- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2012

PRAGUE Churches were seized, priests were jailed or even executed, and those allowed to lead religious services did so under the watchful eye of the secret police.

More than 22 years after the fall of communism, the Czech government agreed Wednesday to pay billions of dollars in compensation for property seized by the former totalitarian regime.

At one point this week, however, the deal threatened to topple the coalition government after a junior partner voiced anger at the thought of huge sums being paid to churches, given the current economic gloom.

But in a country where indifference to religion is strong, the compensation plan proved doubly beneficial: The state no longer wanted to pay the priests’ salaries, and religious groups expressed relief after previous failed attempts.

The communist regime, which seized power in 1948 in what was then Czechoslovakia, confiscated all the property owned by churches and persecuted many priests.

Churches were then allowed to function only under the state’s strict control and supervision, and priests’ salaries were paid by the state.

After the 1989 Velvet Revolution brought democracy to the region, some churches and monasteries were returned, but the churches have since sought to get back other assets, such as farms, woodlands and buildings.

Wednesday’s ruling still needs the approval of parliament, but the governing three-party coalition has a comfortable majority.

Under the plan, the country’s 17 churches, Catholic and Protestant, would get 56 percent of their former property now held by the state - estimated at $3.7 billion - and $2.9 billion in financial compensation paid to them over the next 30 years.

The state also will gradually stop covering their expenses over the next 17 years.

Culture Minister Alena Hanakova, whose ministry drafted the bill, called the decision “historic,” and the Catholic Czech Bishops’ Conference welcomed the move, saying it hoped parliament would follow suit.

The Catholic Church will receive the biggest share of the restitution money.

In 2008, a similar bill was approved by the government but rejected by parliament.

The government’s decision Wednesday came after its junior coalition party withdrew its objection to the plan.

Prime Minister Petr Necas had threatened to dismiss the Public Affairs party’s ministers if they blocked the proposal, which would have ended the three-party coalition that came to power after the 2010 election.

“It’s crucial that we’ve managed to agree on it,” Mr. Necas said.

Public Affairs Chairman Radek John said his party agreed only after it received guarantees the government would not apply cuts and other austerity measures to raise funds for the compensation.

“Common citizens won’t be affected,” Mr. John said.

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