At this traditionally slow time of the year for news, there is fortunately more going on in Bohemia besides the unstoppable flow of corruption stories and the glorious achievements of our Olympic athletes.

Yes, that hoary old subject of church restitution is back in the news. Proponents of the government’s bill to settle church property claims like to say, “Co bylo ukradeno, by mělo být vráceno” (That which was stolen should be returned). A blogger for the magazine Respekt tried to inject some specificity into that extremely general ethical statement. Who should return that which was stolen? In his quiz question, the choices are: Those who stole it, communists, capitalists, believers, atheists, Catholics, Protestants, those who hold stolen property, those who voted for the Communists in 1946, or those who stole nothing. In the end, all of the above, as taxpayers, will end up footing the bill.

As for what was stolen, confiscated, or nationalized: Briefly, restitution of property forcibly transferred from private to state hands between the Communist putsch of 25 February 1948 and the end of one-party rule in 1989 has been a tortuous process. Most private restitution claims were settled in the 1990s, resulting in a huge amount of property being restored to its former owners or their heirs: houses, apartments, castles, factories, art collections. However, the scheme did not include agricultural land or church property. Eventually the churches received back most of the built property they owned before 1948, but not their old farmland, forests and other lands. (Claims by the Jewish community were handled separately because most Jewish-owned properties were taken during the war, prior to the 1948 cutoff point.)

After several failed attempts to address the question by previous governments, the current center-right coalition government came out with a concrete proposal to settle the various churches’ property claims. The bill called for the return of lands valued at 75 billion crowns and cash payments of 59 billion crowns ($3 billion) over the next 30 years, adjusted for inflation.

Often overlooked but no less importantly to my mind, the bill would end state financing of churches by gradually reducing salary payments to priests and ministers to zero over the next 17 years.

Of the 16 Christian and one Jewish institution named in the bill, the Roman Catholic church stands to gain the lion’s share of the deal, naturally, seeing that nearly all other faiths were severely repressed for centuries prior to the death of the Habsburg empire. I haven’t seen precise numbers for the amount of land owned by the Roman church in 1948, but in hectares it may have reached the upper five figures or lower six figures, say roughly 1,000 square kilometers – a hefty chunk of land, although far smaller than the church’s holdings in previous centuries. Setting the cutoff date at 1948, of course, prevents private individuals from claiming property given into Roman Catholic hands at various times of religious strife, mainly in the 17th century. It also blocks the Catholics from claiming damages from the Hussites for the mass destruction of Catholic property during the civil wars of the 15th century, I suppose.

Opponents of the bill say the middle of a economic slump is not a good time to introduce new spending measures. Billboards paid for by the opposition Social Democrats (see the photo above) show a bag of money being delivered to a hand sleeved in what looks like a priestly vestment. “ODS and TOP 09 want to give the churches 134 billion,” the billboard reads – those being the leading parties in the coalition. The lead party, ODS, is not particularly keen on spending this money but they do believe in the sanctity of private property, while TOP 09 is led by a former nobleman and a former leader of the Christian Democrats, both obviously strong believers in restitution of stolen property.

However, 59 billion is not really a very large sum when spread over 30 years, and the saving on priests’ salaries will reduce that figure somewhat. For comparison, the Czech budget deficit will probably be twice that amount this year. And unclear ownership claims mean that many of the properties have lain fallow for years.

If you haven’t been following this issue, I’ll cut to the chase now and tell you that the Senate defeated the bill last week, which came as no surprise since the upper house is controlled by left-wingers, and one-third of the body is up for re-election in October. It’s now up to the lower house to overturn the Senate’s vote. It’s expected to be a very close vote. And President Klaus is no cinch to sign the law should it reach his desk; two of his advisers have come out against it, and he’s made hesitant noises about it. One problem for him could be the argument that the bill reaches back beyond 25 February 1948, in that the churches had earlier given up some property in the land reforms of previous democratic governments and might conceivably claim it back. For the statist Klaus, and for some genuine conservatives for rather different reasons, 25.2.48, “Victorious February” in communist jargon, is the Big Bang of modern Czech history. All that came between that date and the end of communism in 1989 is fair game to be wiped from the law books, but no laws predating the Bolshevik takeover can be touched.

The government has made a big thing of this issue, though, so may well try to find a compromise if the bill falls at the second hurdle in the lower chamber, although possibly not until after the elections.

Opponents also say the public is largely against the bill. One of them is Klaus’ adviser and candidate for the Senate Jiří Payne. That may well be true, although I hope most people are not taken in by the Social Democrats’ nauseating reminders of anti-clerical and anti-capitalist caricatures from the ’50s.

A group of 30 intellectuals, Protestant ministers, and theologians even released a petition calling for the bill to be withdrawn and the question of church property to be considered in a wider discussion of how to finance civil society groups. The signers said the bill put the churches at an advantage compared with other parts of society. This turns Christ’s teachings on their head, they said.

The cost of the measure is only one element in determining the public mood. Most people probably are perfectly happy to see the Protestants and Jews get back everything they used to own; the Catholics, though, are another matter, and not only because they stand to gain four-fifths of the spoils. A thread of anti-Catholic sentiment runs through parts of Czech society – a memory of communist doctrine remains active in some older people and the more zealous elements of the left-wing parties; and older memories are at work as well. The Catholics’ privileged position under the Habsburgs is not forgotten.

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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