Municipal Court: St. Vitus belongs to state

Veronika Suchá
2. 5. 2008 11:00
Church wants a new hearing at the Supreme Court

Prague - The Czech state again has the upper hand in a dispute over the ownership of St. Vitus Cathedral.  The Prague Municipal Court of Appeals has upheld a previous ruling that the cathedral and its adjacent property belong to the state.

The verdict's reasoning was based on the Supreme Court's ruling on this case in February of last year. That court repealed its first verdict, which the Municipal Court upheld in this case.

"We had to change our opinion on the issue," reasoned Senate Chairman Vladimír Fučík, whom Petr Zderčík, the church's legal representative, has accused of not respecting the position of the Supreme Court, saying that the current verdict was delivered on political grounds.

"The verdict isn't binding because it isn't legal, it's political," said Zderčík to Aktuálně.cz. During the dispute, even Zderčík acknowledged that his request to the Municipal Court is daring.

"I acknowledge that there has not yet been anything like this in our country," Zderčík added.

Both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals have upheld the state's principal arguments in the dispute.

The state argues that the church has not always been the sole owner of the cathedral and that it does not have the right to make claims on property through legal proceedings, but rather through restitution.

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk believes that the Supreme Court isn't objective in its rulings over church affairs. "Cases relating to the church at the Supreme Court are chosen by František Ištvánek who has a communist past," said Vlk.

Read more: Czech govt happy to pay churches off, calls it bargain

The dispute has been going on for fifteen years. Church institutions now want a hearing at the Supreme Court despite the fact that the court has already ruled on the issue. For the church however, this would be a formal step on the way to the Constitutional Court.

Battle in parliament

The dispute over St. Vitus Cathedral has now become a subject of political negotiation concerning the reconciliation of church and state. The government's position is now being decided by members of parliament.

Civic democrats´ (ODS) MP Miroslava Němcová, for example, has proposed an amendment that could see the cathedral in the hands of the state forever. 

"I want to prepare an amendment, according to which St. Vitus Cathedral would remain state property, as it is currently, and would be administrated by the Catholic Church, as is currently the case," said Němcová.

Last week, the Social Democrats proposed that the St. Vitus ruling be included as part of the law governing the church.

According Aktuálně.cz's information, the Social Democrats are in possession of a new legal analysis that effectively disputes the church's claim of ownership.

This argument asserts that the Roman Catholic Church has no right at all to seek restitution for a significant amount of property. Accordingly, the church was never the owner, but was only the administrator of this property.

St. Vitus for the Czechoslovak people?

The St. Vitus Metropolitan Chapter and the Collegiate Chapter of All Saints at Prague Castle are in litigation with the state, represented by the Office of the Government Representation in Property Affairs (ÚZSVM) and the Office of the President of the Republic.

The legal basis of the dispute is a question of whether the church had sole ownership of the cathedral or if it was transferred to the "Czechoslovak people" during the period after 1948.

Petr Zderčík, the lawyer for the Metropolitan Chapter, has submitted documents that he insists prove that the actual expropriation of the cathedral never happened.

A key document is a government decree from 1954, which established the protected area of Prague Castle as belonging to "all Czechoslovak people".

According to the church and previous court rulings, this does not have the legal power to change ownership. Representatives of the state however, insist that it actually did change the status of posession and that it should be upheld even on a legal basis, since other government regulations have refered to it since.

Zderčík cited a ruling by the attorney general from 1954, according to which church property is privately owned. "My clients were the owners of the cathedral. The communist regime even acknowledged this at the height of its power and fame in 1954," said Zderčík during a previous hearing.

Milada Šípková, the lawyer for the Office of the Government Representation in Property Affairs, acknowledges that property demands of the church from the state have still not been resolved in the years after the change of regime.

"Whatever I think about it, we won't solve this here through a civil suit. Only lawmakers, not the courts, can remedy the injustices of history. It seems to me undignified that we are fighting over the cathedral as if it were a small house on the properties of two neighbors," said Šípková to Aktuálně.cz.

According to her, this same principle could see anyone who was wronged by the land reforms of the 1990s for example, also choose litigation.

Key historical facts:

925 - A rotunda was built on the location of the current cathedral. In approximately 1060 Vratislav I commissioned the building of a basilica.

1085 - Vratislav II was crowned first Bohemian King in the basilica.

1344 - The first Archbishop of Prague Arnošt of Pardubice laid the cornerstone of the cathedral. It was commissioned by Charles IV when the Diocese of Prague was elevated to an archdiocese. Its first builder was Mathias of Arras, who worked on the cathedral until his death in 1352.

1356 - Petr Parléř overtook construction. Under his direction, the cathedral gained its unique late Gothic character. Parléř was ahead of his time by employing a hanging keystone, tracery and  star vault, exterior supporting arches and pillars and flamboyant lobes. He died in 1399.

1419 - Three hundred years of construction were stopped by the Hussite Wars. In June 1421, the cathedral was sacked by the Hussites. In 1541 it was burned to the ground. In 1757, during a Prussian siege of Prague, Frederick the Great shelled the cathedral.

1619 - Protestants ousted Catholic Archbishop Jan Lohel and took the cathedral for themselves.

1929 - Construction was completed and the cathedral was festively opened.

1945 - For the first time since the occupation, the Czech crown jewels were put on display. The crown jewels were confiscated by the Nazis. K.H. Frank, a prominent Nazi official, had walled them up in the Vladislav Hall and wanted to trade them for his life. They were later found.

1954 - The administration of the cathedral was transferred from the Association for the Upkeep of St. Vitus Cathedral, which was established by the will of Czech patriots in 1844, to the office of President Antonín Zápotocký. The dispute over the cathedral between the church and state has been ongoing since 1989.

1992 - By a decree of Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the cathedral was renamed the Cathedral of Sts. Vitus, Wenceslas and Vojtěch.

 

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