CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  



by Katarzyna Zielinska, Centre for European Studies, Jagiellonian University.
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.


The problem of how to guarantee the freedom of religion and conscience remains an open question in almost every contemporary European state, especially in the face of a growing religious plurality and the emergence of New Religious Movements. The main aim of this paper is to attempt an analysis of the state of the freedom of religion and conscience in contemporary Poland. Firstly, I will try to respond to the question of how religious minorities, especially the new ones, commonly referred to by means of the pejorative terms of sects or cults, are dealt with by the Polish legal system. Secondly, I will shortly describe the influence of the standpoint of the Roman Catholic Church on the legislation process, and, finally, I will present the public perception of new religious phenomena in society dominated by the Catholics.

The countries of Western Europe, where the protection of human rights has a long tradition, have introduced laws protecting the freedom of religion and conscience under the pressure resulting from growing emergence of New Religious Movements as well as from the presence of ethnic minorities within these countries. The introduction of these laws has been facilitated by the unification of legal standards, which is a natural consequence of the ongoing process of European integration. Unlike in the West of Europe, the freedom of religion and conscience in Eastern and Central Europe was suppressed and neglected by the state-imposed secularism during the entire period of Communism and became an important issue just after the collapse of the former regimes. Having experienced the unique process of sudden change involving all subsystems of their societies, Poland, as well as other countries of the region, unexpectedly faced a diversity of values and religious views. The overwhelming process of transformation towards democracy initiated changes in legal regulations concerning the freedom of religion and conscience. Obviously, the final shape of the ecclesiastical law in the countries in question depended on their different traditions and history. Nevertheless, what is worth stressing is that in each case the accepted regulations were and have remained under the influence of international regulations


Church –State relations in Poland


The political and social transformation processes in Poland, which began after 1989, caused changes in all sectors of society and enabled openness and the free flow of new ideas from all around the world. In these new circumstances, religious minorities, whose presence was negated by the Communist regime, started to voice their problems and demand recognition of their presence and rights. At the same time, countless new religious communities started to emerge in the social milieu, as an antidote to the ideological vacuum that followed the disintegration of the former system of values. These changes required a redefinition of the relations between the state and the various religious communities, among the communities themselves, and between the communities and their members. On the one hand, the emerging democratic state had to legalize the presence of various religious communities, which was complicated by the fact that religious and ideological homogeneity, sustained by the dominant religion and the Communist state, used to be an important goal and a positive value strengthening national unity (Volenski, Grzymala-Moszczynska, 1997). On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church was compelled to re-define its way of operating, this time, however, not as a singular actor, but as one among many others in the new pluralist social reality.

The first legal regulation, the Statute on Freedom of Conscience and Creed, respecting such basic human rights as the freedom of religion and conscience, was introduced in 1989, just before the collapse of the Communist regime. The statute brought about a change in the formation of the legal, material, and organizational status of all churches and religious associations. The statute, further modified by amendments concerning the registration of new religious associations, introduced in 1998, is still in force. It guarantees, among other things, the freedom of religious convictions, the right to remain silent on matters of religious beliefs and to participate in religious celebrations. It also defined the legal position of religious communities in Poland, guaranteeing them autonomy from the state and freedom of their activity. Recognizing the importance and cultural contribution of different religions to the creation and shaping of Polish cultural heritage, the document equalized the status of all religious communities and associations. At the same time, the statute did not grant the same form of recognition for all the different religious communities. The document also declares the secular character of the state as well as its neutrality in matters of religion and conscience (Urban, 1993).

The statue, which is worth stressing, thanks to its liberal provisions, allowed the so-called new religious movements to formalize their existence. To legalize churches and different religious unions it was enough to present a declaration in the Office of Denominational Affairs and enter the name into the register. Registration required that a group submit the names of 15 Polish citizens and provide such information as its basic religious tenets, the personal details of the founders, the temporary address of the headquarters, and the statute.

Various religious communities took advantage of these liberal requirements and obtained legal recognition, which granted them several privileges. As a result, a number of new religious communities emerged, often artificially created through countless divisions within the already existing groups.

The rapidly growing number of new religious communities and the lack of control over their actions became a matter of considerable public concern. As a response, the amendments to the Statute on Freedom of Conscience and Creed were introduced. According to the new tightened regulations, registration requires that a group should submit the names of 100 members, officially confirmed by a notary, as well as information concerning the group itself. This law has been effective since June 1998. Under the statute, a religious association can define its own doctrine, dogmas, beliefs and rituals, as well as organize religious assemblies and publicly express its cult. The regulation of its internal affairs remains under its own law.

The Statute on Freedom of Conscience and Creed was the first legal act regarding the freedom of religion and conscience in Poland and the first such a document in the entire Communist block. The statute became the basis for subsequent legal regulations. It is important to stress that, despite the fact that this law was passed under the Communist regime, its ideological norms directly referred to international documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.


As regards the legal status of religious communities and their relations with the Polish state, a few ways of regulation can be distinguished (Daniel, 1995).

The new Polish Constitution passed in 1997 formally describes the character of State. This document declares the impartiality of the state and its separation from the influence of any religion. The law regulates the relations between the state and religious communities, however, there are differences in regulations concerning the legal position of the Catholic Church and other religious associations. In the case of the former, its status is regulated by the international agreement between the Polish State and the Vatican. The legal position of the former, in turn, is regulated by bilateral agreements with the Polish state.

Article 53 of the Constitution guarantees to everyone the freedom of conscience and religious beliefs, and allows religious education in schools, but only to those churches and religious communities that are officially recognized and on the condition that this schooling does not violate other people’s freedom of religion and conscience. The same article states that no one can be forced to take part in religious practices or reveal their religious beliefs or confession. The document remains in accordance with international documents on the freedom of religion and conscience .

As previously stated, the relations between the Polish state and the Roman Catholic Church are regulated by a treaty between the Government and the Vatican. The international character of this agreement reflects the special status of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. The concordat was signed in 1993, and after years of bitter dispute between its supporters and opponents over whether the treaty simply ensures the Catholic Church’s rights or blurs the line between church and state, it was finally ratified in 1998. The Concordat puts the Catholic Church in a privileged position over other religions and denominations and strengthens its position. Two points of the concordat are perceived as particularly controversial and disadvantageous by members of other religious minorities, namely the obligation for the state to provide Catholic religious education in public schools if requested and the so-called concordat marriage.

Separate regulations have been created for 15 religious groups that enjoy a special status as “historic churches”, whose relations with the state are governed by specific legislation. Most of them were signed in the 1990s. All disputes over the final shape of these agreements showed a reluctant attitude of the administration, which endangered the guarantee of the equality of all religious associations, as stipulated in the constitution (Urban, 1993).

Finally, a religious community can be legalised by registering with the Register of Churches and Denominations, which is the official record of religious communities and associations, kept by the Ministry of Interior Affairs and Administration. Religious communities may register with the Government, but they are not required to do so and may function freely without official registration.

At present, there are more than one hundred and fifty officially recognised religious communities, plus many more operating without registration. The legal recognition of a denomination guarantees the group some privileges, among others, the duty-free importation of office equipment, reduced taxes and the right to organize religious education at school.

The registration of new religious communities raises many problems due to the lack of a precise legal definition of what is understood by the term church, religious association or community. Moreover, imprecise legal language further confuses the issue. Therefore, the registration itself often appears to be an arbitral decision of the administration. The process of registration seems to be a formality, but some problems may occur when the decision whether the doctrine presented by a group can be treated as religious has to be made In practice, the applications of some communities were rejected because the doctrine they presented was not recognized as religious (Borowik, 2000).


The Freedom of Religion and Conscience in Practise –


According to the Statue of Freedom of Religion and Creed, all religious communities are equal and may enjoy the freedom of operation. Nevertheless, the real situation of religious minorities, both the new and the old, differs from the ideological assumptions. Analyzing the situation in Poland, two main sources of suppression can be indicated. The first is a result of actions undertaken by the Catholic Church to extend its influence over society and eliminate competitors on the religious market, while the other is an effect of the oversimplified social perception, lack of information and narrow-mindedness of the Catholic majority.


The Catholic Church Standpoint.

To understand the position of the Roman Catholic Church better, let me provide you with some basic information on the religious landscape of Poland. The Catholic Church is, and always has been, the predominant denomination in the country. Indeed, at present, about 95% of the entire population is Catholic. Poland is currently one of the most monoethnic countries in Europe. Furthermore, during the period of Communism the Catholic Church acted as an ideological and institutional stronghold that supported democracy and freedom against Socialism (Volenski, Grzymala-Moszczynska, 1997). This situation changed dramatically after the collapse of the Communist regime, and the dominant Church, as in many other post-Communist countries, had difficulty adjusting to the new democratic conditions. Facing the growing plurality of different worldviews and values, the Church, made numerous attempts to influence the political and legal decisions of the state in order to protect and impose Christian values on the members of entire society (Za êcki, 1999). A great controversy was aroused by the introduction of religious teaching to public state schools in the early 1990s, without open public debate on the legitimacy of this action (Gilarek, 1999). The decision was perceived as intolerant and discriminative not only by the members of different religious communities, but also by the Catholics themselves. The country's ombudsman, Ewa £êtowska, quickly brought an action against the instructions before the Constitutional Tribunal on the basis that they violated the constitutional principle of Church-State separation. The Constitutional Tribunal ruled against the ombudsman stating that neither the principle in question nor any other statutory provisions were violated. Despite the initial objections, a majority of Poles, according to opinion surveys, appear to favour religious instruction in public schools. The October 1995 survey, conducted by the Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS), indicated that 67% of those polled approved of religious education in public schools, whereas only 30% opposed it. Given the strong public support for it, there is little chance that religious instruction will be returned to parochial schools (Eberts, 1998).

Further attempts made by the Church to influence public life were not so discriminating to religious minorities. However, they openly violated the freedom of conscience. Let me enumerate the most important issues: the preamble to the Statute on Education of 1991 indicates that Christian values should be respected in the process of education, the implementation of the provision regarding respect for Christian values in radio and television broadcasting, and a significant limitation on the freedom of abortion (Daniel, 1995). All this actions and the tendency to implement religious values into the law have been viewed by a large part of society as a serious threat to a modern, pluralist democracy.

Obviously, one of the most interesting issues is the attitude of the Catholic Church to new religions. The Church’s standpoint has strongly influenced the general perception of new religious movements. Moreover, trying to fight with competitors and protect the real faith, the Church has undertaken decisive actions to eliminate the new religious communities. Firstly, Church teaching has strengthened the social conviction that the Roman Catholic Church in Poland is superior to all other forms of religion. To be Catholic has been presented as a religious and patriotic duty. All confessions different from Catholicism have been identified by the Church as wrong and not truly religious. Secondly, a number of anti-cult information centres, remaining under the ideological influence of the Church, have been established. The summer actions organized by the centres perfectly exemplify their activity (Sad, 2001). There were leaflets, warning of the danger of sects, hading out in big cities of Poland. Obviously, the objectivity of information spread by these centres can be called into question. Thirdly, organizations of parents whose children – often as adults – joined new religious communities, have been organized under the auspices of the Church.

Actions directed towards the so-called sects, presented as dangerous and manipulative, do not specify which groups classify as such, since the Church and its organizations are afraid of being accused of violating personal goods. Consequently, the general social perception includes all new emerging religious communities into the category of destructive sects or cults. This prejudiced view puts in a particularly unfavourable position the harmless new religious communities as well as those stemming from traditional religions, existing in our country only for a few years (Sadurski, 1999).

The influence of the Church is also perceptible on moulding the opinion of the administration responsible for the registration of new religious communities. We should also bear in mind the fact that an overwhelming majority of the administrative personnel are practising Catholics, which indirectly influences the administrative procedures.


The Social Perception of New Religious Minorities


The third important issue worth examining when discussing the freedom of religion and conscience, is the social perception of new religious minorities. An understanding of the social view of religious minorities requires bearing in mind some important features of Polish national identity. Traditionally, it has been counter-intuitive to think about Poles who do not belong to the Catholic Church. The stereotypical expression “Pole-Catholic” appears to be deeply rooted in the national consciousness. A 1994 social survey shows that for 55% of Poles, membership in the Catholic Church is perceived as an important criterion for belonging to the Polish nation. As an effect, Polish social mentality does not perceive the expression “new religions” as referring to new religious movements, but including all religious denominations and groups other than Roman Catholicism, no matter how long they have been present in Poland (Daniel, 1995).

Such social perception does not stem from total ignorance because, as the findings of the research conducted by Libiszowska –¯ó tkowska and Doktór in 1999 proved, more than 90% of Poles are aware of the presence of religious minorities in Poland. The information about these groups comes mainly from the mass media, about 30 % of Poles gain their knowledge from direct contacts with members of different religious communities, and just about 22% from Church teaching (Libiszowska-¯ó&Mac179;tkowska, 2001).

The blindness of Polish society derives from the blending of Catholicism into the national stereotype. This oversimplified social perception was strengthened by the conviction, moulded under Communism, that Poles form a nation that is homogenous both in ethnic and religious terms. The presence of minorities was not recognized, and existing differences were dismissed and given little importance. In this social context, all religions except Roman Catholicism are both new and alien, and are characterized as outsiders in society (Volenski, Grzymala-Moszczynska, 1997).

What is then the attitude of Polish society towards new religious phenomena?

In 2002 a public opinion poll was conducted by Ipsos-Demoscop to find out about the Poles’ perception of new religious groups in Polish society (Ipsos-Demoscop, 2001). It brought many interesting findings enabling a closer examination of the social perception of these phenomena. A majority of those polled define the sect as a small and self-contained group, in which the leaders subordinate all members by limiting their freedom through the use of manipulative techniques. Most people admit that they derive their knowledge about new religions in Poland from the mass media, which confirms the earlier findings. However, the negative and suspicious atmosphere created by the media around the subject in question, prevents any objective and impartial knowledge on the issue. Polls have also revealed that people do perceive sects as different from other religious associations or communities. Moreover, their actions and existence are regarded as a threat to the members of society as well as to the security of the state. A majority think that the activity of sects should be banned by the state. This opinion explains, at least partially, why the legalisation of some new religious movements in the 1990s entailed so furious discussion in the media about the legitimacy of new religions.

Generally speaking, new religious phenomena are perceived as dangerous to society and, despite their real nature, are described by means of the terms sect or cult, bearing negative connotations. A widespread atmosphere of suspicion and fear has already been generated by the media, leading to acts of intolerance and causing a pervading phobia in society. Not surprisingly the distrustful or even hostile attitude towards new religious communities is in accordance with the outlook of the Catholic Church.


Concluding remarks


Undoubtedly, the New Religious Movements are a kind of challenge to traditionally oriented and organized religious communities in Easter and Central Europe as well as in Western Europe. Moreover, frequently their practises or rituals can hardly be located within the frame of Western Civilization.


Trying to answer the question about the state of the freedom of religion and conscience in contemporary Poland, we may say that there is no blatant discrimination towards religious minorities and there are no visible government restrictions on the existence of new religions. However, some actions undertaken under the influence and tutelage of the Catholic Church could jeopardize the status of some religious communities and the freedom of religion and conscience. The furious campaign against new religious communities, lead under the banner of the protection of Polish society against the negative influence of sects and cults, has still been taking place. What is more, many accusations, frequently falsely formulated on the base of prejudice, have violated the guarantee of the freedom of conscience and creed. Obviously, there were some shocking incidents which contributed to formulating such negative perception of new religious. Nevertheless, in many cases the harmful religious communities are juxtaposed with dangerous ones and all are perceived as manipulative sects.

The opponents of New Religious Movements seem to forget that, since people who join a new religious community are often adults and thus aware of their decisions, the dividing line between protecting somebody from potential abuses and violating their freedom of religion and conscience can be easily blurred.


Nowadays, despite general negative and intolerant atmosphere, we may observe something of a shift in attitude to new religious phenomena. Scholars and even some priests voice doubts about simplified social perception of new religions and call for detailed analyses of situation, which would bring reliable information about the issue in question.

What is needed in Poland today is the modification of simplified social perception of religions other than Catholicism. I suppose, this is the first step towards eliminating the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of Polish society.




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Internet resources:

http://sekty.sluzew.dominikanie.pl/czytelnia.htm - the date collected in the opinion poll about

Poles opinion about sects conducted by Ipsos-Demoskop in 2001.

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