Catholic church gets back into business in Czech Republic

Inside the 12th century Zeliv monastery, overlooked by crucifixes on stone walls, is modern machinery that a visitor might not expect to find: a brand new beer production line.

It's part of a broader plan by the Catholic church to get into business and become self-sufficient in the Czech Republic, where for decades its activities had been suppressed by the former Communist regime's ambition to create a fully atheist society.

The church needs to get into business. In a grand restitution plan worth billions of dollars approved in 2012, the churches and religious groups have been receiving compensation for property seized by the Communists together with assets such as farmland, forests, art and buildings whose return they've sought since the 1989 Velvet Revolution toppled the totalitarian rule.

But as the state gradually reduces its contributions, the Catholic church, which has been the biggest beneficiary of those restitutions, is testing out ways to put that money to work and become financially independent. It's investing in everything from farming to financial markets.

At the Zeliv monastery, they're focusing on brewing — seemingly a safe bet in a nation where average consumption of beer is the highest in the world.

"It is a good promotion for us to have the beer here because it is a very popular drink in the Czech Republic," said Father Tadeas from the Canonry of Premonstratensians, a Catholic order that came to Zeliv in the 12th century. "Sometimes we joke that it's a tool for evangelizing."

The Catholic church had for centuries run business activities in the region but now, after a 40-year period of persecution, the risk is that it lacks the experience.

"It's clear to us that we cannot afford to make a mistake because we won't be getting the capital again," Stanislav Pribyl, the secretary general of the Czech Bishops' Conference, told The Associated Press. "Another thing is that we cannot cease to exist as a standard company or to get restructured. Simply, we have to prevail here, which demands that we invest responsibly and eliminate all possible risks."

The church in November for the first time revealed figures about its new business activities. They show it invested 1.2 billion koruna ($47 million) in 2015, mainly in farming, forestry, buildings, and financial products. It opened another new brewery in the northern city of Litomerice.

It spent 1.1 billion koruna ($43 million) on church schools and the restoration of more than 6,500 historic buildings. It has so far put 940 million koruna ($37 million) in an investment fund that has generated a 4 percent yield.

The church created over 3,100 jobs in 2015, and the number this year surpassed 4,000 and should grow further, Pribyl said. It employs another 7,500 people in its charity activities, making it a top-ten private employer.

The land and other assets the church is getting back were valued at 75 billion koruna ($3.7 billion) in 2012.

The church also gets 59 billion koruna ($2.9 billion as of 2012) in financial compensation to be paid through 2043, and the state will gradually stop covering its expenses by 2030.

It all began in 1948, when the Communists seized power in the former Czechoslovakia and confiscated all the property owned by churches and persecuted priests and nuns. Churches were allowed to function only under strict state control.

At least 65 Catholic priests, monks and nuns were executed or killed in prisons while others were driven to suicide amid the state's brutal campaign of terror.

Zeliv itself had a role in the Communist regime's campaign. It became a concentration camp where almost 500 priests and other church members were detained in the 1950s. It was later turned into a lunatic asylum.

Today, it's a small scale example of what is going on nationwide.

The Premonstratensians returned in the early 1990s and began restoring the dilapidated property into a place of worship.

Nowadays, six of them based here and 29 others in nearby parishes employ some 30 people to take care of 1,500 hectares of woodlands and other assets. The brewing originally opened in 2005, renewing a tradition that dates to 14th century, but it was this year that its output was ramped up to create a business. Production increased almost ten-fold to reach 2,000 hectoliters a year.

So far, only a small team of three brews four different kinds of craft beer, with additional specialties created for Christmas, Easter and other holidays. The beers bear names of memorable local abbots, including the very first one, Godsalk, who took charge in 1149.

They also opened a new restaurant and plan to rebuild a hotel in the monastery complex, which attracts some 10,000 visitors yearly. All of this might be too much for the monks to handle, who could have to hire more workers.

"Our concern is that we cannot afford to neglect our main mission due to worries about the property," said Father Tadeas. "Our brothers in the past knew how to succeed in both because they could share their experience generation from generation. We're still at the start."