Czech Politics Senate Sends Back Church Restitution Bill

The Czech Senate rejected church restitution legislation Wednesday. The country’s upper house was long expected to vote down the proposal, aimed at compensating religious entities for property seized under Communist rule. The bill, approved by the Chamber of Deputies in July, would grant religious groups property and financial reparations valued at 135 billion Kč ($6.6 billion).

The bill will now be sent back to the House of Deputies, where it was approved in July. Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) expressed confidence that the ruling center-right coalition has the 101 votes needed to override the Senate’s veto.

The proposed deal would award property worth 75 billion Kč ($3.7 billion) in an effort to atone for losses suffered by religious entities at the hands of the Communist regime. An additional 59 billion ($2.9 billion) in financial compensation would be paid to Czech churches over the next 30-years to account for property that could not be returned. The Catholic Church stands to receive the majority of reparations, while Jewish and Protestant groups would receive the remainder.

Several prior attempts to resolve the matter have failed. Most post-Communist countries have already addressed the issue of religious property seizure under Communism.

The bill’s rejection by the upper house was widely anticipated. The Social Democrats (ČSSD), who hold the largest presence in the Senate, have been the proposal’s most vocal critics.

A Contentious Public Debate

The Social Democrats have spearheaded a controversial public campaign against the legislation. Their posters and billboards show an arm, clothed in the Civic Democrats’ (ODS) blue, handing over a sack of money to another outreaching arm in a priest’s garb. Catholic leaders condemned the campaign as reminiscent of Nazi and Communist propaganda. Social Democrats responded by calling into question the role of the Catholic Church during World War II.

“ODS & TOP 09 want to donate 134 billion korun to churches”

ČSSD questions the scope of the settlement, asserting that the compensation is overstated by some 54 billion Kč ($2.7 billion) and would return more than was taken away. The left-of-center Social Democrats also express skepticism over how Churches will prove prior ownership and to what extent the churches owned the property in the first place, arguing that prior to 1948 they managed it as a public corporation.

The party insists they favor a solution of some sort, and that they quarrel with the current legislation rather than the idea of church restitution.

“I have to say I’m profoundly shocked by the rhetoric of the Catholic Church,” said Social Democrat MP Jan Hamáček, who has overseen the campaign against the bill. “The only thing my party is doing is opposing the government’s proposal that is discussed in Parliament. We don’t dispute the fact that remedy must be done, and that the property should be returned. What we do dispute is the amount of money that should be paid out in compensation.” (translation from Czech Radio)

The Fight Moving Forward

Prime Minister Petr Nečas feels he has the 101 votes required to overturn the Senate’s veto within his 105 member ruling coalition of ODS, TOP 09 and LIDEM. He may well have them. But the vote will be held in September, just a month ahead of Senate and regional elections. MPs will be particularly sensitive to public pressure.

The bill is wildly unpopular in one of the world’s most secular countries; public opinion polls show that nearly 70% of Czechs oppose the measure. However unsavory their tactics, the left stands to benefit by making the legislation a centerpiece of the debate leading up to the next round of elections.

The proposal also comes in the context of higher taxes and slashes to public spending. As voters are asked to accept austerity, they may be less willing to accept such a subtanial spending measure. Necas must spend the next month making sure he can keep his governing partners in line if he is to have any hope of seeing the bill through.