Proposed faith law gets mixed reviews from Muslims

When Ali Sallah bows toward Mecca, he cannot do so in a mosque.

His birth name is Lukas Lhotan. The 22-year-old student from Ostrava, north Moravia, adopted the Arabic moniker when he converted to Islam faith two years ago.

The state, however, does not recognize the change, or even Lhotan's religion. The communist regime revoked Islam's official status after World War II.

As a result, Muslims like Lhotan pray only in "cultural centers." They cannot perform marriages, set up schools or offer spiritual support in hospitals, prisons or refugee camps. Nor can they operate as a legal entity, making day-to-day business difficult.

"I don't want to use the word 'discrimination,' " Lhotan says. "However, this is really quite strange. Islam is one of the major religions of the world."

But Ali Sallah and members of other religions, including Scientology, may soon get a new deal.

The Cabinet has approved a two-tiered bill on religious freedom that would make it much easier for small churches to gain official status. If approved by both houses of Parliament, the nation's roughly 5,000 Muslims will regain state recognition.

The current law gives official status to churches that produce 10,000 signatures of adult permanent residents who claim to be devotees. For the Czech Muslim community, composed mostly of visiting students, this has been an impossible task. Under the new law, religions would gain such recognition with only 300 signatures.

"This is better for faiths like Islam," says Dita Fuchsova, spokeswoman for the Culture Ministry, the state body charged with religious affairs. "Everybody should have the freedom to establish a church. It's good for the culture of our country."

There's a catch, however. To obtain the more substantial rights Muslims are seeking -- to set up schools, perform marriages and visit prisons -- will require a 10-year waiting period and 20,000 signatures.

This caveat troubles Vladimir Sanka. While he's pleased that the Islamic Culture Center he operates in Prague may finally be called a mosque, he sees the two-tiered system as a blow to his community, which seems unlikely to ever produce 20,000 signatures.

"The real rights only come with the second registration," he says. "It looks like a big step for us on the surface, or when the newspapers talk about it. But we don't see it that way."

For Lhotan too, the new law is unacceptable.

"There are Muslims in refugee camps, in prisons," he says. "We would like to approach them, but we will still have no way to do so."

Fuchsova says the new system is designed to prevent illegitimate groups from taking advantage of state funding.

The ministry provides grants to churches, and under the new law, funds would only be given to new religions after the second round of registration.

"It's not difficult to come up with 300 signatures," she says. "Anyone could do this. We'd like to make it easier for small churches to become registered, but it would be stupid to give money based on this."

Others worry that the new law could confer legitimacy on controversial groups like the Church of Scientology. Politicians in neighboring Germany have threatened to outlaw the church, which they claim brainwashes and extorts its members.

"We are extremely wary of Scientology," says Nadeje Mandysova, general secretary of the Czech Ecumenical Council, which represents 11 Christian churches. "They manipulate people, and we would not like to see them become established in our country."

But Jirka Voracek, press spokesman for the local Center for Dianetics, the doctrine on which Scientology is based, says his religion is widely misunderstood.

"When you look at the press, there is no chance for people to find out what Scientology is all about," he says. "All we do is make people more aware of their own emotions and what's going on around them. ... But it's not for everybody."

Voracek says the approximately 300 Scientologists here would take advantage of the new law to gain official status.

But while Scientologists look forward to gaining new recognition, Sanka laments that under the new legislation, Islam may never achieve the full rights it enjoyed prior to communism.

"Of course it's good that the Czech government recognizes us officially," he says. "On the one hand, that's important. But it's not enough to make us approve of this law."