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East: Many Nations Grapple With Church-State Relations

  • Don Hill

If the government pays a priest's salary, who is his employer? The Czech parliament took up the issue last month and found it such a hot stone that the deputies are still tossing it from hand to hand. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that church-state relations are a problem for many European nations.

Prague, 24 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The government of one of the most irreligious nations in Europe has for more than a century paid the salaries of most of the country's resident priests and ministers with its citizens' taxes. The Czech Republic adopted the practice under the Austro-Hungarian empire and continued it during more than 40 years of communism.

The Czech parliament took up last month the question of dropping the custom and found that it had opened up a burning issue.

The Czechs are not alone in facing problems of church-state relations. Most of the European and Central Asian governments in transition from communism are having to reinvent the rules of how they relate to domestic religious organizations now that they have -- officially at least -- abandoned communist-style hostility toward religion.

In fact, the nations of Western Europe, with no recent history of opposition to religion as such, also grapple with similar problems daily.

In the Czech Republic, a number of parliamentary deputies propose gradually reducing subsidies to religious bodies while compensating them with restitution of properties seized in the late 1940s and '50s. Not surprisingly, denominations that expect sizable restitution -- the Roman Catholics, for one -- respond more warmly to this idea than do the smaller, less propertied groups. These include Orthodox Catholics, Hussites, and the Old Catholic Church.

Christian Democratic Party Deputy Pavel Tollner, himself a Roman Catholic, says it's a matter of separating church from state. He says the government can properly compensate religious bodies for social services in, say, health and social welfare, but that in matters of doctrine and clerical salaries churches should stand on their own. He has a ally in Pastor Karel Nowak of the Czech Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Our correspondent asked Nowak what it was like for his church under Czech communism, and what has changed.

"During the communist time my impression was that we are made to feel purposely by the government as in a foreign country, as foreigners in our own country. We were told many times that we don't fit into the communist society."

Nowak said that his church continues to feel somewhat unwelcome. But, he says, state financing is not an issue. The church traditionally has resisted receiving financial support from any government.

"That's one of our principles. We operated by that principle from the very beginning. Even under the communists, we never accepted state money for the salaries of our workers or operations of the church as such, and we follow this philosophy even now."

He said the Adventists have good reason:

"If we accept state money, we have some sort of obligation toward the government."

Nowak said that other churches are split on this issue:

"The churches in the Czech Republic are divided in two main groups. The larger group says, well, the government should give back the churches' property that the churches used to have and then cease to support churches financially. There are some churches that cannot accept that. They want the government to continue to pay the salaries of church employees."

In the largest post-communist state, Russia, the issue is not primarily financing. It is how a nation accustomed by centuries of experience to recognize one major religion, Russian Orthodox, and to tolerate a few others -- Islam, Buddhism and Judaism -- can learn to live with a variety of faiths.

In the first flush of democratic reform in the early 1990s, Russia adopted a constitution providing for separation of church and state, equality of all faiths and guaranteed freedom for religious practices. By 1997 it had become evident that Russia's leaders were not yet comfortable with that level of openness. They revised the existing law to require all religious organizations to re-register with the state by the start of this year.

Many observers have expressed alarm at the varied ways that implementation of this law has differed region by region in Russia.

Some regions have thrown severe roadblocks in the path of unpopular proselytizing Western denominations such as Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists. In other regions, registry proceeded easily for almost all groups. Even in sophisticated Moscow, the Salvation Army -- a religious body dedicated to social service -- has been turned down initially for registration on the grounds it is a military organization. In most other regions, it has encountered no difficulty.

But Gerhard Robbers of Germany's Institute for European Constitutional Law says he perceives positive signs in Russia's uneven application of the religion statute. He says that the variety of responses in the regions to multiple religions is evidence that the responses reflect local attitudes and regional experiences rather than any national policy of repression.

"In a big country like Russia, there will be some problems here and there in [concrete] situations, but I'm convinced that the awareness is growing and that Russia really is trying to have a democratic and free approach towards religion -- also religions, in the sense that there are many."

Problems of church and state exist not only elsewhere in the former communist East, but in Western Europe as well.

In both Poland and Germany, many legislators have expressed concerns about what they called "sects," generally smaller religious groups which were deemed to exert too much control over their adherents or whose doctrine placed them out of step with national laws. In both countries, official studies have been published holding that in most or all cases fears of antisocial practices by such sects were unfounded. In Germany last month, the Federal Constitutional Court threw out a lower court ruling that Jehovah's Witnesses and other small religious groups could not qualify for corporate and tax-free status and taxpayer support. The constitutional court ordered the lower court to reconsider its judgment.

That this kind of issue still arises even in established democracies comes as no surprise to Robbers.

"Each one of those countries in Western Europe -- and there are a lot of them -- has its own history, its own system, its own historical experience, also fears and needs and emotions."

Polls show the United States as one of the world's most religiously observant nations in the world. Yet U.S. citizens' concerns about church-state relations tend to operate in the opposite direction. Many Americans are quite opposed to any connection between church and state, whose powers are clearly separated in the U.S. Constitution. They even reject a proposed initiative by President George Bush that religious groups be eligible for taxpayer reimbursement for social programs they operate.

By contrast, that's a practice taken for granted or considered enlightened by many nations of Europe, east and west.