U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Poland

Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

There are 14 religious groups in the country whose relationship with the State is governed by specific legislation and 140 other religious communities. The legislation outlines the internal structure of the religious groups, their activities, and procedures for property restitution.

Religious communities may register with the Government, but they are not required to do so and may function freely without registration. According to new regulations effective as of June 1998, registration requires that the group have submitted the names of 100 members as well as information regarding the group itself. This information on membership (i.e., signatures) must be confirmed by a notary public (previously only 15 names were required), although the registration itself often appears to be a formality. No new religious communities have sought to register since the change in requirements; one international interdenominational group is in the process of registering under the auspices of an existing congregation. All churches and recognized religious groups share the same privileges (duty-free importation of office equipment, reduced taxes, etc.).

More than 95 percent of citizens are Roman Catholic, but Eastern Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and much smaller Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim congregations meet freely.

According to the Annual Statistical Gazette of Poland, the following figures represent the formal membership of the listed religious groups, but not the number of actual members (e.g., the actual number of Jews in the country is estimated at between 10,000 and 30,000). There are 35,033,087 Roman Catholics in the country; 554,860 Orthodox Church members; 122,982 Jehovah's Witnesses; 110,380 Uniates; 87,291 Lutherans (Augsburg); 25,904 Old Catholic Mariavits; 23,969 members of the Polish-Catholic Church; 17,966 Pentecostals; 6,720 Seventh-Day Adventists; 5,894 Baptists; 5,438 members of the New Apostolic Church; 5,123 members of the Muslim Religious Union; 5,043 Hare Krishnas; 4,349 Methodists; 4,100 members of the Church of Christ; 3,980 Lutherans (Reformed); 3,011 Catholic Mariavits; 1,222 members of the Union of Jewish Communities; 950 members of the Eastern Old Ceremonial Church; and 180 members of the Karaims Religious Union. All of these churches have a relationship with the State governed by either legislation or treaty, with the exception of Jehovah's Witnesses, the Uniate Church, the New Apostolic Church, Hare Krishnas, and the Church of Christ.

According to a recent poll, some 58 percent of citizens actively participate in religious ceremonies; 8 percent declare that they have no contact with the Catholic Church. The same survey found women to be more religious than men, with 63 percent of the former attending church regularly compared with 51 percent of the latter. Farmers are the most religious group: 70 percent are regular churchgoers, while only 2 percent do not go to church at all. No figures are available on the number of atheists in the country, although one recent poll found that 4 percent of respondents said that they did not believe in God.

Citizens enjoy the freedom to practice any faith they choose. Religious groups may organize, select, and train personnel, solicit and receive contributions, publish, and engage in consultations without government interference. There are no government restrictions on establishing and maintaining places of worship.

Foreign missionary groups operate freely in the country and are subject only to the standard rules applicable to foreigners temporarily in the country.

Although the Constitution provides for the separation of church and state, a crucifix hangs in both the upper and lower houses of Parliament, as well as in many government offices. In June 1998, a provincial court decided that a crucifix hung in the meeting room of the Lodz city council in 1990 could remain, denying the complaint of a city resident. An atheist complained that the crucifix threatened religious freedom and discriminated against him.

State-run radio broadcasts Catholic Mass on Sundays, and the Catholic Church is authorized to relicense radio and television stations to operate on frequencies assigned to the Church, the only body outside the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council allowed to do so.

Although the Constitution gives parents the right to bring up their children in compliance with their own religious and philosophical beliefs, religious education classes continue to be taught in the public schools at public expense. While children are supposed to have the choice between religious instruction and ethics, the Ombudsman's office states that in most schools ethics courses are not offered due to financial constraints. Although Catholic Church representatives teach the vast majority of religious classes in the schools, parents can request religious classes in any of the religions legally registered, including Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish religious instruction. Such non-Catholic religious instruction exists in practice, although it is not common, and the Ministry of Education pays the instructors. Priests and other instructors receive salaries from the state budget for teaching religion in public schools, and Catholic Church representatives are included on a commission that determines whether books qualify for school use.

In January 1998, the Parliament ratified the Concordat, a treaty regulating relations between the Government and the Vatican, which was signed in 1993. The vote came after years of bitter disputes between Concordat supporters and opponents over whether the treaty simply ensures the Catholic Church's rights or blurs the line between church and state. Subsequently signed by the President, the Concordat took effect in April 1998.

The Government continues to work with both local and international religious groups to address property claims and other sensitive issues stemming from Nazi- and Communist-era confiscations and persecutions. The Government enjoys good relations with international Jewish groups. It cooperates effectively with a variety of international organizations, both governmental and nongovernmental, including the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, which refurbishes historical sites, often cemeteries and houses of worship, such as synagogues.

Progress continues in implementing the laws that permit local religious communities to submit claims for property owned prior to World War II that subsequently was nationalized. In 1997 a law was passed permitting the local Jewish community to submit claims for such property, which mirrored legislation benefiting other religious communities. The laws allow for the return of churches and synagogues, cemeteries, and community headquarters, as well as buildings that were used for other religious, educational, or charitable activities. The laws included time limits for filing claims; in several cases the deadlines have expired and no additional claims may be filed. However, restitution commissions (composed of representatives of the Government and the religious community) are continuing adjudication of previously filed claims.

The time limit for applications by the Catholic Church expired in December 1991. As of the summer of 1999, 2,285 of the 3,038 claims filed by the Church had been concluded, with 1,028 claims settled by agreement between the Church and the party in possession of the property (usually the national or a local government), 834 properties were returned through decision of the Commission on Property Restitution, which rules on disputed claims, 412 claims were rejected, and 11 cases were likely to go to court. Claims by the local Jewish community (whose deadline for filing claims under the 1997 law expires in 2002) are being filed slowly. Of the thousands of potential claims, only 358 had been filed by the summer of 1999, mainly because the country's Jewish community lacks the information and financial resources to prepare claims more quickly. Of those 358 claims, the Commission on Property Restitution considered and closed 66 cases. In other cases the Commission directed the parties to reach a settlement or submit new documentation, and 40 of the 66 cases were closed by an agreement between the parties. As of early 1999, Lutheran claims for 1,200 properties had resulted in 288 cases being closed with the return of the properties in question (the deadline for filing such claims was July 1996). Some 75 of the 189 properties claimed by the Orthodox Church have been returned (the deadline for filing such claims was August 1993).

However, the laws on religious communal property do not address the private property of any group. Nor do they address the issue of communal properties to which third parties now have title, leaving several controversial and complicated cases unresolved. In a number of cases over the years, buildings and residences were built on land that included Jewish cemeteries that were destroyed during or after World War II. For example, a school for disabled children now stands on the site of a completely destroyed Jewish cemetery in Kalisz. The existence of the school complicated the issue of returning the cemetery to the Jewish community. Efforts were under way as of June 1999 to reach a resolution acceptable to all concerned.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Current law places Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish communities on the same legal footing, and the Government attempts to address the problems that minority religious groups face. Relations between the various religious communities are generally amicable, although the erection by radical nationalist anti-Semites of some 300 crosses near the former Auschwitz concentration camp caused tensions in Catholic-Jewish relations. The Government's actions in removing the crosses in May 1999 were in accordance with the rule of law.

Anti-Semitic feelings persist among certain sectors of the population, occasionally manifesting themselves in acts of vandalism and physical or verbal abuse. However, surveys in recent years show a continuing decline in anti-Semitic sentiment, and avowedly anti-Semitic candidates fare very poorly in elections.

In March 1998, a controversy arose over the "Pope's Cross," located on the grounds of a former Carmelite convent in Oswiecim adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp museum. The cross originally adorned the altar at a Mass conducted by Pope John Paul II near Birkenau in 1979 and was erected at the site of the Carmelite mission in 1989. The Plenipotentiary for Relations with the Jewish Diaspora, Krzystof Sliwiniski, was quoted in a French newspaper as saying that the cross would be removed, because its presence was disrespectful of the Jewish legacy at Auschwitz. By the end of March 1998, a large group of government and nongovernment leaders, including then Chief of the Prime Minister's Cabinet Wieslaw Walendziak, 130 Sejm deputies, 16 senators, former President Lech Walesa, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, Bishop Tadeusz Rokoczy, and Gdansk Archbishop Tadeusz Goclowski, went on record as opposing the removal of the cross. The cross is clearly visible from the former camp's Block 11 and marks the site where Polish political prisoners (possibly including Catholic priests) and later Jewish prisoners were murdered by the Nazis. Two radical rightwing groups also emerged that oppose the plan to remove the cross. The leader of the Defenders of the Pope's Cross, Kazimierz Switon, and Mieczyslaw Janosz, leader of the Association of War Victims, which leased the land on which the cross stood, distributed inflammatory anti-Semitic leaflets opposing the removal of the cross. In August 1998, radical nationalist anti-Semites erected dozens of additional crosses outside Auschwitz, despite the opposition of the country's bishops. Government efforts to resolve the situation in the fall of 1998 through the courts by revoking the lease on the land held by the Association of War Victims met with little success. The Government wanted the local courts to agree to appoint an administrator for the former convent site pending a legal decision on the validity of the lease revocation. In October 1998, the local court refused the request to appoint such an administrator, a decision upheld in December 1998 by an appeals court in Bielsko Biala, which returned the lease issue to the local court. At the end of 1998, complicated legal maneuverings continued, and two separate cases were before the local court – the Government's effort to break the lease and the tenants' effort to have the government action ruled illegal. In May 1999, the Parliament passed a Government-sponsored law to protect the sites of all the former camps in the country. The Government consulted with international Jewish groups in preparing the law, which gave the Government the power it needed to resolve the issue of the "new crosses." In late May 1999, Switon announced that he had laid explosives under the site where the crosses were erected, and that he would detonate them if the Government attempted to remove him or the crosses. Police officers quickly arrested Switon for possessing explosives and making public threats. After Switon's arrest, local authorities removed the crosses to a nearby Franciscan monastery, under the supervision of the local Bishop, and sealed off the site to prevent the erection of additional crosses. The Pope's Cross is not to be removed from the site for the time being.

Sporadic and isolated incidents of harassment and violence against Jews continue to occur in the country, often generated by skinheads and other marginal societal groups. Occasional cases of cemetery desecration, most often of Jewish cemeteries but also including Catholic shrines, also occurred during 1998 and the first half of 1999. Government authorities consistently criticized such actions and pledged to prevent similar acts in the future, for example by increased police patrols around Jewish sites.

In January 1998, a rock was thrown through the window of the Jewish community headquarters in Katowice, hitting the doors of an adjacent prayer room. Immediately following the incident, then National Police Chief Marek Papala instructed the Katowice provincial police chief to work with the Jewish community to tighten security around the property. Papala also sent a letter to the other province-level police commanders instructing them to make themselves available to discuss Jewish community security concerns. Local police continue to work with Jewish community leaders to resolve the case. In May 1998, vandals desecrated 27 Jewish graves in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery in two separate incidents. Police investigated the attacks but have been unable to identify any suspects. Jewish graves also were vandalized at the Palmiry cemetery near Warsaw, which houses the graves of victims of Nazi executions during World War II. The grave of pre-World War II Sejm speaker Maciej Rataj – a Polish Catholic – also was vandalized in that attack. Within days of the incident, both Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek and Sejm Speaker Maciej Plazynski visited the cemetery and laid flowers on the desecrated graves. In a public address, the Prime Minister criticized the act and stressed that society must do all it can to prevent similar acts in the future. He also pledged government funds to restore the vandalized graves. The vandals responsible for both incidents are still at large.

In July 1998, unknown perpetrators vandalized a plaque commemorating Rzeszow Jews killed in the Holocaust. The vandals spray-painted anti-Semitic and anti-German slogans below the plaque, which hangs on the wall of a Rzeszow synagogue. Rzeszow city officials reacted swiftly and cleaned up the plaque upon discovery of the vandalism. Vandals in that area previously had targeted Catholic churches and cemeteries as well as a statue of a World War II hero. Police continue to search for those responsible. In October 1998, vandals attacked and damaged 56 gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in Krakow. On several weekends in 1998, groups of skinheads gathered outside the Wroclaw synagogue for demonstrations, occasionally subjecting persons attending services to verbal abuse. Authorities moved to ensure the safety of the worshipers. The demonstrations ended shortly thereafter, and as of June 1999 none had taken place for several months.

In January 1999, vandals damaged or destroyed 57 gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in Krakow. Vandals had attacked the same cemetery in October 1998. After the first incident police officers increased their patrols of the cemetery. Police promised additional, special protection after the second incident to prevent further attacks. In May 1999, the cemetery was vandalized again when unidentified perpetrators overturned 30 gravestones and set fire to the main door of the pre-burial house. However, the chairman of the local Jewish community called this an act of hooliganism, not anti-Semitism, since in the weeks preceding the attack vandals had smashed gravestones and otherwise damaged two nearby Catholic cemeteries. The chairman also noted the cooperation of the Krakow city police with the Jewish community to improve the security of the cemetery. In June the cemetery was attacked yet again when vandals painted crosses on several tombstones and on the pre-burial house. This incident appears to have been motivated by anti-Semitism, since members of the Jewish community received telephone calls linking the graffiti to the recent removal of crosses that were placed near the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

The Gdansk prosecutor's investigation into the 1997 beating of a 14-year-old Jewish boy by a 17-year-old skinhead is ongoing. The attack, which occurred a week after controversial Gdansk priest Henryk Jankowski delivered a sermon warning against the presence of Jews in the Government, was widely believed to have been motivated by anti-Semitism.

The President's office announced in March 1998 that it would make every effort to speed the process of restoring citizenship to Jews who were forced to emigrate during a Communist anti-Semitic campaign in 1968. Between 12,000 and 20,000 persons of Jewish descent are believed to have fled the country as a result of the campaign.

The publication of a booklet by an Opole University professor denying the Holocaust triggered severe public criticism in March and April 1999. The booklet was self-published, and the University banned its distribution on school property, criticized its contents, and suspended the professor pending further disciplinary action as soon as it became aware of the publication. The Opole prosecutor's office is investigating whether to bring charges against the professor for violating the Law on the Institute of National Memory, which took effect on January 1, 1999.

In April 1999, during the 11th March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau to honor victims of the Holocaust, several hundred Poles joined about 2,000 marchers from Israel and other countries. This was the largest participation of Polish citizens in the event to date. Government officials participating in the march included approximately 12 Members of Parliament, the province's governor, and Oswiecim's mayor and city council chairman. Polish school children, Boy Scouts, the Polish-Israeli Friendship Society, and the Jewish Students Association in Poland also participated in the march.

The Jewish community faced a bitter battle in April 1999 between Gdansk's local Jewish community and the leadership of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland (ZGZ), involving accusations of mismanagement of community funds.

There is some public concern about the growth of groups perceived to be "sects" and the influence of non-mainstream religious groups, especially in the wake of press reports of the deaths of a few young persons in circumstances suggesting cult activity.

Interfaith groups work to bring together the various religious groups in the country. During the Pope's trip to the country in June 1999, he met with representatives of groups ranging from the Jewish community to the indigenous Muslim community, as well as with Protestant leaders.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

Representatives of the U.S. Embassy and Consulate General, up to and including the Ambassador, continue to monitor closely issues relating to religious freedom and interfaith relations; one officer devotes the vast majority of his time to questions of Polish/Jewish relations, for example. Embassy and consulate officers meet frequently with representatives of religious communities, the Government, and local authorities on such matters as property restitution, skinhead harassment, and interfaith cooperation.

Embassy and consulate representatives actively monitor threats to religious freedoms; the Embassy intervened to assure rapid police response to threatening demonstrations by skinheads against the Jewish community of Wroclaw in 1998. The Embassy and Consulate General work as well to facilitate the protection and return of former Jewish cemeteries throughout the country.

On a regular basis, embassy and consulate officials discuss issues of religious freedom, including property restitution, with a wide range of government officials at all levels. The Embassy and Consulate General play a continuing role in ongoing efforts to establish an international foundation to oversee restitution of Jewish communal property, for example. As part of continuing efforts to encourage interfaith dialog, the Embassy and Consulate General provide support and guidance to several groups working to enhance such understanding.

Embassy and consulate representatives, including the Ambassador, also meet regularly with representatives of major religious communities in the country. The Ambassador holds regular consultations with Primate Glemp and meets with religious leaders, including leaders of the Jewish community, both in the capital and during his travels throughout the country.

The U.S. Information Service (USIS) provided press support for the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation's ceremony rededicating the synagogue in Oswiecim. High level officials of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum participated in a voluntary visitors program in the United States. USIS also provided press support for the Polish tour of the Zamir Chorale Group, a Jewish musical group originally from Poland that returned to the country for the first time in 1999.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.