U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2001 - Czech Republic

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

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

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. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 30,379 square miles and its population is an estimated 10.3 million. The country has a largely homogenous population with a dominant Christian 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 2001 opinion poll, 38 percent of respondents claimed to believe in God, while 52 percent identified themselves as atheists. Nearly half of those responding agreed that churches were beneficial to society. There was a revival of interest in religion after the 1989 "Velvet Revolution;" however, 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 5 percent of the population 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 in 1948. There is a mosque in Brno and another in Prague. The Jewish community, which numbers only a few thousand persons, is an officially registered religion, since it was recognized by the State before 1989.

Missionaries of various religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah's Witnesses, are present in the country. Missionaries of various religions generally proselytize without hindrance.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally 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 were seeking to register at the end of the period covered by this report. 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's suit contesting the decision still was before a court at the end of the period covered by this report. Registration of Islam has been discussed with the Department of Churches, but there has been no formal application. To register a religious group must have at least 10,000 adult members permanently residing in the country. For any churches, which the World Council of Churches has recognized already, 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 otherwise are free to assemble and worship in the manner of their choice.

A draft bill on "Religious Freedom and the Position of Churches and Religious Associations" was approved by the Chamber of Deputies upon first reading on May 17, 2001. The Committee on Science, Education, Culture, and Youth recommended on June 27, 2001, that the Chamber upon second reading approve the bill, which is not expected before October 2001. The draft is modeled on the Austrian Religious Registration law and would impose a two-tiered registration system. The law would create a new lower tier (nonprofit religious association with limited tax benefits) that would require a group to have at least 300 members. The draft law would require a religious group to have adult adherents equal to at least 0.2 percent of the population of the country in order to achieve full registration. This is double the current requirement of 0.1 percent of the population. The new law would also impose a 10-year observation period and an annual reporting requirement on all first-tier religious organizations wishing to obtain full registration status. Some unregistered religious groups (including the Muslims and the Church of Scientology) and nongovernmental observers criticized the proposed law and claimed that it is prejudicial against minority religions.

Churches receive approximately $88.2 million (3 billion Czech crowns) annually from the Government. Funds are divided proportionally among the 21 registered religions based on the number of clergy in each, with the exception of 4 religions (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, New Apostolic Church, and Christian Communities) that do not accept state funding. Of this sum, approximately $17 million (642 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.

In September 2000, Parliament passed a law outlawing Holocaust denial. The law provides for prison sentences of 6 months to 3 years for public denial, questioning, approval, or attempts to justify the Nazi genocide.

To work in the country missionaries must obtain a long-term residence and work permit if they intend to remain longer than 30 days. Previously reported delays in processing visas and permits for visiting missionaries and clergy diminished during the period covered by this report. There is no special visa category for religious workers; 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.

Members of unregistered religious groups can issue publications without interference.

There was no government-sponsored interfaith activity.

The two government commissions established in 1999 to improve church-state relations continued to meet during the period covered by this report. One of the commissions is a "political" commission with the presence of all parties represented 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-related property questions and legislation on religious topics.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally unrestricted practice of religion.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including 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.

Improvement and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

The Government made progress in resolving religious-based communal and personal property restitution problems, especially with regard to Jewish property. 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 June 30, 2000, only 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 July 2000, the commission's proposed legislation was signed into law. The law authorized the return of 200 communal Jewish properties in state hands. The same law also authorized the Government to return more than 60 works of art in the National Gallery to the Jewish community and an estimated 7,000 works of art in the State's possession to individual Jewish citizens and their descendants. A fourth provision of the law authorized 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 compensation fund to pay for those properties that cannot be restituted physically. In September 2000, the Government proposed and the Chamber of Deputies authorized approximately $7.9 million (300 million crowns) for this fund. The fund, which began operating in June 2001, is expected to provide partial compensation in those cases where the Government needs to retain the property or is no longer in possession of it, help meet the social needs of poor Jewish communities outside Prague, and support the restoration of synagogues and cemeteries. Approximately two-thirds of the funds 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. Discussions are continuing in the two church-state commissions on the form of an overall settlement of all outstanding restitution issues, including further restitution of Protestant properties. In October 2000, Prime Minister Milos Zeman visited the Vatican and discussed Czech Republic/Catholic relations and property restitution with Pope John Paul II. In April 2001, the Government agreed in principle to draft a law that would allow for the return of houses of worship, parish houses, and monasteries to the Catholic Church.

In September 2000, after months of negotiations between the Government and the Prague Jewish community, over 100 sets of Jewish remains from the middle ages found at a commercial construction site in downtown Prague were buried in the New Jewish Cemetery. The Ministry of Culture declared an additional 25 gravesites a cultural monument, and the intact remains were encased in a concrete sarcophagus.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The immigrant population is still relatively small, and includes persons from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia. Immigrants have not reported any difficulties in practicing their respective faiths.

Local Muslims reported that there were no incidents of religious intolerance toward their community during the period covered by this report.

A small but persistent and fairly well-organized extreme rightwing movement with anti-Semitic views exists in the country. Police were criticized on several occasions during the period covered by this report for failing to intervene against neo-Nazis shouting anti-Semitic slogans at concerts and rallies. In May 2001, the Ministry of the Interior announced a forceful effort to counter the neo-Nazis.

The legal actions against the 12 persons in Plzen arrested in February 1999 for distributing racist, Fascist, and anti-Semitic literature were resolved during the period covered by this report. Eight of the 12 defendants were prosecuted; 4 were convicted and 4 were acquitted. Their sentences were handed down in March 2001. Three of those convicted received 18 months imprisonment and 2 years probation. One received 24 months imprisonment and 3 years probation, because of the additional charge of possession of a firearm. There were no appeals and the sentences became final in June 2001.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

U.S. Government efforts on religious issues have focused largely on encouraging the Government to resolve religious property restitution claims and to avoid drafting legislation that would discriminate against minority religions.

During the period covered by this report, 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. During a visit to the country in November and December 2000, the Department of State's Special Advisor for Central and Eastern European Property Affairs discussed restitution issues in meetings with Jewish leaders, members of Parliament, and the Czech Bishops' Conference. The Special Advisor also met with a representative of the government Commission on Holocaust Issues, headed by the Deputy Prime Minister, and with the special envoy for Holocaust issues.

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 long-standing dispute over a medieval Jewish cemetery uncovered in 1997 at a commercial construction site in Prague (see Section II). 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 several occasions with the Culture Ministry's Department of Churches to discuss a range of topics, most importantly the Ministry's draft legislation on registration of churches. Embassy officials also responded to individual requests for assistance from Czech-American Holocaust victims seeking compensation.

The International Religious Freedom Report for 2001 is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with Section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The law provides that the Secretary of State shall transmit to Congress by September 1 of each year, or the first day thereafter on which the appropriate House of Congress is in session, "an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom supplementing the most recent Human Rights Reports by providing additional detailed information with respect to matters involving international religious freedom." The 2001 Report covers the period from July 1, 2000 to June 30, 2001.

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