholics. Article 49 affirms that a cult’s right of ownership over places of worship, monasteries and cemeteries is ‘inalienable’. Article 57 concedes that, if at least half plus one of the members of one cult transfer to another cult, the cult’s property becomes that of the cult they have left, although they are entitled to compensation. This could be relevant in a number of instances where parts or in some cases entire Orthodox parishes have reverted to or transferred to the Greek Catholic Church. (END) Friday 24 December 1999 AZERBAIJAN REGISTERS TWO PROTESTANT CHURCHES, DECLINES JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES by Felix Corley, Keston News Service Azerbaijan's Ministry of Justice finally registered two Charismatic Churches in December, but declined registration to the Jehovah's Witnesses. However, an official at the Department for Religious Affairs told Keston News Service from Baku that the Jehovah's Witnesses' application will be considered again. Sources in Baku told Keston that the Cathedral of Praise, a Charismatic Church led by MATS-JAN SOEDERBERG, was registered in the second week of December, while the Nehemiah Church, led by RAUF HUSSEINOV, was registered on 20 December. However, the sources reported that when the Collegium of the Ministry of Justice met on 22 December it rejected the application submitted by the Jehovah's Witnesses. Local Jehovah's Witnesses in Baku have confirmed the rejection. `For confirmation, today I asked the leader of their community,' ELDAR ZEYNALOV, chairman of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Keston from Baku on 22 December. `Some rumours have been circulating that after the recent noise around the persecution of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the authorities are almost ready, but... As yet no registration.' Jehovah's Witness representatives had been expecting that registration would be granted. ARNO TUNGLER of the Jehovah's Witnesses in neighbouring Georgia had travelled to Baku to help facilitate the registration, Tungler's colleague HERMANN PRESBER told Keston from Tbilisi on 21 December. `Discussions concerning registration are continuing. However there has been no visible progress, although the officials responsible are at least considering our material submitted for registration.' An article in the local newspaper Zerkalo had erroneously reported on 17 December that the Jehovah's Witnesses had already received registration. Despite this rejection, an official of the government's Department for Religious Affairs told Keston from Baku on 23 December that the Jehovah's Witnesses' application would be considered again. `The reason for the failure to register them was that the documentation was submitted late,' declared the official, who declined to give his name. `The collegium of the Ministry of Justice will meet again in 15 to 20 days and the application will be considered then.' The official stressed that the decision to grant or withhold registration lies with the Ministry of Justice. `They are lawyers. It is entirely their decision. I don't know what they will decide.' Asked whether his department had recommended that the Jehovah's Witnesses be granted registration or not, he said that any such recommendation was made by the head of the Department (currently MUSTAFA IBRAHIMOV) and that any recommendation would not be made known to outsiders. Asked for further details on the registration of Cathedral of Praise and the Nehemiah Church, such as when the applications had first been submitted, he responded: `Look, the two have been registered. That's all that matters. The Department has handed the paperwork for the Jehovah's Witnesses to the Ministry of Justice. What else do you need to know?' The official then terminated the discussion. Although the law does not require religious groups to register in order to function, without registration groups cannot legally have a bank account or own property. Applications to register with the Ministry of Justice need prior approval from the Department for Religious Affairs, which reports to the Cabinet of Ministers. The Department has obstructed the registration of many groups. In June the Ministry of Justice registered the Catholic Church and a community of Georgian Jews (see KNS 1 July 1999), and several Muslim communities have been registered this year, but otherwise few groups obtain such registration. Much publicity was given earlier in the year of harassment to Jehovah's Witnesses, including fines and dismissals from work. The Jehovah's Witnesses have been fruitlessly seeking registration for several years. In the wake of foreign pressure, the Azerbaijani president HEIDAR ALIYEV recently pledged that the Jehovah's Witnesses would receive official status. Under similar pressure, in November Aliyev revoked deportation orders imposed on nine foreign nationals by local courts in September for participation in religious life while in Azerbaijan. In the latest news, six female Jehovah's Witnesses who lost their jobs in September at the Azerbaijan Gas Refining Factory in Qaradaq because of their religious affiliation were reinstated on 10 November and their financial losses incurred after their removal from their work were reimbursed. The six are MILENA MAKARENKO, ARZU MAMMEDOVA, AIBANIZ MAHMUDOVA, GALINA NASREDDINOVA, OLGA PRITULYAK and SONYA HADJIQARIBOVA. However, as Eldar Zeynalov reports, they are seeking redress in the district court for the failure to correct the information recorded in their `labour books'. (END) All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright: (c) Keston Institute 1999 Reproduction for personal use only. Subscription payments directly help religious freedom as we cannot provide this material unless we have income. Accredited journalists may quote from KNS in non-electronic publications providing Keston Institute is acknowledged as the source. 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