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2000-03-31 00:23
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Poland urged to tighten laws on religious groups
ENI-00-0124

By Jonathan Luxmoore
Warsaw, 30 March (ENI)--A Polish government official has called
for his country's freedom of conscience law to be tightened so
that rights can be withdrawn from churches and religious
organisations which engage in "doubtful activities".

However, he denied in an interview with ENI that Poland's
biggest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, was exerting
pressure for restrictions to be imposed on smaller religious
organisations.

"We need to strengthen the state's capacity to act against
organisations which violate the law," said Krzysztof Wiktor,
director of the Polish government's Inter-Ministerial Team for
New Religious Movements".

Wiktor added that "the Catholic hierarchy has maintained a
tolerant stance towards religious groups. Deciding which are
dangerous is a matter for the state, not the church."

Wiktor's department, which has been in operation since March
1998, circulates "internal information" to state institutions
about religious groups which "threaten civic freedom". But he
declined to specify which groups had been singled out up to now.
He added that it "co-operated and exchanged views" with Poland's
Catholic Bishops' Conference, as well as with local Catholic
anti-sect information centres.

"We don't make statements or apply public labels", Wiktor told
ENI. "However, some registered churches have been evaluated as
dangerous sects, and could have their registration withdrawn."

About 95 per cent of Poland's 39 million citizens are Catholic.
Another 13 Christian denominations are officially recognised
under separate acts of parliament, ranging from the Orthodox
Church (570 000 members) to the Baptist Union (7000 members).

A further 139 religious organisations are registered with full
rights to practise their faith, including nine Hindu bodies and
14 Buddhist groups.

Poland's freedom of conscience law, passed in 1989, the last
year of communist rule, required 15 signatures as a condition for
the legal registration of a religious organisation . However, the
threshold was raised to 100 signatures under amendments passed in
June 1998, after criticisms by the Roman Catholic politicians.

As well as the inter-ministerial team, which is similar to
authorities established by several other European governments in
the 1990s to monitor the rise of new religious movements, Poland
has an official Confessions Office, which was established under
communist rule and handles the registration of churches and
religious groups.


The director of the Confessions Office, Andrzej Czohara, said
only two new churches had been registered since the 1998
amendments took effect, while two requests were still pending and
several had been discontinued.

He added that he was not aware of attempts to make further
changes in the law, and added that the Roman Catholic Church
would not be permitted to "interfere".

However Wiktor, told ENI that the law needed further tightening
to bar "doubtful groups" from claiming church rights. His
department planned to step up co-operation with a French
government office which had "greater experience" in identifying
"dangerous sects".

"Poland's 1998 legislation has succeeded in radically stemming
the increase in registered churches," Wiktor told ENI. "But the
problem remains how to cancel the rights and privileges of
organisations whose activities we have doubts about."

Polish Catholic politicians have often demanded restrictions on
what they call "non-traditional faiths". However, such demands
have not been publicly endorsed by the Catholic Bishops'
Conference, which since 1974 has operated a commission with seven
denominations belonging to the Polish Ecumenical Council. In
recent months there have been several strong signs of increasing
Catholic cooperation with other mainstream churches in Poland.

Adam Szulc, spokesman for the Bishops' Conference, said he
believed the Catholic Church was more capable than the Polish
government of monitoring activities by "dangerous sects, and
groups which are close to being sects", and was co-operating
increasingly with the Inter-Ministerial Team to impede those
which "present themselves as churches".

"The Catholic Church will struggle as much as it can against
sects which destroy the individual, family and society," the
Jesuit priest said. "But we are not trying to restrict religious
freedom, and we believe a wealth of churches is valuable and
normal."

However, this was challenged by a leader of Poland's 5000-member
Church of Christian Assemblies, Nina Hury, who said her church
had tried unsuccessfully to gain full legal recognition. "Having
been present in Poland for 80 years, we feel we are entitled to
this. But there's no doubt pressure is being exerted by the
Catholic Church against smaller denominations. We have the
feeling that everything non-Catholic is treated as sectarian and
dangerous, and encounters a visible dislike from the Catholic
side."

The deputy chief presbyter of Poland's 2500-member Church of
Evangelical Christians, Leon Dziadkowiec, told ENI his church had
requested the same legal status as the country's Pentecostals,
but had also encountered a "lack of interest" from government
officials. He added that "problems and delays" often reflected
the attitude of Roman Catholic leaders, as well as "pro-Catholic"
sentiment within the Polish government.

"The Polish constitution obliges the government to reach
agreement with churches on their legal status: but it is not
being observed," said Dziadkowiec, who said his church had been
the first fully legalised Christian minority after Poland's 1918
independence. "Our letters and requests have received no
reaction, and we are still at the very beginning."

Only one registered denomination, the Church of United
Christians, has had its legal status withdrawn in Poland after
being accused of falsifying the signatures of founder members.

Several registered non-Christian groups have brought slander
actions in Polish courts, including the Hindu Chaitani Mission,
which won damages from an anti-sect organisation last July, and
the Buddhist Karma Kagyu Union, which obtained a court order
banning a book, Sects - expansion of evil, in January 1999.