Churches in the Czech Republic are challenging a controversial new law that they claim restricts religious activities, comparing it to controls placed on religion under communist rule.

Under the law, government officials have jurisdiction over the opening of places of worship and the establishment of religious communities. The legislation also requires churches to use income from their activities solely for religious—not civil or social—purposes.

The law, which went into effect on January 7, replaces legislation enacted two years after the fall of communist rule in 1989.

Among other things, the law obliges church charities such as the Roman Catholic Caritas to re-register as taxable civic enterprises.

"What we're seeing is a return to the communist era," said Nadeje Mandysova, secretary-general of the Czech Ecumenical Council, which groups 11 Protestant and Orthodox denominations. "We still don't fully understand why such a hostile campaign is being waged against us."

The council was scheduled to meet with Roman Catholic leaders this week to finalize the wording of a joint appeal they plan to lodge with the Constitutional Court by the end of the month, Mandysova said. They will ask the court to declare the law unconstitutional and to indicate changes that would bring it in line with the law.

The new legislation represents the most recent dispute in an ongoing church-government feud. Since the fall of communism in the Czech Republic, churches have demanded that the government return communist-seized church properties and clarify the churches' financial status in this nation where clergy salaries are paid by the state.

Mandysova said the government would be forced to heed the churches' human rights objections so as not to impede negotiations for the Czech Republic's admission to the European Union in January 2004.

"Changes will have to be made, since other European countries are watching us closely," said Mandysova, who is a member of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren. "But in the meantime, we must devise a new strategy for contacts with the government. Unless we can salvage something, the future for Czech churches looks bleak."

The law was passed by the parliament on December 18 in spite of previous vetoes by the upper house and by President Vaclav Havel. Havel had returned the law to parliament on December 5, ruling that it infringed the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, the legislation was passed with votes from the governing Social Democrat Party (SDS), which is dominated by former communists, as well as the liberal Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of former premier Vaclav Klaus.

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church said the law signified a "return to communist practices."

"Although a communist dictatorship no longer exists here, many legislators still harbor the same political habits," said Lawrence Cada, press officer for the Czech Bishops' Conference.

"The strongest politicians here distrust the churches and don't believe in freedom of association. They think all power should be in government hands and everyone else should just keep quiet."

Several factors emboldened lawmakers, Cada said. A census taken in spring 2001 suggested a fall in religious affiliations, which could have encouraged the government of premier Milos Zeman "to conclude most Czechs aren't behind the churches."

He added that a commission of experts appointed to advise the government on the proposed legislation had not met during the months immediately before its passage.

"The enacted text bears little relation to what the commission had previously advised, suggesting the government merely gave an impression of consultation," the Catholic press officer said. "Things have been added which weren't discussed, while some crucial issues don't feature at all."

Roman Catholic Cardinal Miloslav Vlk branded the law a "real threat to constitutionally guaranteed democracy and church freedom," and said he hoped Zeman's government could still agree to renegotiate certain provisions.

Related Elsewhere:

The 2001 International Religious Freedom Report on the Czech Republic said, "The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice."

In 2000, Christianity Today reported that Czech Republic monasteries also still feel the restrictions of the communist regime.

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