Duka, age 69 and recently anointed as cardinal, says he has been trying to negotiate church restitution since the Velvet Revolution and views the current bill as a viable solution.

Cardinal Duka sheds light on church restitution controversy

After two decades of dialogue, hopes hang on 135 billion Kč bill

Earlier this year, as the government inched toward a final decision on church restitution – a socially divisive, multibillion-crown affair that has plagued a line of political leaders since the fall of communism – Cardinal Dominik Duka sought out a private interview with the finance minister. As head of the largest Czech church, Duka wished to say he agreed with the 134.5 billion Kč deal and asked the government to guarantee the sum would be paid out over a 30-year period as promised.

“But,” Duka recalls, “[Finance Minister Miroslav] Kalousek replied, ‘I’m an economist. I cannot give a guarantee for what will happen in 10 years when I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.'”

For the freshly anointed cardinal, this encounter exemplified the ongoing miscommunication between churches and restitution policymakers, as well as the difficulty of explaining the issue to the public.

One of the pillars of Prime Minister Petr Nečas’ governing program, a draft bill proposing to compensate churches for the property they lost during communism has been taking shape in Parliament in recent months, resuscitating a heated public debate. After failing in the Senate, the bill was sent back to the lower house Sept. 5, where it remains stalled as the coalition government resolves a related squabble regarding austerity policy (See story, page A4).

Duka says the root of the “extremely complicated” issue is not an unwillingness to find compromise but a breakdown in the basic rules of dialogue.

The stratification of intellectual expertise means policy advisers cannot agree on basic terms before they begin to discuss a specific topic, Duka says. A topic as complex as the compensation of Czech churches – which may receive property worth some 75 billion Kč if the current bill passes – requires punditry from a vast array of fields, from economy and architecture to history and theology, he says.

“In the Bible, 80 percent is colloquial – the language we use when we don’t classify ourselves into political groups. But the moment we transfer from this language to, for example, the language of astronomy, we get into problems. Two groups of experts are talking from their perspective and cannot find common ground.”

Duka, now 69, says he “has been sitting in the negotiating chair” over the church restitution issue since the Velvet Revolution. In those times, he held long discussions on the matter with the late President Václav Havel, with whom he had been close since the pair shared a prison cell during their dissident days.

“I remember in 1990 sitting with Václav Havel in my office, and him asking, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ ” Duka recalls.

Havel’s family also stood to regain a vast amount of property confiscated by the communist regime, such as the Barrandov Film Studios. Yet, although both agreed such inheritance was secondary to other problems of their time, Duka says they still faced a social demand they could not ignore: “To give everything back, but where to?”

A majority of experts supported the now-prevalent idea of enumerating church property seizures since 1948, the year of Czechoslovakia’s communist putsch. But dissenters argued the era was tainted by undemocratic practices, suggesting the date be pushed back to the pre-World War II First Republic. Neither the church nor the government possessed the technology to expedite the assessments, forcing restitution experts to pore over decades of poorly kept records and the illegal actions of two totalitarian regimes.

As negotiations drew out, the project became prone to political turbulence. A series of prime ministers – from Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman to the more recent Mirek Topolánek – produced committees and draft bills, but no solution was ever implemented before the term end or collapse of their respective governments.

Popular resentments grew, fueled by the inefficiencies of public sector privatization. The Czech Republic is one of the world’s most secular countries, and various polls indicate much of the population remains opposed to church restitution. This public sentiment resonates with the political opposition, whose frontrunners, the Social Democrats (ČSSD), run a vocal campaign against the “billion-crown handout.”

“The draft bill is … against the spirit of our Constitution, because a democratic secular state should not tie itself to any church,” says Jan Babor, an MP from the ČSSD.

Despite such agitations, Duka sees the current restitution bill as a viable solution to the saga he’s overseen for more than two decades.

“The debates from the opposition side are really based on falsities, but I cannot go to Parliament to explain this,” he says. “We are not the negotiators and have no right to speak for the government.”

For now, Duka remains open to finding a solution, including sharing the Catholic Church’s financial allotment with other groups persecuted in totalitarian times.

“We ourselves were under the stock whip for 40 years. We can help each other and work together,” he says. “For us, it’s also a compromise, and it will mean years of hard work. It’s not the best variant, but it is democratic.”

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