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Czech lawmakers approve taxation of church restitution plan

PRAGUE (AP) — The Czech Parliament's lower house on Wednesday approved a proposal drafted by Communist lawmakers to tax the compensation that the country's churches receive for property seized by the former Communist regime.

The 106-56 vote showed the rising influence of the far-left Communists on Czech politics. The party is not part of the center-left ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Andrej Babis, but helped the minority Cabinet survive a confidence vote.

After the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, they confiscated all the property owned by churches, which were allowed to function only under strict state control. According to a 2012 law, the nation's churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish community, are to receive some $3 billion over 30 years to compensate for property seized by the state.

A power-sharing deal that Babis, a populist billionaire, signed with the maverick Communists last year gave them a role in governing for the first time since the country's 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution. The taxation was one of the Communists' key conditions.

Babis argues that the compensation is too generous and needs correction. The upper house, which is controlled by the opposition, is expected to reject the Communist plan. But the Communists and the coalition formed by Babis' centrist ANO movement and the leftist Social Democrats hold a majority in the 200-seat lower house and can override such a veto. The anti-migrant, populist Freedom and Direct Democracy party also joined forces with the Communists.

The opposition and some legal experts said the proposal was not in line with the law, and the churches plan to challenge it at the Constitutional Court, the country's highest legal authority. "It's a victory of populism over common sense and the rule of law," said Stanislav Pribyl, the secretary general of the Czech Bishops' Conference.

Unlike most other communist parties in central Europe that have joined the left-wing mainstream in recent decades, the Czech party has maintained a hardline stance and is vehemently opposed to NATO.

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