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) 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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