Church and state clash on salaries

Prague, Czech Republic -- It's an unholy row: A cardinal has threatened court action, the culture minister has turned on the prime minister, and already-strained relations between church and state have nose-dived.

The dispute is over the Czech government's role as employer of priests, a situation that dates back to 1949.

At the time, Communist President Klement Gottwald wanted to control church doctrine by making clergy dependent on the state. Now, religious authorities present a new problem for the government: They say they have not received sufficient salary payments from the state, resulting in a cut in wages for some clergy.

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the country's most senior Roman Catholic, claimed March 13 that his church, the country's biggest religious denomination, has received 28 million Kc ($1.3 million) less than it should have.

Jana Repova, director of the Culture Ministry department in charge of religious affairs, denies the charge. What's more, she says, church authorities in Prague have requested salary payment for 17 more priests than they actually have.

Casting the first stone

Vlk has responded with a stinging rebuke: "This statement made by the Culture Ministry employee is false and may entail legal consequences, as the employee in question has falsely accused the Prague archbishopric [the church region headed by Vlk] of having committed the crime of trade in dead souls."

Vlk, in his comments to the Czech News Agency (CTK), suggested Repova be sacked.

"The question is whether the time was ripe a long while ago to dismiss her from her post, which she is unable to perform properly," he said.

Vlk turned in a request for more money last week to Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, who decided the Culture Ministry should pay 3.5 million Kc to the Prague archbishopric from government reserves.

Culture Minister Pavel Dostal — an atheist — reacted furiously.

"There is really nothing else I can do about it than to say that I regret the prime minister made this decision without realizing its consequences," Dostal told Pravo March 16.

One consequence soon became obvious. Other churches pressed their own demands for extra money.

Joel Ruml, head of the Czech Brethren Evangelical Church, which has about 270 clergy, wrote to Gross March 15 asking for an additional 2.6 million Kc and appealing for a higher level of wages in general for priests.

Ruml said that his church's funds had also been cut by the Culture Ministry last year.

Jan Schwarz, the patriarch of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, said that it would demand some 3.9 million Kc, CTK reported.

Root of all evil

• Cash: Catholic Church accuses government of withholding 28 million Kc ($1.3 million) in priests' salaries

• Clergy: Culture Ministry says the church claimed wages for 17 more priests than it actually has

• Confrontation: Catholic cardinal replies: We do not trade in dead souls

Repova, meanwhile, accused Vlk of distorting her statements.

"The fact is that we have provided the Prague archbishopric with advance payments for more priests than was the real number," she said, adding that the Culture Ministry reduced payments at the end of last year.

Karel Sticha, head of property administration for the Prague diocese, insisted that the Catholic Church was not claiming money for priests who did not exist.

"At the start of a year the number of priests is higher than at its end. Some of the priests die, even if there are newcomers."

Sticha added that there are about 2,800 Catholic priests in the country, 340 of them in the Prague archdiocese.

"We do not consider their monthly wage of 13,600 Kc to be something abnormal," Sticha added.

The average monthly salary in the country is about 18,000 Kc.

Slovakia is the only other European nation where priests are state employees, said Repova.

The Czech system could eventually be scrapped as part of a wider restitution settlement to compensate the Catholic Church for vast tracts of land and property seized after the Communists came to power in 1948.

The government paid out 818 million Kc for wages and insurance of priests of various denominations in 2003, up from 571 million Kc in 2000 and 255 million Kc in 1994, according to Culture Ministry statistics.