|2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
Both government policy and the generally amicable relationship among religions in society contribute to the free practice of religion.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.
Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels generally protects this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors.
Religious affairs are the responsibility of the Department of Churches at the Ministry of Culture. All religions officially registered with the Ministry of Culture are eligible to receive subsidies from the State, although some religions decline state financial support as a matter of principle and as an expression of their independence. 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, but often form civic-interest associations for the purpose of managing their property and other holdings until they are able to meet the qualifications for registration. The Government does not interfere with or prevent this type of interim solution. Unregistered religious groups 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 among 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 not been registered as an officially recognized religion since the communist takeover. 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. There is a second mosque in Prague. The Jewish community, which numbers only a few thousand, is an officially registered religion, since 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 generally proselytize without hindrance. To work in the country, missionaries must obtain a long-term residence and work permit if they intend to remain longer than 30 days. Although permits are granted routinely, some religions increasingly have raised concerns about delays in processing visas and permits for visiting missionaries and clergy. There is no special visa category for religious workers, so foreign missionaries and clergy are required to meet the relatively stringent conditions for a standard work permit even if their activity is strictly ecclesiastical or voluntary in nature.
Religion is not taught in public schools, although a few private religious schools exist. Religious broadcasters are free to operate without hindrance from the Government or other parties, and no difficulties or problems in this area have been reported.
Members of unregistered religious groups can issue publications without interference.
There was no government-sponsored interfaith activity.
In March 2000, in his last act before leaving office, Interior Minister Vaclav Grulich officially disbanded and canceled the registration of the National Alliance, an extreme right-wing, neo-Nazi organization whose leaders consistently have propagated anti-Semitic sentiment and publicly questioned the occurrence of the Holocaust.
During the period covered by this report, the two church-state commissions founded by the Government in March and May 1999 continued to meet regularly and work on outstanding issues including state funding for churches and property restitution, among other things. (One is a "political" commission with the presence of all parties currently in parliament, and the second is a "specialist" commission composed of experts including lawyers, economists, and church representatives. The commissions advise the Government on church-state relations, the status of churches and methods of their financing, and church-related property questions.) Members of the commission also have advised the Ministry of Culture on the Law on the Registration of Churches and Religious Groups, which the cabinet was expected to approve in July 2000.
Issues of religious-based communal and personal 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. Restitution or compensation of several categories of Jewish personal property is in progress. In addition the Catholic Church claims vast tracts of woods and farmlands.
The 1991 Law on Restitution applied only to property seized after the communists took power in 1948. In 1994 the Parliament amended the law to provide restitution of, or compensation for, property wrongfully seized between 1938 and 1945. This amendment provided for the inclusion of Jewish private properties, primarily buildings, seized by the Nazi regime. In the late 1990's, the Federation of Jewish Communities identified 202 communal properties as its highest priorities for restitution, although it had unresolved claims for over 1,000 properties. By decree the Government returned most of the properties in its possession, as did the city of Prague; however, despite a government appeal, other cities have not been as responsive. As of mid-2000, 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, to a limited extent, personal property, and to make recommendations to the Government. In June 2000, Parliament approved the commission's proposed legislation. The President was expected to sign the bill into law. This law would authorize the return of 200 communal Jewish properties in state hands. The same law also would authorize the Government to return more than 60 works of art in the National Gallery to the Jewish community and an estimated 2,500 works of art in the State's possession to individual Czech Jews and their descendants. A fourth provision of the law would authorize the return of certain agricultural property in the Government's possession to its original owners. 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 Cabinet authorized approximately $7.5 million (285 million crowns) for this fund. It is expected to be in operation by the end of 2000 and is to provide partial compensation in those cases where the Government needs to retain the property or is no longer in possession of it. Approximately two-thirds are to be dedicated to communal property and one-third to individual claims.
Certain property of religious orders, including 175 monasteries and other institutions, was restituted under laws passed in 1990 and 1991, but the return generally did not include income-generating properties. 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.
In March 2000, following three months of intense negotiations with representatives of the local Jewish community, representatives of international Jewish groups, and the Czech Insurance Company; the Government reached a framework agreement on the protection and preservation of the remnants of a medieval Jewish cemetery (believed to be the oldest in the country) uncovered in 1997 at a commercial construction site in downtown Prague. Remains of the cemetery, which was closed and razed in the 15th century, were uncovered by the insurance company on the site of its new headquarters. The Cabinet decided on March 29 to declare a block of soil on the site containing intact graves a cultural monument, to pay the insurance company compensation of approximately $1 million (45 million Czech crowns) and to authorize as soon as possible the reburial on the site of the 120 sets of remains removed by archaeologists in 1999. Twenty-five other small parcels nearby, believed to contain intact graves from the same cemetery, also were designated a national cultural monument. However, some of the details implementing the agreement had not been resolved between the insurance company and the local Jewish community by the end of June. Meanwhile, construction resumed on the portion of the site exempt from the cultural monument decree at the beginning of June. The company intends to stabilize the preserved cemetery area by September 2000, so that remains previously removed can be reburied there.
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.
Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens
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 over 970 persons from 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 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 toward their community.
Several isolated anti-Semitic incidents occured during the period covered by this report. In December 1999, in a display case in front of the extremist rightwing Republican Party headquarters in Decin, photographs of President Vaclav havel, Prime Minister Milos Zeman, Parliamentary Speaker Vaclav Klaus, and other government officials, were labeled "Jewish Free Masons and Murderers of the Czech nation." The exhibit also presented a list of "Jews and Jewish half-breeds" active in politics that included the names of Havel, Zeman, Klaus, and others. The display was removed a few days later after a state prosecutor warned the party it could face criminal charges in connection with the incident. Also, at a rally in April 2000, members of the extreme National Alliance and Patriotic Front organizations threatened to deface or remove explanatory plaques installed in March on the historic Charles Bridge in Prague at the urging of the North American Board of Rabbis. The plaques, which are in Czech, English, and Hebrew, describe the origin of a medieval sculpture of Christ on the Cross-one of many sculptures on the bridge-that has a Hebrew inscription on it that is offensive to Jews. (The Government canceled the registration of the National Alliance in March 2000--see Section I.)
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 supporting and propagating a movement dedicated to the suppression of the rights and liberties of citizens, an offense with a maximum penalty of 8 years in prison. 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, 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.
During 1999 the U.S. Government and embassy officials emphasized on numerous occasions to the Government the importance of returning property wrongfully taken from Holocaust victims, the Jewish community, and churches, or of fair and adequate compensation when return is no longer possible. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Stuart E. Eizenstat testified about these issues before Congress in September 1999. The need for the Czech Republic to act was also the subject of remarks by U.S. delegates in Vienna at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the fall of 1999. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering raised the issue of compensation for Holocaust victims in meetings during his visit to Prague in February 2000. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also voiced concern about compensation in a meeting with Foreign Minister Jan Kavan during her visit to the Czech Republic in March 2000. The Ambassador has been in close contact in particular with Deputy Prime Minister Rychetsky, who has championed the creation of a fund for Czech Holocaust victims. Embassy staff also met with members of Parliament and senators from the Christian Democratic Union, which is the most active party on issues of religious, particularly Catholic, communal property. A visit to Prague in January 2000 by the Executive Director and Deputy Director of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets served to highlight U.S. activities and boosted bilateral cooperation.
Beginning in late December 1999, the Embassy, the Department of State, and the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad devoted considerable effort to facilitate a mutually acceptable settlement of the longstanding dispute over a medieval Jewish cemetery recovered in 1997 at a commercial construction site in Prague (see Section I). The Embassy maintained close contact on this matter with the Office of the President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, and the Prague Jewish community. The Embassy met on occasion with the Czech Bishops' Conference as well as the Culture Ministry's Department of Churches. Embassy officials also responded to individual requests for assistance from Czech-American Holocaust victims seeking compensation. In addition, embassy staff worked closely with the staff of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to deepen existing relationships with relevant Czech Archives and Czech Holocaust Education Program offices.
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