The Czech government has agreed, after almost two decades of dispute, to compensate churches for properties confiscated under communist rule, and also to make them financially independent from the state - writes Jonathan Luxmoore.
"There's a common desire now to solve these problems; what remains are the specific conditions," said Jiri Grecka, spokesperson for the Roman Catholic bishops' conference in the Czech Republic.
"If this proposal goes ahead, it will show the state is genuinely willing to co-operate with us and see justice is done for past abuses," Grecka stated. "This will signal a new era."
The government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has said it will bring a draft law before parliament in December to deal with the issue of the confiscated properties.
Under the agreement reached by church and government negotiators, communist-seized properties will be returned to religious orders, and compensation totalling 83 billion Czech crowns (US$4.5 billion) will be paid over a period of 70 years to dioceses and parishes.
Direct state payments to churches, including clergy salaries, will be reduced annually over the next decade, and finally end in 2018.
Grecka told Ecumenical News International the agreement would mainly affect the Catholic Church, which owned 95 percent of properties seized after the 1948 imposition of communist rule.
"Public opinion has been against paying compensation, since people don't see why churches needed property in the first place," Grecka said. "It may be more positive when it realises this proposal would finally make the churches independent, and end their need for state money."
Zuzana Dvorakova, the general secretary of the Czech Ecumenical Council, which groups 11 non-Catholic denominations, said it was unclear whether the proposal would gain approval in parliament, where Social Democrat and former communist lawmakers have previously vigorously opposed draft laws to settle church property issues.
Still, Dvorakova noted, "This is the most important attempt to solve the problem in recent years".
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]