Friday 24 December 1999

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

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

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
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

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

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
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