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Czech Republic: Havel Mediates Czech Church-State Dispute

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 25 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Czech President Vaclav Havel this week mediated talks between the country's Roman Catholic Primate Cardinal Miloslav Vlk and Culture Minister Pavel Dostal in a bid to overcome mutual animosity and set the stage for final resolution of restitution of church property.

The meeting came nine years after the collapse of Communist power. By chance it also came the same day that a Prague court sentenced a 75-year-old former Communist secret police (StB) officer to five years in prison for his role in the illegal investigation and physical abuse of Roman Catholic clerics in 1950.

Assisting Havel in mediating the talks was Prague auxiliary bishop Vaclav Maly, a former dissident activist who is a friends of both Havel and Dostal.

Vlk and Dostal told journalists after a meeting at the President's country palace at Lany (Nov. 23) that the latest state-church dispute was the result of a misunderstanding on both sides. Havel said relations between church and state, though neglected by previous governments, must be settled because it is part of a broader relationship of the state with history and involves the search for a Czech identity. He called Monday's meeting informal and friendly, saying it had brought real results. But he also noted, in his words, that "the tensions revealed new issues."

The latest dispute erupted between the Social Democrat Government and the Catholic Church over plans for a state commission to deal with church problems. Last month (Oct. 19), during celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the election of Pope John Paul, Cardinal Vlk complained to Prime Minister Milos Zeman that recent comments by Culture Minister Dostal had raised doubts about the Government's declared readiness for dialogue with the Church.

Vlk later quoted Zeman as having promised that the planned commission would be a working organ rather than a discussion forum, and that it would be consensual (that is, decided by unanimity). Vlk said they agreed that neither the Government nor the Church would appoint anyone to the panel whom the other side would consider unacceptable.

On November 7, Vlk said that the manner in which the commission was to be forced showed a lack of harmony between Zeman's promises and the Culture Ministry's practices. The result, Vlk said, was that the Church lacked trust in the commission and could not seriously enter negotiations with the Government.

Zeman later denied promising anything to the cardinal and demanded that Vlk apologize. Minister Dostal then said on Czech TV last Friday (Nov. 20) that Zeman may have agreed on something with Vlk, but that the rest of the cabinet subsequently overruled Zeman's defense of Vlk.

The dispute was also exacerbated by reports that the church had demanded that the Vatican be permitted to have a representative on the state commission. Dostal rejected the reported demand as absurd, saying it was out of the question for a Vatican official, in his words, "to be allowed to meddle in the Czech Republic's internal affairs." Dostal also said that the commission's goal would be to define the position of the church in the modern democratic Czech state, as well as to resolve issues of church funding and restitution of property. Dostal added that all political parties should be involved in the commission's work at least in a consultative capacity. He also said that representatives of all churches registered in the Czech Republic -- but not Vatican officials -- should sit on the commission along with independent public figures.

This Monday, the spokesman for the Czech Catholic Bishops Conference, Daniel Herman, said that the dispute over Vatican participation in the commission had all been a "misunderstanding" which he said was cleared up at Lany. He said the church had not been referring to the government commission but rather to another commission, proposed last year by the Pope.

After Monday's talks mediated by Havel, Dostal said the basis for the commission's work will be a document known as the "concept of relations between church and the state," drafted by the last three Culture Ministers and complemented by comments from the various Czech churches. The talks had not resulted in any specific dates or deadlines for the start-up of the planned state commission, Dostal said. He and Vlk told journalists the commission should be of an professional rather than political nature and its composition would be discussed during further talks.

The road to normalizing church-state relations during the last nine years has been difficult. Within months of the collapse of Communist rule, the Czechoslovak parliament passed legislation restoring some 170 properties to monastic orders and churches and protecting other disputed property from privatization.

But two years later, a bill on full restitution narrowly failed passage by parliament. Then in 1994, Vaclav Klaus' conservative government decided that only the state could decide on church restitution, and that this would only be done by government decree and not by law -- thereby excluding parliament, in a move aimed at keeping the anti-Church left out of the discussions. Klaus announced the government would stop subsidizing the church and start to prepare the ground for complete church-state separation.

Two years later, post-election coalition talks between Klaus' Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Christian Democrats-People's Party (KDU-CSL) resulted in an agreement to return 175,000 hectares of land and 500 buildings to the Roman Catholic Church. The return was conditional on the state eventually ending all funding of the church, with the exception of the preservation of certain monuments.

The two parties also agreed on guaranteeing the existence of non-Catholic churches and the separation of church and state. After the coalition government took office, it agreed to return property, in its phrase, "essential for church services and activities beneficial to the public". But a subsequent dispute over finances delayed implementation.

Then in April of last year, the Klaus government announced that of 1,887 property claims discussed with the church, 710 had been approved for restitution, 583 rejected and the remainder still contested. And in March this year, the interim government of Josef Tosovsky agreed to return a further 33 contested properties.

But matters took a new turn after early elections last June, when Zeman announced that his new Social Democrat government would end the restitution of church property. Culture Minister Dostal said the government would only return church property by law, rather than by decree. That change shifted the burden of responsibility onto the deeply divided parliament.