U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2000 - Poland

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

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

Both government policy and the generally amicable relationship among religions in society contribute to the free practice of religion; however, sporadic incidents of harassment and violence against Jews, and occasional desecration of Jewish and Catholic cemeteries continued, mostly generated by skinheads and other marginal elements of society.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. U.S. Embassy and Consulate General Krakow representatives actively monitor threats to religious freedom and seek to further resolution of unsettled legacies of the Holocaust and the Communist era.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

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

There are 15 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. Four new religious communities registered during the period covered by this report. All churches and recognized religious groups share the same privileges (duty-free importation of office equipment, reduced taxes, etc.).

In mid-2000, the Government announced plans to establish by September 2000 a department within the Ministry of Interior to monitor the activities of "new religious groups" and cults. As of the end of June 2000 the new department had not yet been formed.

Religious Demography

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 2000 poll, some 68 percent of citizens actively participate in religious ceremonies; a 1999 poll found that 8 percent declared that they have no contact with the Catholic Church. The 1999 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. The Government 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 identifies and encourages the preservation of historic sites associated with the heritage of American citizens from eastern and central Europe, to include cemeteries and houses of worship.

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 2000, 2,413 of the 3,041 claims filed by the Church had been concluded, with 1,123 claims settled by agreement between the Church and the party in possession of the property (usually the national or a local government), 844 properties were returned through decision of the Commission on Property Restitution, which rules on disputed claims, 434 claims were rejected, and 12 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 458 had been filed by the summer of 2000, mainly because the country's Jewish community lacks the information and financial resources to prepare claims more quickly. Of those 458 claims, the Commission on Property Restitution considered and closed 98 cases; 53 of the 98 cases were closed by an agreement between the parties. As of early 2000, Lutheran claims for 1,200 properties had resulted in 392 cases being closed with the return of the properties in question (the deadline for filing such claims was July 1996).

However, the laws on religious communal property do not address the private property of any group. In September 1999, the Government's Council of Ministers approved a draft reprivatization law. The bill was amended in committee in a way that would have made it impossible to address the claims of former Polish citizens living abroad. The Government opposed the amendment and the committee has since changed the draft to allow once again for claims by persons who were citizens at the time the property was seized, as well as by their heirs. The bill remains in committee and could see additional changes.

The laws on communal property restitution also do not 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 continued in 1999-2000 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.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

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 in 1998-99.

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 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. In August 1998, radical nationalist anti-Semites erected dozens of additional crosses outside Auschwitz in protest of plans to remove the Pope's Cross, despite the opposition of the country's bishops. 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, the leader of the Defenders of the Pope's Cross, Kazimierz 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, including both Jewish and Catholic shrines, also occurred during 1999 and the first half of 2000. 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 July 1999, unknown vandals sprayed swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti on the Jewish community headquarters in Bielsko-Biala. According to the mayor of Bielsko-Biala, city police officers were ordered to guard the building after the attack and an investigation was opened into the case; however, there were no results by mid-2000. Anti-Semitic graffiti were painted on several monuments in the Tarnow Jewish cemetery in August 1999; the incident was criticized by the local bishop. In September 1999, vandals attacked several tombs in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, leaving satanic graffiti and damaging a number of monuments. The chief of the Prime Minister's chancery immediately criticized the vandalism.

In February 2000, near Katowice, some 60 graves were desecrated in what apparently was an attempt to steal and sell the stones from the local Catholic cemetery. Later in the month, two other Catholic cemeteries were desecrated with Satanist graffiti, one near Zamosc and one near Wroclaw. In March 2000, teenage hooligans vandalized a monument to martyred priest Jerzy Popielusko.

Also in March 2000, the citizens of Lodz took action of their own accord to clean up anti-Semitic (and other) graffiti in the town. The same evening as the clean-up, vandals spray-painted anti-Semitic and anti-Roma graffiti on the home of Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising. The attack was criticized strongly by both the President and the Prime Minister.

In April 2000, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma graffiti were painted on the wall of the Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim (Auschwitz). The town paid to have the graffiti removed. Also in April, on two successive nights, vandals in Krakow painted swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of a local museum, whose site once had housed a pharmacy operated by the only non-Jewish Pole to live in the Krakow ghetto. Local police promised to step up patrols in the area. The same month, Satanist graffiti defaced some 20 gravestones in a Catholic cemetery in a village near Poznan.

Investigations continued into the May 1998 desecration of graves in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery and the July 1998 vandalism of a plaque commemorating Jewish Holocaust victims in Rzeszow. No charges have been filed to date, and the Rzeszow case is still under investigation. In the case of the 1997 beating of a 14-year-old Jewish boy in Gdansk, the defendant received a 4-year suspended sentence. The attack may have been linked to a sermon by controversial Gdansk priest Henryk Jankowski warning against the presence of Jews in the Government.

The March 1999 publication of a booklet by Opole University professor Dariusz Ratajczak denying the Holocaust triggered severe public criticism in March and April of the year. The booklet was self-published (a total of 230 copies), and as soon as it became aware of the publication, the university banned its distribution on school property, criticized its contents, and suspended the professor pending further disciplinary action. Ratajczak's trial began in November 1999 on charges of violating the law on the preservation of national memory, which took effect on January 1, 1999 for "disseminating the Auschwitz lie." In December 1999, the Opole district court acquitted him and ruled that the "social threat" posed by the book was low, given the low number of copies published, and that in the book's second edition and in Ratajczak's public appearances he criticized the revisionist views of historians who deny the Holocaust. The university, which is state run, fired him in April 2000 for violating ethical standards, and he was banned from teaching at other universities for 3 years.

The Parliament (Sejm) is currently considering a law whose provisions could allow for the restoration of citizenship to Jews who were forced to emigrate during a Communist anti-Semitic campaign in 1968.

In May 2000, during the 12th March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau to honor victims of the Holocaust, several hundred Poles joined the presidents of Israel and Poland as well as some 6,000 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 Members of Parliament, the province's governor, and Oswiecim's mayor and city council chairman. Schoolchildren, boy scouts, the Polish-Israeli Friendship Society, and the Jewish Students Association in Poland also participated in the march.

The Jewish community faced a continuing battle, which began 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 nonmainstream 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.

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 the Consulate General play a continuing role in ongoing efforts to establish an international foundation to oversee restitution of Jewish communal property. A U.S. Government mediator worked with the two sides (the Polish Union of Jewish Religious Communities and the World Jewish Restitution Organization) to resolve outstanding differences that have delayed establishment of such a foundation. In June 2000, the sides reached agreement. The sides must now submit the appropriate documentation to a Polish court so that the foundation can be registered as a non-profit organization.

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 public affairs sections of the Embassy and the Consulate in Krakow provided continuing support for activities designed to promote cultural and religious tolerance. Such activities included a digital videoconference linking young Poles with U.S. participants in the March of the Living; a 2-week voluntary visitor program for senior administrators at the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum; and ongoing press and public affairs support for the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation and its project to renovate the last remaining synagogue in Oswiecim.

This report is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with Section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The 2000 Report covers the period from July 1, 1999 to June 30, 2000

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.