Czech church restitution should not go before 1948-CSSD

Prague, Czech Republic - The Czech opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) fear that the possible lifting of the February 1948 restitution deadline would provoke further property claims of some noble families that have failed in court disputes so far, CSSD head Bohuslav Sobotka told reporters today.

If the church restitutions were extended to cover the period before February 1948 when communists seized power in the country, the property situation established after WWII by the Benes decrees might be threatened, Sobotka added.

Under the decrees issued by the then Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes, the property of ethnic Germans and Hungarians, except for those who suffered under the Nazi regime, was seized after the war.

According to the Interior Ministry┬┤s latest proposal, the bill on church restitution should take into account the situation of churches and religious communities whose property was seized before 1948, for instance, during the Nazi occupation in 1939-45.

Afterwards the churches were locked in court disputes with the Czechoslovak state but they never received the property back after the February 25, 1948 communist coup.

This is the case of the former Teutonic Order, for instance.

However, the CSSD stresses that the government bill on the basis of which further property is to be returned to churches must not open the way to the violation of the property situation in the country established by the Benes decrees.

The Social Democrats are generally opposed to the government-approved property-settlement between the state and churches as a whole. They also mind financial compensations.

The CSSD proposes that the former church property be transferred into a public fund administered by churches that would cover its operational costs.

The Culture Ministry, in charge of drafting the legislation, has accepted the Interior Ministry's proposal and modified the legislation accordingly, the daily Pravo reports today.

In reaction to the article, Culture Ministry spokesman Stanislav Brunclik stressed that the ministry had only changed a part of article five on the restitution of land and forests.

Another part of the bill clearly states what will not be returned, including the property confiscated on the basis of the Benes decrees, Brunclik added.

The Culture Ministry first changed the formulation in reaction to recent objections by the Agriculture Ministry.

Agriculture Minister Petr Bendl (Civic Democrats, ODS) pointed out that the prepared bill on church restitution might apply to the fields and forests owned by the Teutonic Order in the past.

Culture Minister Jiri Besser (TOP 09) then assured Bendl that the prepared bill would not move before 1948. He, however, added that the ministry would change the wording to be on the safe side.

According to the new wording of the controversial article, the state would return the seized property to the churches that suffered damage as a result of "being denied or not being granted ownership right protection, or as a result of a denial to complete a dispute over their property claims by a court or another public power body."

The property of the Teutonic Order, the present German Order's predecessor, was confiscated by the Nazis before World War Two. After the war it was seized by the Czechoslovak state, but the Order filed a lawsuit to get it back.

In 1948, the then Supreme Administrative Court cancelled the decision on the property's transfer to the state as unlawful and unsubstantiated. However, the verdict was never delivered either to the Order or to the authorities due to the communist coup.

Since the collapse of the communist regime, the German Order has been in a long dispute with the Czech Republic over its former huge property in north Moravia, including the Bouzov and Sovinec castles, Bruntal chateau, Karlova Studanka spa and 20,000 hectares of forest, but it has failed so far.

The Czech government has approved the outlines of a property settlement with churches within which the state is to pay 59 billion crowns over 30 years and to return 56 percent of the property the former Czechoslovak regime confiscated from the churches after 1948.

The process of property separation of churches from the state is to take 17 years during which the state is to be gradually lowering its contributions to the salaries of the clergy and church administration.

Both opposition parties, the CSSD and the Communists (KSCM), disagree with the plan.