U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2004 - Poland

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on September 15, 2004, covers the period from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004.

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

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, skinheads and other marginal elements of society continued to carry out sporadic incidents of harassment and violence against Jewish persons and occasional desecration of Jewish and, more frequently, Catholic cemeteries.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. U.S. Embassy and Consulate General Krakow officers actively monitor threats to religious freedom and seek further resolution of unsettled legacies of the Holocaust and the Communist era.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 120,725 square miles, and its population is an estimated 39 million. More than 96 percent of citizens are Roman Catholic; however, Eastern Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and much smaller Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim congregations meet freely.

According to the 2003 Annual Statistical Yearbook of Poland, the following figures represent the formal membership of the listed religious groups but not the number of actual persons in those religious communities; for example, the actual number of Jewish persons in the country is estimated at between 20,000 and 30,000, while the formal membership of the Union of Jewish Communities totals only 2,500. The yearbook counted 34,312,707 Roman Catholics, 509,700 Orthodox Church members, 82,000 Greek Catholics, 124,294 members of Jehovah's Witnesses, 79,050 Lutherans (Augsburg), 24,158 Old Catholic Mariavits, 21,938 members of the Polish Catholic Church, 20,376 Pentecostals, 9,484 Seventh-day Adventists, 4,537 Baptists, 5,142 members of the New Apostolic Church, 109 members of Muslim associations, 895 Hare Krishnas, 4,380 Methodists, 3,413 members of the Church of Christ, 3,570 Lutherans (Reformed), 2,490 Catholic Mariavits, and 1,150 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Each of these religious groups has a relationship with the State governed by either legislation or treaty, with the exception of Jehovah's Witnesses, the New Apostolic Church, the Church of Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna), and the Church of Christ.

According to a 2001 poll, approximately 58 percent of citizens actively participate in religious ceremonies at least weekly. In a 1999 poll, 8 percent of respondents declared that they have no contact with the Catholic Church, an estimated 34 percent declared that they attend church irregularly, and approximately 3 percent declared themselves to be nonbelievers. The survey also found women to be more religious than men, with 64 percent of women attending church regularly, compared with 52 percent of men. Farmers are the most religious occupational group, with 69 percent attending church regularly. No figures are available on the number of atheists.

Foreign missionary groups operate freely in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. The Criminal Code stipulates that offending religious sentiment through public speech is punishable by a fine or up to a three-year prison term.

There are 15 religious groups whose relationship with the State is governed by specific legislation that outlines the internal structure of the religious groups, their activities, and procedures for property restitution. There are 139 other registered religious groups that do not have a statutorily defined relationship with the State. All registered religious groups, including the original 15, enjoy equal protection under the law.

Religious communities may register with the Government; however, they are not required to do so and may function freely without registration. According to 1998 regulations, registration requires that the group submit the names of at least 100 members as well as other information regarding the group. This information on membership must be confirmed by a notary public, although the registration itself often appears to be a formality. In September 2003, an independent Jewish Gmina ("starozakonni") was registered with the Ministry of the Interior. All registered religious groups share the same privileges, such as duty-free importation of office equipment and reduced taxes.

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

The law places Catholic, Jewish, Orthodox, and Protestant communities on the same legal footing, and the Government attempts to address the problems that minority religious groups may face.

Foreign missionaries are subject only to the standard rules applicable to foreigners temporarily in the country.

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 may request religious classes in any of the legally registered religions, including Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish religious instruction. While it is not common, such non-Catholic religious instruction exists in practice, and the Ministry of Education pays the instructors. Religious education instructors, including clergy, receive salaries from the Government for teaching religion in public schools. Catholic Church representatives are included on a commission that determines whether books qualify for school use.

Catholic holy days (Easter Monday, Corpus Christi Day, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, All Saints' Day, Christmas, and St. Stephen's Day) are national holidays.

In 1998, the Concordat, a treaty regulating relations between the Government and the Vatican signed in 1993, was ratified by Parliament, signed by the President, and took effect. The vote came after years of bitter disputes between Concordat supporters and opponents. The Government and the Catholic Church participate at the highest levels in a Joint Government-Episcopate Task Force, which meets regularly to discuss Church-State relations.

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 generally good relations with international Jewish groups, and the Orthodox Church reports satisfaction with government action to return claimed property. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is largely responsible for coordinating relations between the Government and these organizations, although President Aleksander Kwasniewski also plays an important role. The Government cooperates effectively with a variety of international organizations, both governmental and nongovernmental, for the preservation of historic sites, including cemeteries and houses of worship. However, contentious issues regarding property restitution and preservation of historic religious sites and cemeteries remain only partially settled.

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. A 1997 law, which mirrors legislation benefiting other religious communities, permits the local Jewish community to submit claims for such property. The law allowed for a 5-year period to file claims, the longest period allowed for any denomination. These 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; these deadlines have expired in recent years, 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 1991. By the end of the period covered by this report, 2,640 of the 3,060 claims filed by the Church had been concluded, with 1,336 claims settled by agreement between the Church and the party in possession of the property (usually the national or a local government), 900 properties returned through decision of the Commission on Property Restitution, which rules on disputed claims; and 536 claims rejected. Claims by the local Jewish community, whose deadline for filing claims under the 1997 law expired in May 2002, number 5,544. The Commission on Property Restitution considered 534 cases, of which 194 were settled amicably and 238 properties were restored. The Lutheran Church, for which the filing deadline was July 1996, filed claims for 1,200 properties. Of these, 780 cases were heard, 220 of which were resolved amicably. A total of 120 claims were filed with the Commission for the Orthodox Church, of which 94 were closed.

The laws on communal property restitution do not address the issue of communal properties to which private third parties now have title, leaving several controversial and complicated cases unresolved. In a number of cases over several years, buildings and residences were built on land that included Jewish cemeteries destroyed during or after World War II. During the period covered by this report, the Government and local authorities restituted one such property, the Slubice Jewish Cemetery, and progress has been made toward resolution of other claims.

The Government cooperates with the country's nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and officials of major denominations to promote religious tolerance and lends support to activities such as the March of the Living, an event to honor victims of the Holocaust. In June the Government held a major international conference to unveil its proposal to open an international center for human rights education in Oswiecim.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion. In 2001, the Government established a department within the Ministry of Interior to monitor the activities of "new religious groups" and "cults." In 2002 the Government closed the department; however, an employee of the Interior Ministry's Public Order Department continues to monitor religious movements.

Although the Constitution provides for the separation of religion and state, crucifixes hang in both the upper and lower houses of Parliament, as well as in many public buildings.

Public radio and television stations broadcast Catholic Mass, but only with licensure from the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

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

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, skinheads and other marginal elements of society continued to carry out sporadic incidents of harassment and violence against Jewish persons and occasional desecration of Jewish and, more often, Catholic cemeteries.

Orthodox religious officials reported claims of discrimination toward the Orthodox community. There were reports of less than proportional funds for cultural events associated with the Orthodox community, layoffs in which Orthodox employees were the first dismissed, and an attitude in the local press in some areas depicting Catholicism as necessary for true citizenship.

In June the National Remembrance Institute (IPN) concluded its investigation of the circumstances surrounding the 1941 massacre of the Jewish population in Jedwabne. The IPN determined that there were at least 340 victims in the Jedwabne killings, and that approximately 40 citizens committed the murders. The official investigation concluded after three years without finding sufficient evidence to charge any of the surviving perpetrators, some of whom had been sentenced in trials in the late 1940s.

Authorities closed the 2002 cases of desecration of tombstones in Czeladz and in a Jewish cemetery in Wroclaw, as well as the investigation by Katowice authorities into the 2001 anti-Semitic, anti-European Union demonstration by approximately 400 Polish ultranationalists, without finding the perpetrators.

Anti-Semitic feelings persist among certain sectors of the population, occasionally manifesting themselves in acts of vandalism and physical or verbal abuse. However, surveys over the past several years show a continuing decline in anti-Semitic sentiment, and avowedly anti-Semitic candidates have won few elections. In December 2003, a group of Catholics protested what they considered to be anti-Semitic literature sold in a bookstore in the basement of a Warsaw church. The group called for church authorities to close the bookstore, which was run by a private company renting the basement space, and for state authorities to prosecute the bookstore owner for hate crimes. The state prosecutors office examined the case and found no basis for prosecution, while Catholic Church authorities stated that they could not take action due to the bookstore's lease.

Sporadic and isolated incidents of harassment and violence against Jewish persons continue to occur, often generated by skinheads and other marginal societal groups. Occasional cases of cemetery desecration, including both Jewish and, more frequently, Catholic sites, also occurred during the period covered by this report.

The 13th March of the Living took place on April 19. An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 participants walked from the former Auschwitz concentration camp to the former Birkenau death camp to honor victims of the Holocaust. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Tommy Lapid and Israel's former Chief Rabbi Meir Lau delivered speeches. Schoolchildren, Boy Scouts, the Polish-Israeli Friendship Society, Polish survivors of Auschwitz, and the Polish Union of Jewish Students participated in the march.

On June 3, a memorial was dedicated at the site of the Belzec death camp, where Nazis murdered approximately 500,000 Jewish persons during the Holocaust. The Government, working together with the U.S. Jewish community and the United States Holocaust Museum, constructed the memorial.

There is some public concern about the growth of groups perceived to be "sects" and the influence of nonmainstream religious groups, especially during the summer travel season when young persons travel to camps and other gatherings. Articles have appeared in the press and on the Internet reporting the involvement of "sects" in disappearances.

Interfaith groups work to bring together the various religious groups in the country. The Polish Council of Christians and Jews meets regularly to discuss issues of interest to both groups, and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have an active bilateral commission. The Polish Ecumenical Council, a group that includes most religious groups other than the Roman Catholic Church, is also active. In June, the Fourth Annual Muslim Cultural Days conference was held in Gdansk.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. Representatives of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate General Krakow continue to monitor closely issues relating to religious freedom and interfaith relations, including Polish-Jewish relations. 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 officers actively monitor threats to religious freedom. 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 also work to facilitate the protection and return of former Jewish cemeteries. During the period covered by this report, an international foundation overseeing restitution of Jewish communal property, founded in 2002 with Embassy support, began participating successfully in communal property restitution.

Embassy and Consulate representatives, including the Ambassador, also regularly meet with representatives of major religious communities, both in the capital and during travels throughout the country. Consulate officials attend events, monitor developments, and facilitate official visits to the Auschwitz Museum, which is located near Krakow. Consulate officers also maintain contact with and attend events associated with the Orthodox, Protestant and Muslim minorities in the consular district.

The Embassy and the Consulate in Krakow provided continuing support for activities designed to promote cultural and religious tolerance. Those activities included providing press and public affairs support for the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation's education project in Oswiecim, and support to the annual NGO-sponsored "Days of Tolerance" in Kolobrzeg that brings together youth of various religious and ethnic backgrounds and from many countries. The majority of events conducted in Krakow's "Bridges to the East" featured tolerance as an integral part of the presentations.


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