Czech Republic

International Religious Freedom Report 2003
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, 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 then in almost every region of the country.

An estimated 5 percent of the population attend 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, 4 of which registered during the period covered by this report. The four newly registered groups are Christian Fellowships, the Christian Community in the Czech Republic, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and the Czech Hindu Religious Society. Although no groups sought to register by the end of the period covered by this report, three groups inquired about the process. 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.

The 2002 law on "Religious Freedom and the Position of Churches and Religious Associations" created a two-tiered system of registration for religious organizations. In order 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, as well as a 10-year waiting period before the organization may apply for full second-tier registration. 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, though prisoners of other faiths may receive visits from their respective clergy. Prior to the 2002 law, registered religious groups automatically received second-tier status. 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 $106 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, the New Apostolic Church, and Open Brethren) that do not accept state funding. Of this sum, approximately $26 million (728 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 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 its effort to resolve religious-based communal and personal property restitution problems, especially with regard to Jewish property; however, progress has been slow. 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 buildings previously belonging to religious orders, many claims to properties in the hands of other municipal authorities and individuals have not yet been resolved. 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 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. 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 identified by the Federation of Jewish Communities that had been in the possession of the State. The Government continued to evaluate these claims at the end of the period covered by this report. 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 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 resolution passed in March should result in the return of approximately 40 more properties.

In September 2000, the Government proposed and the Chamber of Deputies authorized approximately $10.6 million (300 million Czech crowns) for a compensation fund to pay for those properties that cannot be restituted physically. The fund began operating in June 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 the majority of the $3.5 million (100 million Czech crowns) dedicated to individual claims, as well as approximately $882,000 (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 farm and woodland that are now in the hands of municipal governments or private owners. These 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. In April 2001, the Government agreed in principle to draft a law that would allow for the return of the remaining houses of worship, parish houses, and monasteries to the Catholic Church. No legislation had been drafted by the end of the period covered by this report.

Members of unregistered religious groups may issue publications without interference.

The Government and the Embassy held an interfaith service at St. Vitus Cathedral to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. There was little other government-sponsored interfaith activity.

Two government commissions were established in 1999 to improve relations between the State and religious groups. One of the commissions was a "political" commission with the presence of all parties represented in Parliament, and the second was a "specialist" commission composed of experts, including lawyers, economists, and representatives of religious groups. The commissions advised the Government on religious questions and legislation on religious topics. The Commissions have now dissolved following the passage of the 2002 law on "Religious Freedom and the Position of Churches and Religious Associations."

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

Several unregistered religious groups, including Muslims and 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. 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. In November 2002, a Constitutional Court decision struck down provisions of the act relating to registering new subsidiaries of religious organizations, as well as those provisions barring use of profits from enterprises owned by religious organizations for religious activity.

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. The Ministry of Culture approved the registration applications of four religious organizations during the period covered by this report--Christian Fellowships, the Christian Community in the Czech Republic, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and the Czech Hindu Religious Society. In May 2002, the Ministry of Interior opened a Muslim prayer room for inmates at Prague's Ruzyne Prison in conjunction with the Islamic Foundation of Prague. The Foundation has also advised the prison on how to prepare appropriate food and how to facilitate Islamic prisoners' observance of Ramadan.

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 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. The Ministry of Interior continued its efforts to counter the neo-Nazis, which included 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. On January 30, vandals spray-painted swastikas and other anti-Semitic slogans on Jewish graves at a cemetery in Ostrava. On July 18, 2002, police in Jihlava destroyed dozens of posters bearing neo-Nazi insignia and messages. On June 30, 2002, vandals defaced a newly unveiled memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Karlovy Vary. Red paint was sprayed on the memorial, and anti-Semitic posters were left at the scene. On June 26, 2002, a smoke bomb was thrown through the window of a bookshop in Liberec, where the country's Chief Rabbi was attending a public meeting. 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.

A book published in May entitled "Taboo in Social Sciences" drew criticism for presenting racist and anti-Semitic views in a scientific manner. The book's high sales volume prompted representatives of the Jewish Community in Prague to warn against allowing extremism to creep into mainstream culture. 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. Varak was given a suspended sentence and fined, but the Constitutional Court later annulled his verdict. New charges have been brought against Varak, and the case was still 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 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 on numerous occasions 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.

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 nongovernmental organizations. 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 Muslims, Scientologists, the Unification Church, and Hare Krishnas. Several meetings were held with representatives from the Ministry of Culture, the Roman Catholic Church, 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.