The Czech Republic's highest court upheld a government plan Monday to pay billions of dollars to religious groups in compensation for property the country’s former Communist regime seized from them.
The ruling was a defeat for the country’s vocal atheist population, but a big victory for its churches. Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations have been fighting since the 1989 fall of Communism to get back assets such as farms, woodlands and buildings that have remained in the state’s hands.
The country’s 16 Christian groups and the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic will receive more than $3 billion over the next 30 years. They will also get 56 percent of their former property, now held by the state, worth $3.8 billion.
The Constitutional Court rejected an appeal by the republic’s left-wing opposition, which expressed its disappointment in the decision. The plan is highly controversial in a country with one of Europe’s highest concentrations of atheists. According to the Washington Post and Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman, more than 50 percent of Czechs claim not to believe in a god, and as many as 30 percent identify as “convinced atheists.”
Lawmakers struggled to agree on basic terms as they spent time and money reviewing 70-year-old government records. In a “heated public debate,” the Social Democrats party campaigned heavily against the “handout,” according to a report in the Prague Post: “The draft bill is … against the spirit of our Constitution, because a democratic secular state should not tie itself to any church,” Social Democrat Jan Babor said in 2012.
But the republic was already in many ways tied to churches, paying expenses like salaries for priests. When Communists seized power in 1948 in what was then Czechoslovakia, they confiscated all property owned by churches and persecuted many priests. Churches were allowed to function only under the totalitarian state’s strict control, and priests’ salaries were paid by the state. Under the restitution plan, the state will gradually stop covering church expenses during the next 17 years.
Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka celebrated the ruling as completing efforts to find a “just” solution to the 41 years of repression during the Communist era. His Catholic Church will receive most of the money and property in the deal.
The republic is the last country in the region to provide restitution. Full restitution passed in Poland 1989, Hungary in 1991 and 1998, and Slovakia in 1993. Russia even passed a measure in 2010.
The Czech Republic did return about 170 buildings to the church in 1991, Duka told the Prague Post, but withheld property like land, ponds, and additional buildings with potential for income.
Prime Minister Petr Necas welcomed Monday’s ruling, saying it was the right decision.