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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

Religious affairs are the responsibility of the Department of Churches at the Ministry of Culture. The State subsidizes all religions that are officially registered with the Ministry of Culture, although there is no requirement to register. There are 21 state-recognized religions, 2 of which have been registered since 1991; no groups currently are seeking to register. One group, the Unification Church (UC), was denied registration in January 1999 when the Department of Churches determined that it had obtained the required proof of membership by fraud; the UC is contesting the decision in court. To register a church must have at least 10,000 adult members permanently residing in the country. For any churches which the World Council of Churches has already recognized only 500 adult members permanently residing in the country are necessary. These churches receive the same legal and financial benefits from the Government as do other churches. Churches registered prior to 1991, such as the small Jewish community, are not required to meet these conditions. Unregistered religious groups, such as the small Muslim minority, may not own community property legally, although they are otherwise free to assemble and worship in the manner of their choice.

Churches receive approximately $88.2 million (3 billion Czech crowns) annually from the Government. Funds are divided proportionately between the 21 registered religions according to membership and taking administrative costs into account. Of this sum, approximately $1.5 million (539 million Czech crowns) is used to pay salaries to clergymen. The rest of the funding goes to state grants for church medical, charity, and educational activities, as well as for the maintenance of church memorials and buildings.

The country has a largely homogenous population with a dominant Christian historical tradition. However, largely as a result of 40 years of Communist rule between 1948 and 1989, the vast majority of the citizens do not identify themselves as members of any organized religion. In a February 1999 opinion poll, only 35 percent claimed to believe in a higher spiritual power, and 64 percent identified themselves as atheists. There was a revival of interest in religion after the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989, but the number of those professing religious beliefs or participating in organized religion has fallen steadily since then in almost every region of the country.

An estimated 4.5 percent of the population of 10,286,621 (according to the 1998 Office of Statistics) attend Catholic services weekly. Most of these churchgoers live in the southern Moravian dioceses of Olomouc and Brno. The number of practicing Protestants is even lower (approximately 1 percent). Leaders of the local Muslim community estimate that there are 20,000 to 30,000 Muslims, although Islam has never been registered as an officially recognized religion. Registration of Islam has been discussed with the Department of Churches, but there has been no formal application. The first mosque in the country was completed in Brno in July 1998. The Jewish community, which numbers only a few thousand, is an officially registered religion, as it was recognized by the State before 1989.

Missionaries for various religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses, are present and proselytize without hindrance. To work in the country, missionaries need only obtain the same long-term residence permit required of all foreigners who wish to stay longer than 30 days. Permits are granted routinely.

Religion is not taught in public schools, although a few private religious schools exist.

Members of unregistered religious groups can issue publications without interference.

There was no government-sponsored ecumenical activity.

During the period covered by this report, relations between religious representatives and the Government were complicated by a dispute arising from the Government's initiative announced in the fall of 1998 to create a commission to discuss the relationship between churches and the State. Although they supported the creation of the commission, religious representatives, including the Archbishop of Prague, the Ecumenical Council of Churches (representing Protestant denominations), and the Federation of Jewish Communities, objected to the Government's proposal to include a Communist Party Member of Parliament on the commission. The dispute finally was resolved by a decision in February 1999 to establish two commissions, a "political" commission with the presence of all parties currently in Parliament (including a Communist Party member) and a separate "specialist" commission composed of experts including lawyers, economists, and church representatives. The political commission met for the first time in March 1999; the expert commission met in May 1999. They are expected to discuss and prepare recommendations on a legal resolution of all outstanding church-state issues. The two commissions share information through Minister of Culture Pavel Dostal. No reports are scheduled and the commissions are to terminate after they review the issues; they have no fixed deadlines.

Issues of religious-based communal property restitution are still being resolved. Jewish claims date to the period of the Nazi occupation, while Catholic authorities are pressing claims to properties that were seized under the former Communist regime. Although after 1989 the Government and Prague city officials returned most synagogues and other buildings previously belonging to religious orders, many claims to properties in the hands of other municipal authorities have not yet been resolved satisfactorily. In addition the Catholic Church claims vast tracts of woods and farmlands.

In 1994 the Government amended its 1991 restitution law to provide restitution of, or compensation for, property wrongfully seized between 1938 and 1945. This amendment opened the way to address Jewish communal and private properties seized by the Nazi regime. The Federation of Jewish Communities has identified 202 properties as its highest priorities for restitution, although unresolved claims number close to 1,000. Legislation to return these properties was not approved by Parliament, but the Government returned the properties it directly controlled by executive decree. The Government also appealed to municipalities to return to the Jewish community those properties on the list that they controlled. The city of Prague returned almost all such properties, but other cities have not been as forthcoming. To date 68 of the 202 properties have been returned. In November 1998, the Government established a commission to document the status of former Jewish communal property and make recommendations to the Government; it will address some elements of private property, for example, insurance policies and art. The Cabinet retains final authority to decide on restitution or compensation. In the spring of 1999, the commission's chairman, Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Rychetsky proposed a fund from which compensation would be paid for those properties that cannot be restituted physically; the proposal is still under discussion.

When the Social Democratic government came to power in August 1998, it halted further restitution of non-Jewish religious communal property, including a decision of the previous government to return 432,250 acres of land and some 700 buildings to the Catholic Church. The Government has not foreclosed the possibility of further return of additional Catholic and Protestant properties but has emphasized that it must be done through legislation enacted by Parliament rather than by executive decree. The Government has yet to prepare the necessary legislation. Discussions are continuing in the two church-state commissions on the form of an overall settlement of all outstanding issues to include restitution.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations are generally amicable between the various religious communities.

The immigrant population is still relatively small. In 1998 974 citizens of other countries were naturalized as citizens, the majority from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia. Immigrants have not reported any difficulties in practicing their respective faiths.

The first female bishop of the Czechoslovak-Hussite church, a branch of the Protestant church, was elected to a 7-year term of office in April 1999. In January 1999, Catholic Archbishop Miloslav Vlk initially made a public statement of disapproval, warning against election of a woman to this position and saying that it would cause deterioration of ecumenical relations. Following criticism by the Czech-Hussite Church for interfering in their affairs, Vlk retracted his remarks later in January and stated that the Roman Catholic Church would exert no pressure against her election. The Czech-Hussite Church accepted the Archbishop's apology.

The Islamic Foundation estimates that 2,000 persons have attended "open door" days since the country's first mosque was completed in Brno in July 1998. Local Muslims and police agreed that there have not been any incidents of religious intolerance towards their community.

Several isolated anti-Semitic incidents occurred during the period covered by this report. In March 1998, skinheads attacked a Jewish couple in Trutnov. In November 1998, 41 headstones in a Jewish cemetery in the same town were destroyed or desecrated in an attack by vandals. Four youths under the age of 21 eventually were arrested and charged for the incident. In March 1999, one of the youths was sentenced to 18 months in prison for "defamation of a nation, race and conviction, inciting nationalist and racial hatred, support and propagation of a movement which aims to suppress citizens' rights and freedoms, breach of the peace, and damage to private property." The other three received suspended sentences of 18 months for the same offenses. Also in November 1998, skinheads stabbed a Czech soldier who identified himself as Jewish when attempting to intervene in a restaurant fracas. Police confirmed the existence of over 20 underground magazines with small circulation that propagate Fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism.

In February 1999, police in Plzen arrested 12 leaders, producers, and distributors of racist, Fascist, and anti-Semitic materials. The raid also netted piles of Fascist and racist materials, including membership lists, indicating that the group was part of a large, well-organized movement with ties to groups in several other European countries. Those arrested were charged with dissemination of Fascist propaganda, an offense with a maximum penalty of 8 years in prison. The raid was executed prior to a planned skinhead rally in Line, near Plzen, and forced the cancellation of the event. Owners of firms that are found to have produced the Fascist and anti-Semitic materials seized in the raid could lose their operating licenses; however, any legal action by the Government against these firms remains pending.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

U.S. efforts on religious issues have focused largely on encouraging the Government to resolve religious property restitution claims.

The issue of Holocaust-era insurance policies was the subject of a U.S.-sponsored September 1998 seminar in Prague, in preparation for the Conference on Holocaust Assets held in Washington in November 1998. In the September seminar, the State Department brought together representatives from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, major insurance companies active in the region before the war, the U.S. National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), and other interested groups. While Czech authorities believe that many assets of Holocaust victims, including insurance policies, were looted by the Nazi regime when the Government was under "Protectorate" status prior to being nationalized after World War II, they are continuing archival research and have held several meetings with NAIC representatives in connection with the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. The Government has observer status on the commission.

Following the November 1998 Washington conference, the Ministry of Culture instructed all state galleries and museums to review their holdings for artworks that may have been looted from Holocaust victims. There have been a few reports in the press about works of uncertain origin, and the Government is making an effort to resolve such cases.

U.S. officials repeatedly raised the issue of access for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to records concerning Holocaust victims at the State Archives. In early 1999, an agreement was reached to allow the Holocaust museum full access through the Federation of Jewish Communities. Members of the museum staff made use of the archives in March 1999.

In February 1999, State Department Senior Advisor for Property Restitution, Ambassador Henry Clarke, visited Prague to advocate resolution of outstanding religious communal property issues. During his visit, Ambassador Clarke met with representatives of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Ministry of Culture's Department of Religious Affairs, and the Federation of Jewish Communities. He also had personal interviews with Deputy Prime Minister Rychetsky and several members of the Christian Democratic Party, which is the most active party represented in Parliament on issues of religious communal property.

In addition the U.S. Government has made clear in numerous meetings and demarches with government officials that property taken wrongfully should be returned or appropriate compensation provided. The Ambassador also has met personally with the Archbishop of Prague, the Papal Nuncio, and the spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities. The Embassy maintains regular relations with many of the major organized religious groups in the country, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Federation of Jewish Communities, and the Ecumenical Council of Churches.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 10-09-1999