A time for guidance
Restitution bill leaves church leaders struggling to avoid the corruption trap
Posted: January 2, 2013
Cardinal Dominik Duka, an important figure in the ongoing church restitution debate, supports the government's offer.
Father Josef Hurt is worried. More than one month after the controversial church restitution bill was passed into law, the Catholic priest still doesn't know what land or property he is entitled to receive from the state. Parishes and dioceses can start applying to the relevant bodies for reclamations at the beginning of January, but so far, Hurt says he has been left in the dark.
"A few years ago, I remember there was a push to make a note of all the property that could be affected by the restitution," he said. "But priests often change areas, so not everybody has a clue what's going on. I certainly don't any more. I'm just hoping the bishoprics have a strategy, although I'm afraid there's not much communication between the experts and us."
When the bill was pushed through Parliament in November, it marked the end of a 20-year struggle between church and government on how best to compensate religious organizations for property seized by the former communist regime. Seen by many as the last phase of privatization after the Velvet Revolution, the 134 billion Kč piece of legislation has attracted much criticism from a largely atheist population, especially during this time of economic crisis.
President Václav Klaus showed his displeasure by neither signing nor vetoing the law, expressing his view that it would open the floodgates for other restitution claims prior to the 1948 cut-off date, notably those of the Sudeten Germans who were expelled after World War II. However, others are predicting a far bigger problem: that the churches don't have the means to manage the unprecedented scale of their returns, and consequently, that the entire process could fall victim to corruption.
"I'm a realist living in the Czech Republic," said anti-graft campaigner Adriana Krnáčová. "I know what the quality of local administration is like, not to mention the culture that exists in our political establishment. So I would say the prospect that these financial transactions won't be affected by corruption is impossible. I wish I could be convinced otherwise."
Under the legislation, 17 churches and other religious groups will get back 56 percent of their land and property, valued at 75 billion Kč, while the remaining real estate that cannot be returned in accordance with the law will be compensated to the tune of some 59 billion Kč, spread over three decades. At the same time, the state will gradually reduce its 1.4 billion Kč in annual subsidies to the church, currently used to pay the wages of clergymen and maintain church buildings.
"This is a correction of the injustice that was inflicted on us during the communist era," said Monsignor Tomáš Holub, secretary general of the Czech Bishops' Conference, the body that runs the Catholic Church here. "There is now a new possibility for the Church to become part of civil society. We will finally be economically independent from the state."
While the subsidies are set to disappear in annual increments, it is estimated the properties to be restituted generate as much as 4.5 billion Kč every year. The Catholic Church stands to gain about 80 percent of the total pie, prompting fears from some quarters that everything will be cashed in and the proceeds sent straight to the Vatican. However, Holub dismisses this idea.
"It will be dealt with in the same way as it is now, which means most of the real estate will be rented and not sold," he said. "The only owners will be parishes, dioceses and other church bodies in the Czech Republic."
For Hurt, who identifies rich monasteries as a potential source of vulnerability, this promise could prove vital. "I do imagine trouble," he said. "But a lot of it will depend on the infamous Czech lobbyists and their ability to find ways of acquiring what they want. The Church keeps saying the properties won't be up for sale, which in my view would definitely lower the risks."
Officials brace for influx of applications
According to the Culture Ministry, which is overseeing the process together with the Land Fund and forestry company Lesy ČR, religious organizations will have one year to submit their requests, expected to number in the thousands, and must be able to prove the land or property belonged to them in the days immediately before the February 1948 coup. Monika Machtová, a spokeswoman for the Land Fund, says any decisions made on the validity of the claims are subject to appeal, meaning the restitutions could continue until the end of 2016.
However, given that records from the period were badly kept, many are wondering how it will even be possible for the different groups to compile an accurate list of what they are owed. Zybnĕk Boublík from Lesy ČR admits historians may be brought in to help verify the documentation, as churches will have to determine the original owner and establish at what point they came into possession of the property.
Throw into the mix more than 200,000 hectares of land, comprising forests, farmland and lakes (making the Catholic Church the country's biggest landowner), combined with uncertainty regarding the real estate's true market value, and this could be a recipe for disaster.
"It's a sort of voucher privatization for churches," Krnáčová said. "The biggest risk I see is the churches surrendering either to private speculators or businessmen with access to public money. In these two cases, they would lose their property just like during the voucher privatization of the 1990s."
Holub says all transactions will undergo two steps of control, with those worth more than 50,000 Kč needing approval from the economic councils of individual bishoprics. The Bishops' Conference has also created a special commission to prepare and review proposals, while regular meetings are taking place with the Land Fund and Lesy ČR.
"The aim of these sessions is to coordinate the claims and eliminate the possibility of mistakes," Boublík said. "We don't expect any corruption. There will be checks at various stages of the process."
Not that Lesy ČR hasn't been getting its hands dirty. At the start of December, Agriculture Minister Petr Bendl ordered the company to stop felling trees in the forests of Vysočina and Olešnice, amid church concerns over the looting of wood. It fuels Hurt's suspicions of a tainted law.
"We should definitely be concerned about this transfer of property, especially since the current government isn't really trustworthy," he said. "A brief glance at their conduct should serve as a warning. The environment inside Parliament is corrupt, and we have to ask ourselves why these politicians agreed so easily to give church restitution the green light."
The priest, who is used to looking after a small plot of land in his picturesque parish of Kryry, northwest Bohemia, wants to believe in the system. But despite possessing basic knowledge of property management, the 48-year-old worries he and his colleagues lack the necessary support from above to handle the demands effectively.
"Churches can never be ready for the administration of such an enormous amount of property," added David Ondráčka, head of the Czech branch of Transparency International. "Inevitably, they will outsource some services by hiring external managers, lawyers and advisers, which will then raise questions over the quality and transparency of that process. I can easily envisage a number of sharks who smell blood."
A source familiar with developments, who spoke to The Prague Post on the condition of anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the issue, said the Czech capital would be the ripest place for corruption because of its palatial buildings and lucrative construction sites. The same source said the Catholic Church's chief economist Karel Štícha had already been courted by several major players on the real estate market.
In the meantime, all Hurt can do is stay positive, waiting to see what happens next.
"I would like to think of the restitutions as a chance," he said. "Maybe we could invest in schools and charities. Some are even saying churches might be able to reap more from the land than its current private owners. With these finances, we could go a long way toward helping people in need."
- Tomáš Rákos contributed to this report.
Jonathan Crane can be reached at