PRAGUE -- Churches were seized, priests jailed or executed and those who were still 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.
The deal threatened to topple the current coalition government earlier this week after a junior partner voiced anger at the thought of huge sums being paid to churches in the middle of the European debt crisis.
But even in a country where indifference to religion is strong, the compensation plan -- to be spread over 30 years -- proved to be a win-win situation. The government will no longer have to pay the priests' salaries and religious groups will finally get some compensation after several previous attempts had failed.
Under the plan, the country's 17 churches, including Roman Catholic and Protestant, would get 56 percent of their former property now held by the state -- estimated at $3.7 billion. They also would get $2.9 billion in financial compensation paid to them over the next 30 years, and the state will gradually stop covering their expenses during the next 17 years.
Wednesday's ruling still needs the approval of Parliament, but the governing three-party coalition has a comfortable majority. In 2008, a similar bill was rejected by Parliament.
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 will follow suit. The Catholic Church will receive the biggest share of the restitution money.
It all harks back to 1948, when the Communists seized power in the small central European nation then named Czechoslovakia.