Czech Republic

International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

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 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 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 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. In 1999 the Department of Churches denied registration to the Unification Church (UC) when it determined that the UC had obtained the required proof of membership by fraud. In 2002 the courts upheld the Government's decision to deny registration; however, an appeal of that decision remained pending 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. In order to register, a religious group must have at least 10,000 adult members permanently residing in the country. 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.

On January 1, 2002, a new law on "Religious Freedom and the Position of Churches and Religious Associations" became effective, following a December 2001 override of President Vaclav Havel's veto. The law creates a two-tiered system of registration for religious organizations. A religious group may be registered with as few as 300 adult adherents. Registration at this level conveys limited tax benefits and imposes annual reporting requirements, as well as a 10-year waiting period before the organization is permitted to apply for full, second-tier registration. Under the old law, registered churches would receive second-tier status automatically. Full registration requires adult adherents equal to 0.1 percent of the population (approximately 10,000) and entitles an organization to a share of state funding. Only clergy of fully registered religious organizations may perform marriage and serve as chaplains in the military and prison systems. Several unregistered religious groups (including Muslims and the Church of Scientology) have criticized the law because they believe that it is prejudicial against smaller religions. The Catholic Church also 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; a provision bars the church from using profits from church-owned enterprises for religious activity.

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, charitable, and educational activities, as well as for the maintenance of church 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 30 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 to make 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 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 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 the end of the period covered by this report, only 68 of the 202 properties had been returned. A 2000 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 September 2000, the Government proposed and the Chamber of Deputies authorized approximately $7.9 million (300 million crowns) for a compensation fund to pay for those properties that cannot be restituted physically. 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; to help meet the social needs of poor Jewish communities outside Prague; 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. The Government was evaluating the claims at the end of the period covered by this report.

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 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 regarding the form of an overall settlement of all outstanding restitution issues, including further restitution of Protestant properties. In 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.

Members of unregistered religious groups may 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 free 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 refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

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 4 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. Also in May, a long-standing restitution case was settled by means of alternative dispute resolution. An expert panel determined that the painting, "Man in a Fur Hat," was an authentic Rembrandt and that it was the legal property of a Jewish collector who perished during the Holocaust. The painting, previously held by the National Gallery, was returned to the heirs on the basis of the panel's decision.

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, including increased monitoring of their activities, closer cooperation with police units in neighboring countries, and concentrated efforts to shut down unauthorized concerts and gatherings of neo-Nazi groups. That effort continued during the period covered by this report. During 2001 a court convicted Vit Varak on charges of disseminating hate speech and propagation of a movement aimed at suppressing rights and freedoms for selling "Mein Kampf" on the Internet; he was fined. In December 2000, police in Zlin uncovered another group distributing neo-Nazi recordings, publications, and badges. A 21-year-old woman was charged with suppressing rights and freedoms; her case was pending at the end of the period covered by this report.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. U.S. Government efforts on religious issues have focused largely on encouraging the Government 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 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.

The Embassy maintains close and continuing contact with the Office of the President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, representatives of various religious groups, and nongovernmental organizations. Embassy officials met on several occasions with representatives of the Ministry of Culture to discuss the new law on religious registration, as well as representatives of smaller religious groups affected by the new law, including Muslims, Scientologists, the Unification Church, and Hare Krishnas. Several meetings were held with representatives from the Ministry of Culture, the Federation of Jewish Communities, and the Prague Jewish Community on restitution issues. Embassy officials also responded to individual requests for assistance from Czech-American Holocaust victims seeking compensation. On May 19, 2002, the First Lady and the Ambassador attended a memorial service and placed wreaths in remembrance of Holocaust victims at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp.