U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2004 - Czech Republic

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on September 15, 2004, covers the period from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004.

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 as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 30,442 square miles, and its population is an estimated 10.2 million. The country has a largely homogenous population with a dominant Christian tradition. However, primarily 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 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 in almost every region of the country.

An estimated 5 percent of the population attends Catholic services weekly. Most live in the southern Moravian dioceses of Olomouc and Brno. The number of practicing Protestants is even lower (approximately 1 percent of the population). 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 due to its recognition by the State before 1989.

Missionaries of various religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and members of 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 strives to protect 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 religious groups officially registered with the Ministry of Culture are eligible to receive subsidies from the State, although some decline state financial support as a matter of principle and as an expression of their independence. There are 25 state-recognized religious organizations. In March, the Center of Muslim Communities applied for registration; in April, the Jewish Center Chai also applied for registration.

In March, after consultations with the Czech Bishops' Conference, the Ministry denied the application of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church based on insufficient supporting signatures. Of the 357 signatures received, 48 failed to provide all of the required information and 22 were those of nonmembers. The Conference determined that the organization was not properly constituted according to canonical law. The organization is not affiliated with its namesake in Ukraine. An appeal by the Unification Church to overturn its denial to register in 1999 remained pending before the Constitutional Court.

The 2002 law on "Religious Freedom and the Position of Churches and Religious Associations" created a two-tiered system of registration for religious organizations. To register at the first tier, a religious group must have at least 300 adult members permanently residing in the country. First-tier registration conveys limited tax benefits and imposes annual reporting requirements. To register at the second tier, a religious group must have membership equal to at least 0.1 percent of the country's population (approximately 10,000 persons) and have been registered at the first tier for at least 10 years. Second-tier registration entitles the organization to a share of state funding. Only clergy of registered second-tier organizations may perform officially recognized marriage ceremonies and serve as chaplains in the military and prisons, although prisoners of other faiths may receive visits from their respective clergy. Religious groups registered prior to 1991, such as the small Jewish community, are not required to meet these conditions for registration. Unregistered religious groups, such as the small Muslim minority,may not legally own community property 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.

Religious organizations receive approximately $117 million (3 billion Czech crowns) annually from the Government. Funds are divided proportionally among the 21 religious organizations eligible for state assistance based on the number of clergy in each, with the exception of 4 religious organizations (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, the New Apostolic Church, and Open Brethren) that do not accept state funding. Of this sum, approximately $32 million (818 million Czech crowns) is used to pay salaries to clergymen. The rest of the funding goes to state grants for religious organizations' medical, charitable, and educational activities, as well as for the maintenance of religious memorials and buildings.

A 2000 law outlaws Holocaust denial and provides for prison sentences of 6 months to 3 years for public denial, questioning, approval, or attempts to justify the Nazi genocide. The law also outlaws the incitement of hatred based on religion.

Missionaries must obtain a long-term residence and work permit if they intend to remain longer than 90 days. There were no reports of delays in processing visas for missionaries 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.

The Government continued its effort to resolve 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. While Jewish property claims have been largely resolved, there was no progress in resolving the Catholic Church's claims during the period covered by this report.

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 for 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 1994, 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. A few outstanding cases remain, including two properties in Brno that are under the control of the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. A 2000 law 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 Government's possession to individual Jewish citizens and their descendants. Another provision of the law authorized the return of certain agricultural property in the Government's possession to its original owners.

A government compensation fund ofapproximately $11.7 million (300 million Czech crowns) created to pay for those properties that cannot be restituted physically began operating in 2001 under the control of an independent board. It 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, to help meet the social needs of poor Jewish communities, and to 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. Applications for the fund were accepted from June through December 2001. At the end of the period covered by this report, the fund had distributed $3.9 million (100 million Czech crowns) dedicated to individual claims, as well as approximately $974,000 (25 million Czech crowns) dedicated to social grants.

Certain property of religious orders, including 175 monasteries and other institutions, was restituted under laws passed in 1990 and 1991. The Catholic Church still claims some 175,000 hectares of "income-generating properties." Many of these properties are vast tracts of farmland and woodland that are now in the hands of municipal governments or private owners. The current owners claim that the Catholic Church was granted the use of the properties under the Hapsburg empire but that the Church was never the owner of the properties in question and that the Government owes the Church no duty of restitution. When the Social Democratic government came to power in 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. Efforts to resolve the final claims continue but have been slowed by the Church's refusal to provide a list of specific properties and land to which it feels entitled and the Government's refusal to continue restitution discussions without this list. There was no progress in resolving the Catholic Church's claims during the period covered by this report.

Members of unregistered religious groups may issue publications without interference.

The Ministry of Culture sponsors religiously oriented cultural activities through a grant program. The Ministry sponsored some inter-faith activities during the period covered by this report, including partial funding of the Christian and Jewish Society.

Easter Monday, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and St. Stephen's Day (December 26) are recognized as national holidays, though they do not negatively impact any religious group.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

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

Under the 2002 religious registration law, the Ministry of Culture has responsibility for registering religious charities and enterprises as legal entities. The Catholic Church has criticized the law on the grounds that it unduly restricts the manner in which the Church manages and finances many of its social projects. In October 2003, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Ministry of Culture improperly interpreted the registration law in failing to register a religious enterprise operated by the Catholic Church in the North Moravian town of Lipnik nad Becvou. The Ministry argued that the charity was operating nursing facilities and that the registration law did not provide for establishment and maintenance of medical facilities. The Court ruled that the Ministry of Culture did not have the right to deny the registration of religious charities. The Catholic Church reports that religious charities and enterprises continue to experience difficulties and delays in registering as legal entities, although there has been some recent improvement in the increased speed of granting registrations.

Several unregistered religious groups, including the Church of Scientology, have criticized the 2002 law on registration of religious groups because they believe that it is prejudicial against smaller religious groups

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 refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reports of abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Improvement and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

In May 2002, the Parliament passed a measure to extend the deadline for filing art restitution claims for Holocaust victims by four years, which subsequently was signed into law by the President. The deadline had been set for December 31, 2002, but was extended until December 31, 2006.

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 Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Greece. Immigrants have not reported any difficulties in practicing their respective faiths.

In February, the city council in the northern Moravian town of Orlova refused to approve a privately funded proposal to build a mosque in the city. Muslim leaders were not familiar with the petitioning organization, the Islamic Union, and expressed doubt that the community in question had a sufficient need for the $7.8 million (200 million crown) project.

In April, a 4,500-signature petition was filed in the northern Bohemian town of Teplice seeking to block the construction of a 1,467 square-foot mosque. The town's construction permit office must respond to the building request by the end of July.

A small but persistent and fairly well-organized extreme rightwing movement with anti-Semitic views exists in the country. The Ministry of Interior continued its efforts to counter the neo-Nazis, which included monitoring of their activities, close cooperation with police units in neighboring countries, and concentrated efforts to shut down unauthorized concerts and gatherings of neo-Nazi groups. On October 21, 2003, unknown vandals damaged gravestones at the Jewish cemetery in Turnov in eastern Bohemia. On November 8, 2003, police in the northern Bohemian town of Krupka apprehended two youths painting Nazi symbols on a monument to the victims of a World War II death march. On November 9, 2003, an unknown vandal upturned 15 tombstones of Jewish girls who died in a Nazi concentration camp at Trutnov in eastern Bohemia. On January 30, police arrested Denis Gerasimov, member of the Russian Neo-Nazi band Kolovkrat, and charged him with supporting and propagating a movement aimed at suppressing human rights. Gerasimov was detained at Prague's Ruzyne International Airport after police found large amounts of Nazi propaganda in his luggage. His case was pending at the end of the period covered in this report.

On January 28, a Prague municipal court sentenced Michal Zitko to 3 years in prison on charges of supporting and propagating a movement aimed at suppressing human rights for publishing a Czech-language edition of Mein Kampf in 2000.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall policy to promote human rights. U.S. Government efforts on religious issues have focused largely on encouraging the Government and religious groups to resolve religious property restitution claims and registration of religious organizations.

During the period covered by this report, U.S. Government and Embassy officials emphasized to the Government and religious groups the importance of restitution (or fair and adequate compensation when return is no longer possible) in cases pending from property wrongfully taken from Holocaust victims, the Jewish community, and churches.

Through its Support for East European Democracy grant program, the Embassy assisted two nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in promoting religious freedom and understanding. The first grant of $5,000 (128,370 Czech crowns) assisted an NGO devoted to cultivating religious tolerance through public discussions in Prague and regional cities. The second grant of $7,447 (191,194 Czech crowns) provided support to an NGO devoted to raising public awareness of multiculturalism for intercultural workshops that included components on religious diversity, called "Religions of the World," for eight regional primary schools.

The Embassy maintains close contact with the Office of the President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, representatives of various religious groups, and NGOs. Embassy officials met on several occasions with representatives of the Ministry of Culture to discuss the law on religious registration, as well as representatives of smaller religious groups affected by the law, including the Czech Muslim community. Several meetings were held with representatives from the Ministry of Culture, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Federation of Jewish Communities on restitution issues. Embassy officials also responded to individual requests for assistance from Czech-American Holocaust victims seeking compensation.


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