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BY Jonathan Luxmoore
WARSAW, POLAND—A Catholic religious order has objected to a controversial statement by the head of the Czech government, rejecting a court ruling which would have cleared the way for the return of the order's communist-seized properties.
However, a Czech Bishops Conference official said he believed the premier was merely adopting a “tough stance” in preparation for long-awaited Church-State negotiations.
“This is a strange stance for the premier of a democratic state,” said Pavel Tollner, a lay leader of the Order of the Holy Virgin Mary of Jerusalem.
“What's at stake isn't only our properties, but freedom and fairness, as well as the independence of our courts and the quality of our legal system.”
Tollner, himself a politician, was reacting to the mid-January statement by Social Democrat Premier Milos Zeman, who said the order would not get back “a single pebble” — despite a ruling by Prague's City Court that its properties had been confiscated illegally.
The 800-year-old Holy Virgin order had first gone to court seven years ago in a bid to recover 106 buildings seized by Czechoslovakia's then ruling communists in 1950.
“Our order hasn't been treated in such an un-European way since World War II,” Tollner, a parliamentarian with the Czech Republic's Christian Democratic Party, told the Register.
“It's ironic that our properties in Austria were returned to us in 1946 by Soviet occupation forces, whereas half a century later a democratically elected government is refusing to give them back in the Czech Republic.”
Founded by German Crusaders to the Holy Land in 1190, the Vienna-based Holy Virgin order has 100 priests and 300 nuns worldwide, working mostly in schools and hospitals, and is currently headed by an Italian Grand Master, Prior Arnold Wieland.
In 1997, the liberal Czech government of Vaclav Klaus agreed to return a 14th century castle at Bouzov to the order, which dates its presence in Czech Bohemia back to 1203.
However, the move was resisted by local Czech residents with backing from the Social Democrats, who claimed order leaders had collaborated with the Germans in World War II, and were thereby ineligible to reclaim properties under Czech law.
The collaboration charge was overturned in 1998 by the Prague City Court, which confirmed that the order's possessions were confiscated illegally.
However, Czech newspapers report that Premier Zeman appeared to have arbitrarily overruled the possibility of rectifying the unlawful seizures with his hard-line statement this month.
A Bishops Conference official said other government members had warned that restitutions to the Holy Virgin order could stir “anti-German tensions.”
However, he added that the order's Czech chapter has “no direct German connections,” and said he believed Zeman was merely attempting a “tough populist stance” in the run-up to formal Church-State negotiations.
“The Social Democrat government has said it wishes to begin talks with the Church, knowing it must bring Church-State ties into line with European Union norms as a prelude to eventual EU membership,” the official told the Register. “But [the Social Democrat party] also represents the secularized part of our society. So it wants to signal to its voters that it won't be too friendly towards us.”
In his Register interview, the order's Pavel Tollner said Church leaders had supported requests by the religious order, including Bishop Frantisek Lobkovic of Plzen, who ordained a deacon at the order's 13th century headquarters in Opava on December 8.
He added that the Nazi collaboration charge had been “especially hurtful,” since several senior Holy Virgin members had died in German concentration camps.
All order buildings would be used as schools, hospitals and oldage homes when returned, Tollner stressed.
“We've said we can pay a symbolic rent if the State has difficulty handing back these properties,” the politician continued. “But they belong to our order and we must have our rightful ownership acknowledged.”
The Catholic Church in the Czech Republic has requested the return of 800 of 3,300 confiscated pre-war buildings, but has so far received only 170.
Although Zeman's Social Democrat government agreed to set up a property commission after taking office in Spring 1998, Church-government talks broke down in November when Church leaders objected to the presence of former communists on the government team.
They were revised earlier this month when Czech Culture Minister Pavel Dostal pledged the government would nominate “non-partisan” negotiators after introductory talks with Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague.
However, several press commentators criticised the premier's latest hard stand with the Holy Virgin order as signalling a lack of genuine interest in negotiations with the Church, which are expected to open this Spring in the presence of a Vatican representative.