The lower house of Parliament on Wednesday approved a controversial Communist Party proposal for Church restitutions to be taxed. Although the bill was only passed in its first reading, support from the parties currently debating a coalition-in-the making has cast doubt on the future of a hard-won settlement between the country’s 16 churches and the State.
The 2012 agreement on compensating churches for property seized by the Communists was one of the most sensitive issues tackled post-1989. Following a 20-year-debate, the centre right government of prime minister Petr Nečas and representatives of 16 churches signed bilateral agreements under which they would receive 75 billion crowns worth of land and property confiscated by the Communist regime and get 59 billion crowns worth of compensation money for the rest, to be paid by the state over a period of 30 years.
Although the Communist Party vehemently protests against the agreement, saying it was overinflated, and pushing for the compensation money to be taxed, until now they were powerless to oppose it.
This changed with the new balance of power in the lower house. The ANO party which won the elections and is striving to form the country’s next government agreed to support the proposal in return for tolerance from the Communists. The bill which would level an 19 percent tax on church restitution money won support in its first reading not only from the Communists and ANO, but also from the Social Democrats, a likely coalition partner in the next government, and the anti-migrant Freedom and Democracy Party which is seeking to push through its policy priorities in return for backing other parties’ proposals.
The outcome of the vote saw insults flying through the air as right-wing deputies denounced the move. The head of TOP 09’s deputies club in the lower house, Miroslav Kalousek said that this would amount to a second theft – 70 years after the first one.
“Your property is stolen. You receive compensation for it and then get taxed. That is utter nonsense.”
Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, whose party enabled the bill to be passed, argued that since the money allotted to churches was a form of income, it should rightly be taxed. He reminded the lower house that he had had serious reservations to it long before the coalition talks.
“I have nothing against Church restitutions, what I see as a problem is that they were overinflated by about 54 billion crowns.”
The prime minister claims that the estimate of the compensation sum based on the prices of land is way over the top and has repeatedly pointed out that some of the churches which were allotted restitution money were not eligible to receive any compensation since seven of them did not even exist before the fall of communism in 1989.
The bill will now have to pass through two more readings, but the parties which supported it in its first reading will only need to stick to their guns to see it through.
The Catholic Church has already made it clear that if that happens, it will lodge a complaint against it with the Constitutional Court.