Czechs at odds over return of Church land

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The Independent Online
Plans to return more than 430,000 acres of confiscated land to the Czech Republic's Catholic Church remained a serious bone of contention yesterday as parliamentarians gathered for a debate leading to a vote of confidence in the centre-right government of the Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus.

Under the terms of the plan, which marks the second main stage of property restitution, the church is set to receive all theforest estates and some 500 buildings that were taken from it following the Communist takeover of power in 1948.

"The crimes of Communism [are finally] being put right," Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the leader of the Czech Catholic Church said, when the plan was announced.

But many Czechs have denounced the idea as a throwback to feudalism and an illegitimate squandering of valuable national resources.

"It would be more advantageous for all of us if our sick forests have an owner who specialises in the care of forests, not in the care of the human soul," complained Vaclav Belohradsky in the daily Lidove Noviny.

Other critics say that many of the Catholic Church estates were themselves confiscated from the Protestant Church during the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century.

Given the controversy surrounding the issue, Czech politicians have to date tried to avoid it. But the picture changed this summer when a general election resulted in the governing three-party coalition narrowly losing its overall majority. As a price for the continued support of the Christian Democrats, Mr Klaus agreed to make the restoration of church land a key plank of the government's programme.

That, however, made him vulnerable in the vote of confidence - expected either today or tomorrow - in which he is dependent on the tacit support of the opposition Social Democrats, all of whom are against the return of church land.