International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

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 Jews and occasional desecration of Jewish and, more frequently, Catholic cemeteries.

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 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 2002 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 Jews in the country is estimated at between 10,000 and 30,000, while the formal membership of the Union of Jewish Communities totals only 1,222. There are an estimated 34,498,271 baptized Roman Catholics; 510,512 Orthodox Church members; 123,000 Greek Catholics; 123,034 members of Jehovah's Witnesses; 86,880 Lutherans (Augsburg); 24,288 Old Catholic Mariavits; 22,422 members of the Polish-Catholic Church; 20,027 Pentecostals; 9,416 Seventh-day Adventists; 4,300 Baptists; 5,211 members of the New Apostolic Church; 5,123 members of the Muslim Religious Union; 5,043 Hare Krishnas; 4,377 Methodists; 3,617 members of the Church of Christ; 3,583 Lutherans (Reformed); 2,553 Catholic Mariavits; 1,222 members of the Union of Jewish Communities; 1,012 members of the Eastern Old Ceremonial Church; and 150 members of the Karaims Religious Union. 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 Greek Catholic Church, 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 once per week. 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 or sporadically; and approximately 3 percent declared themselves to be nonbelievers. The survey also found women to be more religious than men, with 64 percent of the former attending church regularly, compared with 52 percent of the latter. Farmers are the most religious occupational group, with 69 percent attending church regularly. No figures are available on the number of atheists in the country.

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 3-year prison term. The Roman Catholic Church is the dominant religion in the country.

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 information regarding the group itself. This information on membership must be confirmed by a notary public, although the registration itself often appears to be a formality. No new religious communities registered during the period covered by this report. 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 Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish 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 religions legally registered, 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. Priests and other instructors receive salaries from the State for teaching religion in public schools, and Catholic Church representatives are included on a commission that determines whether books qualify for school use.

Five Catholic religious holidays (Easter Monday, Corpus Christi Day, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, All Saints' Day, 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 over whether the treaty simply provides the Catholic Church's rights or blurs the line between Church and State. Since 1998 the Government and the Catholic Church each have established groups that meet 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. 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 sacred monuments and historic 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. 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 reporting period, 2,780 of the 3,054 claims filed by the Church had been concluded, with 1,325 claims settled by agreement between the Church and the party in possession of the property (usually the national or a local government); 866 properties were returned through decision of the Commission on Property Restitution, which rules on disputed claims; and 532 claims were rejected. Claims by the local Jewish community, whose deadline for filing claims under the 1997 law expired on May 11, 2002, number 5,236. The Commission on Property Restitution considered 1,472 cases; 431 were closed, 155 by a financial agreement between the parties and 97 with ownership transferred. A total of 159 cases were discontinued. The Lutheran Church, for which the filing deadline was July 1996, filed claims for 1,200 properties. Of these, 709 cases were closed with the return of the properties in question. A total of 120 claims were filed with the Commission for the Orthodox Church, of which 57 were closed.

The laws on communal property restitution 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 several years, buildings and residences were built on land that included Jewish cemeteries that were destroyed during or after World War II.

The Government cooperates with the country's nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) 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 April 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 government offices.

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.

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.

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 Jews and occasional desecration of Jewish and, more often, Catholic cemeteries.

Orthodox religious officials reported accounts of discrimination towards 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 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 3 years without finding sufficient evidence to charge any of the surviving 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 in the past several years show a continuing decline in anti-Semitic sentiment, and avowedly anti-Semitic candidates have won few elections. However, some far-right Members of Parliament made anti-Semitic remarks in a parliamentary debate over the activities of the IPN.

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, more frequently, Catholic shrines, also occurred during the period covered by this report.

On September 1, 2002, 70 tombstones in Czeladz were knocked down or desecrated with anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans; a police investigation remained pending at year's end. During a 2-day period in September 2002, 70 tombstones were knocked down in a Jewish cemetery in Wroclaw. Approximately 400 citizens volunteered in a subsequent campaign to make repairs.

In April during the 12th March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau to honor victims of the Holocaust, several hundred citizens joined 1,500 marchers from Israel and other countries. Polish President Kwasniewski, visiting Israeli President Moshe Katsav, 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 April 30, 2003, members of the Polish Council for Christians and Jews commemorated the 60th anniversary of the 1943 anti-Nazi uprising in Warsaw's Jewish Ghetto with visits to memorial sites connected with the city's former Jewish quarter.

Following the resolution in 2002 of a dispute between Gdansk's local Jewish community and the leadership of the Union of Jewish Communities, the Gdansk group, as well as Jewish communities in Poznan and Wroclaw, have successfully registered their organizations with the Interior Ministry.

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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

Representatives of the U.S. Embassy and Consulate General Krakow continue to monitor closely issues relating to religious freedom and interfaith relations; for example, one officer devotes a majority of time to questions of Polish and 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 throughout the country. 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.

Embassy and consulate representatives, including the Ambassador, also regularly meet with representatives of major religious communities, including leaders of the Jewish community, both in the capital and during 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. Those activities included providing a Democracy Commission grant to the Union of Jewish Religious Communities for use in building a database of claimable Jewish communal property, sponsoring a nation-wide conference to support NGO promotion of religious and ethnic tolerance, and continuing press and public affairs support for the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation's education project in Oswiecim. The Embassy supported an annual local NGO-sponsored event, "Days of Tolerance," in Kolobrzeg that brought together youths of various religious and ethnic backgrounds.