Czech churches cry foul over Communist tax plan

Jan FLEMR
Crzech churches are up in arms against Communist party plans to tax the compensation the state is paying them in return for assets seized during the Communists Cold War rule

Czech churches are up in arms against Communist Party plans to tax billions in compensation being paid by the state in return for assets, mostly land, seized by the Communists during their Cold War rule.

Under a 2012 law and deals with the state, 17 religious denominations -- Christian and Jewish -- are entitled to recover assets worth up to 75 billion koruna (2.9 billion euros, $3.4 billion) seized by the atheist Communist regime after World War II.

These include the UNESCO-listed Baroque church of Zelena Hora and Kromeriz castle, a former bishops' residence in the east.

Works of art and almost 40,000 hectares (nearly 100,000 acres) of land dotted with vineyards and forests must also be returned.

Additionally, churches are due to receive financial compensation worth 59 billion koruna over 30 years for seized assets that cannot be returned in kind.

Arguing these sums are "excessive", the Communist Party wants to slap a 19-percent tax on the compensation from 2019.

Their bill is likely to pass given the leverage the Communists have with the new minority government of billionaire populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who relied on their backing to win a confidence vote on Thursday.

"It boggles the imagination," priest Stanislav Pribyl, secretary general of the Czech Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference, told AFP.

"How can you impose a tax on this (compensation)? We are the creditor and the state is the debtor here!" he added.

- 'Ruined lives' -

With more than a million believers, the Catholic church is the single largest denomination and is slated to receive up to 80 percent of the compensation package.

Believers however are a minority in the Czech Republic, an EU and NATO member state of 10.6 million people, where 8.6 million people identified as non-believers or left the religion column empty in the 2011 census.

Imposed by the Soviet Union, the Communist Party ruled Czechoslovakia from 1948 until the Velvet Revolution toppled the regime in 1989, four years before the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Under communism, the Catholic church and others suffered severe persecution, including the confiscation of property and the imprisonment, torture and killing of priests.

"The Communists have never cut themselves off from their past, they caused economic damage, ruined lives and people's health," said Pribyl.

"If these people now want to slap a tax on the compensation, which is a partial remedy for all that injustice, it's a scandal," he added.

But Communist lawmaker Vladimir Konicek, the mastermind behind the tax bill, argues that churches stand to receive double compensation in some cases.

Konicek points to churches filing lawsuits over buildings and land which he insists are already covered by the state's cash compensation package.

"What is scandalous is the amount. In the end, they may get the payment and, if the court says yes, the assets too. So they'll get it twice," he said.

- 'Irrelevant' -

With several hardline Stalinists in its ranks, the staunchly pro-Russian and anti-NATO Communist Party has gained a role in government, albeit an unofficial one, for the first time since the collapse of communism by backing the Babis minority coalition.

Both Babis's populist ANO movement and its left-wing Social Democrats coalition partners have no problem with the tax.

"We agree with this in the long run," said Babis, a farm, chemicals and media tycoon and a pre-1989 Communist, who is facing an EU subsidy probe.

He is also accused of serving as a Communist secret police agent before 1989. Babis has denied any wrongdoing.

Claiming that the compensation offered to churches is "54 billion koruna higher than it should be", Babis, who was finance minister between 2014-17, also insists that "it must be taxed".

Pribyl, however, claims that the level of compensation was approved by an international audit.

"I can't imagine any changes to the law or the deals with the state," he told AFP, slamming the Communist plan as "irrelevant".