Czech govt to compensate religious groups

By KAREL JANICEK | January 11, 2012 | 7:06 AM EST

FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2009 file photo the sun sets behind the St. Vitus cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic. The Czech Republic's coalition government has approved a plan, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, to compensate religious organizations for property seized by the former Communist regime. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

PRAGUE (AP) — The Czech Republic's coalition government approved a multibillion-dollar plan Wednesday to compensate Christian groups for property seized by the former Communist regime.

Under the plan, which is expected to be approved by Parliament, Czech churches would get 56 percent of their former property now held by the state — estimated at 75 billion koruna ($3.7 billion) — and 59 billion koruna ($2.9 billion) in financial compensation paid to them over the next 30 years.

As part of the deal with the country's 17 churches, including Catholic and Protestant ones, the state will gradually stop covering their expenses, such as priests' salaries, in 17 years.

The Communist regime, which seized power in 1948 in what was then Czechoslovakia, confiscated all the property owned by churches and persecuted many priests. Churches were then allowed to function only under the state's strict control and supervision.

After the 1989 Velvet Revolution led by Vaclav Havel brought democracy to the region, some churches and monasteries were returned, but the churches sought to get back other assets such as farms, woodlands and buildings.

The Catholic Czech Bishops' Conference welcomed the move, saying it hoped Parliament will follow the suit. The Catholic Church will receive the biggest share of the restitution money.

Wednesday's decision by the Czech government came after its junior coalition party withdrew its objection to the plan. The Public Affairs party had previously threatened to bring down the government over the plan, saying the state cannot afford to pay the money now because of Europe's debt crisis.

Public Affairs chairman Radek John said his party agreed to the deal after it received guarantees the government would not apply cuts and other austerity measures to raise funds for the compensation.

"A common citizen won't be affected," John said.

The party's opposition reflected the overall atmosphere in the country, considered one of the most atheistic in Europe.

According to a December 2011 public poll, 69 percent of Czechs were against the religious restitution and only 40 percent considered churches to be useful.

Without Public Affairs, the two other coalition members, who have long supported the property claims of religious groups, would not have enough votes in Parliament to push the compensation through.

Prime Minister Petr Necas had threatened to dismiss the Public Affairs party's ministers if they blocked the proposal, which would have ended his three-party coalition that came to power after the 2010 election.