KESTON NEWS SERVICE
Issue 8, Article 4, 2 August 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

Wednesday 2 August 2000
PROPOSED CZECH REGISTRATION LAW PROMISES COLD
COMFORT FOR
MINORITY FAITHS

by Kazi Stastna, Keston News Service

The dual classification system for religious groups under the Czech Republic's
proposed new law on religion (see separate KNS article) has not been
welcomed by all. Some currently unrecognised religious groups have argued
that the proposed system makes the second stage unattainable, while the more
attainable first stage brings few new advantages.

Although under the present law only legal entities registered with the
Department of Churches can use the designation `church' or `religious
organisation', most religious groups that cannot satisfy the minimum 10,000-
member requirement have registered as civic associations or foundations. This
allows them to operate as legal entities in the Czech Republic - for example, to
own property - but not to designate themselves as religious groups. Thus the
recently built mosque in Brno, Moravia, is officially owned by the Islamska
Nadace (Islamic Foundation).

Many unregistered groups do not see much difference between their current
status as civic associations and the first stage of registration under the proposed
new law.

Representatives of the Muslim community, regarded as one of the main groups
disadvantaged by the current law and expected to be among the first to apply
for official registration under the new law, do not see the proposed system as
much more than a crack in the ice. The unofficial chairman of the Muslim
religious communities in the Czech Republic, MOHAMED ALI SILHAVY,
told Keston by telephone on 27 July. `We're acknowledged but without rights.'

The Muslim community obtained state recognition in the 1930s under the first
Czechoslovak Republic - and again in 1941 - but failed to reregister with the
Communist authorities when they took power in 1948 and thus did not gain
automatic registration after 1989. Since then they have made repeated attempts
to have their pre-war registration recognised, so far without success.

And although the community's ability to worship freely is not under threat,
some Muslim representatives find the proposed law does not afford Islam an
equal footing with other religions. Nor does it resolve some of the problems the
community has faced, such as communicating with Muslim prisoners or
registering Muslim names. And attaining the second stage, according to
Silhavy and another Muslim representative, VLADIMIR SANKA of Prague's
Islamic Centre, could prove to be a problem, because although the community
estimates its numbers at between 15,000 and 20,000 (roughly 500 of whom are
Czechs), many of its members are still hesitant to sign their names to any
official register.

The head of the registration division of the Department of Churches, KAREL
MACHOTKA, however, asserts that the intent of the new law is not to give
groups registered in the first stage a significantly different standing than civic
associations. The main advantage of the first phase is that the state has
acknowledged the group as a religious organisation; it is to be taken as a
`preparatory period' for the second phase, he told Keston in an interview on 28
July.

Here, too, the Czech authorities seem to have been guided largely by adherence
to the Austrian model, as is evident from the draft's introductory report: `In
conjunction with the Austrian law, it is suggested that the status of legal entity
[i.e. the first stage of
registration] not entail any other advantages than those associated with non-
profit civic associations.'

The government's main fear seems to be that levelling the playing field by
retaining the current rights associated with registration while at the same time
lowering the minimum membership requirement would open the door to
opportunistic and `undesirable' - and not necessarily religious - groups. By the
Ministry's own account the idea is thus to postpone the benefits currently
automatically associated with registration, thereby forcing religious groups to
prove their credibility and allowing the Department of Churches to asses their
`seriousness'.

Moreover, officials of the Department of Churches insist that the second stage
does not bring with it any additional religious freedoms. `These aren't any
guaranteed rights. Every country controls who has access to its army, its
prisons,' JANA REPOVA, the Department's director, told Keston on 28 July.
`These aren't natural rights which stem from any documents.'

Nevertheless, some faiths see the proposed two-stage system as a continuation
of the double standard applied under the current system. Some groups belong
to long-established world religions or have a significant membership base, but
nevertheless remain unregistered. To many of these it appears unfair that under
the new system some already-registered religious groups which nevertheless
fall far short of the new propsed total membership requirement will be granted
automatic registration, while they themselves must retain their second-class
status for a further ten years and in some cases significantly increase their
membership within that time. (According to 1991 census figures only four of
the 21 currently registered religious groups have over 20,000 members, while
14 have fewer than 10,000 and 12 fewer than 5,000)

For their part, churches which have obtained automatic recognition since 1989,
while acknowledging a certain unfairness to established world religions, ward
off allegations of a double standard by claiming a kind of historical
compensation for the damage their faith suffered under the Communist regime.
`If I hadn't had to [spend the Communist years] digging with a pickaxe, then I
assure you that today the church
would have not 3,000 but at least those 10,000 members,' Bishop DUSAN
HEJBAL of the Old Catholic Church told Keston in a telephone interview on
26 July.

Government officials deny that they are setting restrictions that are out of line
with the approach of other countries toward minority religions on their
territory: `If the Roman Catholic Church came to Iran, what would Iran do?
Would it grant it, as a world-renowned religion, the same advantages as the
Muslim religion? That's not how life works... Let no-one tell me that
everywhere [in the world] these churches are accepted with open arms,' Repova
told Keston. (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.