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Churches in the Czech Republic are challenging a controversial new law that they claim restricts religious activities, comparing it to controls placed on religion under communist rule.

Under the law, government officials have jurisdiction over the opening of places of worship and the establishment of religious communities. The legislation also requires churches to use income from their activities solely for religious—not civil or social—purposes.

The law, which went into effect on January 7, replaces legislation enacted two years after the fall of communist rule in 1989.

Among other things, the law obliges church charities such as the Roman Catholic Caritas to re-register as taxable civic enterprises.

"What we're seeing is a return to the communist era," said Nadeje Mandysova, secretary-general of the Czech Ecumenical Council, which groups 11 Protestant and Orthodox denominations. "We still don't fully understand why such a hostile campaign is being waged against us."

The council was scheduled to meet with Roman Catholic leaders this week to finalize the wording of a joint appeal they plan to lodge with the Constitutional Court by the end of the month, Mandysova said. They will ask the court to declare the law unconstitutional and to indicate changes that would bring it in line with the law.

The new legislation represents the most recent dispute in an ongoing church-government feud. Since the fall of communism in the Czech Republic, churches have demanded that the government return communist-seized church properties and clarify the churches' financial status in this nation where clergy salaries are paid by the state.

Mandysova said the government would be forced to heed the churches' human rights objections so as not ...

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