The constitution recognizes equality for all regardless of religion, subject to considerations of public safety or health or the rights of others, and it stipulates the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) from the state. The constitution recognizes the “outstanding role” of the GOC in the history of the country. It prohibits persecution based on religion. Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC unique privileges. On June 27, a court convicted and sentenced two men to 15 years in prison for the 2018 killing of a human rights activist who had Jewish and Yezidi roots, but ruled it was not a hate crime. The government approved the registration application of one religious group while rejecting six others. Parliament held hearings with civil society and religious groups about legislation to comply with a court order to amend the law granting the GOC exclusive tax and property privileges, but failed to take action. Some religious groups advocated legislation that would address a broader range of religious issues, while others expressed concerns about the potential impact of such a law on smaller groups. Some Muslim community leaders said the government continued to influence and favor the state-funded religious group All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG). Religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and others said Muslim communities faced government resistance to issuing construction permits for places of worship. The Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) and some Muslim groups reported difficulties in obtaining government recognition of their ownership claims of religious properties. NGOs cited concerns that bias in public schools favored GOC religious teachings.
According to religious leaders, de facto authorities in the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the administrative control of the central government, continued to restrict or prohibit the activities of some religious groups. De facto South Ossetian authorities permitted GOC religious services but said they were illegal, and NGOs reported Russian guards impeded access of residents to some churches and cemeteries. De facto Abkhaz authorities prohibited GOC clergy from entering the occupied territory. De facto authorities in both occupied territories continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to a U.S NGO, de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).
The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MOIA) investigated 44 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, notably including 10 cases of unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites, 10 cases of persecution, and eight cases of damage or destruction of property. The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) received 19 complaints of religiously based crimes or discrimination as of year’s end, 10 of which involved violence. This equaled the 19 total complaints in 2018. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 20 incidents against the group or its members, including 11 involving violence. The PDO and religious minorities continued to state there was a widespread societal perception that religious minorities posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s values. Unknown individuals twice vandalized a chapel used by Armenian Apostolic and Catholic parishes in Akhalkalaki, breaking icons and damaging portraits. The NGO Media Development Foundation (MDF) documented 55 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media, compared with 148 in 2018. Some religious figures in Abkhazia reportedly continued to advocate the establishment of an autocephalous Orthodox Church in the territory or a merger with the ROC. Both the GOC and ROC formally recognized Orthodox churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but the ROC did not always respect this in practice.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including the leadership of the State Agency for Religious Affairs (SARI), the public defender, the prime minister’s adviser on human rights, and officials at various ministries, to encourage dialogue and tolerance between the government and minority religious groups. The Charge d’Affaires met with GOC Patriarch Ilia II and other senior GOC leaders to stress the importance of the GOC in promoting religious diversity and tolerance. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with minority religious groups throughout the country, and the embassy and its regional information offices sponsored events in Tbilisi and elsewhere in the country to encourage religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the AAC at 2.9 percent. The remaining 3 percent includes Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference.
Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and region of residence are strongly connected. Most ethnic Georgians affiliate with the GOC. A small number of mostly ethnic Russians are members of several Orthodox groups not affiliated with the GOC, including the ROC, Molokani, Staroveriy (Old Believers), and Dukhoboriy (Spirit Wrestlers). Ethnic Azerbaijanis are predominantly Shia Muslims and form the majority of the population in the southeastern region of Kvemo-Kartli. Other Muslim groups include ethnic Georgian Muslims in Adjara and Chechen Kists in the northeast, both of which are predominantly Sunni. Ethnic Georgian Sunni Muslims are also present in the south-central region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the AAC and constitute the majority of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
Reliable information from the Russian-occupied regions in Georgia continued to be difficult to obtain. According to a census conducted in 2016 by the de facto Abkhaz authorities, there were 243,000 residents of Russian-occupied Abkhazia. A survey conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent Muslim, 8 percent atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions. The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.
According to a 2015 census conducted by the de facto South Ossetian authorities, there were 53,000 residents of Russian-occupied South Ossetia. The majority of the population practices Orthodox Christianity; other minority groups include followers of Islam and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religion, subject to considerations of public safety and the health and rights of others, and equality for all regardless of religion. It prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion. It also prohibits political parties that incite religious strife. The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.
The constitution recognizes the GOC’s special role in the country’s history but stipulates the GOC shall be independent from the state and that relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (concordat). The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the GOC patriarch, exemption of GOC clergy from military service (though by law, clergy from all religious groups are exempted), and a consultative role in government, especially in education. The concordat states some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s right to a consultative role in state education policies.
A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a Legal Entity of Public Law (LEPL) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition, tax exemptions for donations and other “religious activities,” and the right to own property and open bank accounts. The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered for LEPL status. Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.
To register as a LEPL, the law specifies that a religious group must have a historical link with the country or be recognized as a religion “by the legislation of the member states of the Council of Europe.” A religious group must also submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and members of its governing body. Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.
The law grants the GOC exceptions from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. It exempts the GOC Patriarchate, but not other religious groups, from taxes on “profit from the sale of crosses, candles, icons, books and calendars used…for religious purposes.” In addition, the law states that only the GOC, and no other religious organization, may acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale by the government. Should other religious groups wish to acquire this type of property, they must participate in public tenders. Only the GOC has the right to acquire agricultural state property free of charge; all others must pay a fee.
The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization, although the code does not define “establishment.” Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by fine, correctional work (community service) for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years. Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by larger fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim, although the law does not define “insult” and does not specify an amount or time limit for punishment under those circumstances. In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years, depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and damages caused. In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, offenders may face up to five years in prison.
Although the law states public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions, pending additional legislation, and authorizes the state to pay for GOC religious schools. The law states students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals in schools “of their own accord,” but only after school hours. Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process. The law includes no specific regulations for private religious schools. Private schools must follow the national curriculum, though they are free to add subjects if they wish.
By law, the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO), which is separate from the MOIA, prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the PDO serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom. The PDO’s Tolerance Center carries out educational activities and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination. It also coordinates the PDO’s Council of Religions and Ethnic Minorities, which has a mandate to protect religious freedom; facilitate a constructive multilateral dialogue between various religious groups; promote a tolerant, fair and peaceful environment for religious groups; and engage religious minorities in the process of civic integration.
The MOIA’s Department of Human Rights is responsible for assessing whether crimes are motivated by religious hatred and for monitoring the quality of investigations into hate crimes.
SARI distributes government compensation to the GOC, and Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and AAC religious organizations registered as LEPLs for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.” SARI’s mandate is to promote and ensure peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance. Its stated responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and draft legal acts for government consideration, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations. SARI may issue nonbinding recommendations to relevant state institutions on approval of applications for the construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On June 27, a court sentenced two men to 15 years each in prison for the 2018 stabbing to death of 25-year-old human rights activist Vitali Safarov, who had Jewish and Yezidi roots. The court ruled, however, the killing was not a hate crime of “racial, religious, national, or ethnic intolerance,” stating hate was not the only or decisive motive in the killing. International observers and local NGOs disagreed, saying the attackers engaged in further aggression and cried out racist epithets after Safarov told them he was Jewish. According to witness testimony and materials NGOs found on the internet, including Nazi symbols and calls to violence on personal Facebook pages, the men belonged to neo-Nazi groups and held ultranationalist ideas. The Center for Participation and Development, where Vitali Safarov worked, and the Human Rights Center, both NGOs, said they supported the prosecutor’s November 16 decision to file an appeal for the court to establish hate as a motive in the crime.
The NGO Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) again stated the MOIA was generally correctly applying the appropriate articles of the criminal code and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred continued to improve.
The NAPR registered one new religious organization as an LEPL during the year: the Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant and Lutheran Church – Bible Care. It rejected the registration applications of six other groups on the grounds that they either did not demonstrate historic ties to Georgia or were not recognized as a religion by Council of Europe countries. The NAPR declined registration to the Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant and Lutheran Church – Bible Care for People; Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant and Lutheran Church – Bible Care Visit the Prisoner; Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant and Lutheran Church for Bible Care; Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant and Lutheran Church – Bible Support; Church for All Nations – Georgia; and Georgian Christian Religious Organization Gideon.
Most prisons continued to have GOC chapels but no areas for nondenominational worship. According to SARI and Catholic, AAC, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, prisons could provide religious counseling services if requested by members of the military or prisoners.
Parliament held several hearings during the year with civil society, government officials, and religious representatives on changes to the law granting the GOC tax and property privileges not available to other religious groups. The Constitutional Court ruled in 2018 that the GOC’s exclusive privileges were unconstitutional and mandated legislative change that would either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31, 2018. Parliament did not meet the deadline nor amend the law by year’s end. SARI and some religious representatives, including members of the Jewish community and the Armenian Apostolic Church, favored drafting a new and broader “law on religion” to define which groups would be eligible for these and other benefits and to address issues pertaining to the registration and legal status of religious groups and the teaching of religion in public schools. Many civil society representatives and other religious groups, including some members of the Muslim community, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Baptist Church, however, were opposed, arguing that such legislation would allow the government to discriminate against smaller religious communities and increase the government’s leverage over them. They advocated instead making benefits available to all religious groups or to none.
NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to influence the state-funded AMAG, including by influencing the selection of the AMAG religious leader and the selective transfer of land to AMAG. The groups said AMAG was a “Soviet-style” organization that served as a tool of the state to monitor and control religious groups. Following the December 25 election of a new AMAG leader, several staff members left the organization, stating the State Security Service had unduly interfered with the process. A number of Muslim groups also were critical of AMAG for insisting it represented all Muslim communities in the country within one organization.
At year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court did not rule on the AAC’s January 2018 appeal of the NAPR’s decision to register as GOC property a church of which the AAC claimed ownership since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The AAC continued to petition SARI for restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property. At year’s end, SARI had not responded to any of the AAC’s 57 petitions, 20 of which it filed in 2015 and 37 in 2018, for ownership or right-of-usage status. The AAC reported it operated all 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. SARI said the issue was a lack of evidence provided by the AAC itself, but said it was in communication with the AAC and expressed willingness to cooperate in the future.
According to the PDO’s Tolerance Center, non-GOC religious organizations continued to face government resistance when attempting to obtain construction permits for houses of worship, as was the case with a mosque in Batumi. The center continued to attribute the resistance to what it termed a general societal bias in favor of the GOC. According to TDI, although the law provides for equal treatment for applicants seeking construction permits, municipalities often discriminated against representatives of religious minority groups. TDI also cited what it described as the “problematic role” of SARI in the process, which “without a legitimate purpose and legal basis” interfered with the authority of local self-governance.
Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions on mosques and their construction. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. The government owned the land as a legacy from the Soviet period, and in some cases said the existing mosques were former GOC houses of worship or were erected in their place.
On September 30, the Batumi City Court ruled Batumi City Hall had discriminated against the New Mosque Construction Fund (an entity representing members of the Batumi Muslim community seeking to establish a new mosque) by denying the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. The court ordered the mayor’s office to reconsider its decision. The Muslim community said it needed a second mosque in the city because the only mosque currently operating there was too small to accommodate the local population. The mayor’s office argued in court that the plot of land was located in a high-density residential zone and was therefore not suitable for a religious building. According to media, there were already several churches in the same area. The NGOs Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) and TDI brought the case to court on behalf of the fund. They criticized the court decision for not requiring the mayor’s office to issue the permit. The mayor outlined several conditions for allowing the construction, including that the fund retract its appeal to the courts and give the land acquired for the mosque to AMAG, which would later apply for the necessary permits. On December 4, Batumi City Hall appealed the Batumi City Court’s September 30 decision, leading the New Mosque Construction Fund to submit its own appeal seeking the court obligate the city to issue the construction permit rather than simply “reconsider.” At year’s end, the appeals were ongoing. According to a report by the TDI, Muslims in Batumi told the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18 that AMAG backed the state in its refusal to grant the permits for the second mosque, while the Georgian Muslim Union, which did not receive state funds, supported the plans for a second mosque.
Parallel to the mosque permit issue, the construction fund appealed Batumi City Hall’s decision to impose a fine of 3,000 lari ($1,000) for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land. The appeal was ongoing at year’s end.
Construction continued on property surrounding the main building of a new mosque AMAG built in late 2018 in the village of Mokhe in Samtskhe-Javakheti. The community was already conducting prayers at the mosque. A local Muslim donated the land for the new mosque to AMAG after a SARI commission transferred the original, disputed building the local Muslim community had planned to use as a mosque to the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation in 2018. At the time, SARI told reporters that the commission’s decision and AMAG’s subsequent steps to build the mosque on the new plot were acceptable to the local Muslim community. EMC, however, said that the commission’s decision was not representative of local Muslims because no trustees of the local community were represented on the commission. They reported at the time that some local Muslims refused to pray at the new mosque and instead prayed temporarily outside the property of the old mosque. EMC appealed to the UN Human Rights Committee on behalf of some local Muslims, stating that the state had violated their rights to equality and freedom of religion, among others. The Human Rights Committee had not responded to the appeal as of year’s end.
The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 2.3 million lari ($801,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, a decrease of approximately 200,000 lari ($69,700) from 2018.
There was no movement on a 2018 EMC appeal to the Supreme Court of a lower court ruling that the MOIA did not discriminate against Muslims by failing to prevent vandalism against an Islamic boarding school. The boarding school had not opened by year’s end. According to a 2018 TDI report, religious education in public schools persisted, although the law provided for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination. TDI continued to report cases of religious discrimination in schools, including incidents involving the promotion of GOC theology during general courses on religion, GOC prayers conducted in classrooms, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools, despite the law’s prohibition of proselytizing. The GOC did not offer any formal religious studies classes in public institutions. Although the GOC had the right to do so under the concordat, the government did not define the requisite legal structures for direct GOC involvement in public institutions. Nevertheless, NGOs and non-GOC organizations, such as EMC, reported GOC clergy often visited classes during the regular school day, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators, despite the law restricting such visits to after hours.
In October EMC called upon the Ministry of Education’s General Inspection Department, responsible for dealing with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior, to “ensure the … protection of religious neutrality” in education after a video surfaced of GOC clergy meeting with professors and teachers emphasizing the importance of Christianity in Adjara, a majority ethnic-Georgian, Muslim region. After the meeting, one high school principal declared that educational professionals had a “duty to convert [students] to their ancient faith.” By year’s end, authorities did not respond to EMC’s complaint.
The government paid compensation to five religious groups for “material and moral damages” they sustained during the Soviet period. It distributed the same amounts as in 2018: 25 million lari ($8.7 million) to the GOC; 2.75 million lari ($958,000) to the Muslim community, represented by the AMAG; 550,000 lari ($192,000) to the Catholic Church; 800,000 lari ($279,000) to the AAC; and 400,000 lari ($139,000) to the Jewish community. SARI’s position was that the payments were of “partial and of symbolic character,” and that the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of religious groups in determining compensation. NGOs continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups in the legislation designating the five groups eligible to receive compensation and to question the criteria the government used to select them.
Media reported that on May 8, by a vote of 96-0, parliament approved a change to the labor code making May 12 a holiday marking the country’s consecration to the Virgin Mary and allocating 890,000 lari ($310,000) to celebrate it. May 12 was already a public holiday marking St. Andrew’s Day. Sopho Kiladze, head of parliament’s human rights committee, told Maestro Television, “It is important for Georgia to be officially declared as the domain of the Virgin Mary.” Beka Mindiashvili, head of the PDO’s Tolerance Center and a former GOC theologian, denounced the measure.
The MOI Department of Human Rights, in cooperation with the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, conducted 10 training programs on discrimination and hate crimes during the year, and commissioned research on the victims’ attitudes toward investigations of the crimes against them, with a focus on religious minorities, among others.
The Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained occupied by Russia and outside the administrative control of the central government. Reliable information from those regions continued to be difficult to obtain. According to the “constitution” adopted in Abkhazia, all persons in the region are equal before the law regardless of religious beliefs and everyone has the right to freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. It forbids the formation of associations or parties or activities that incite religious discord. The “constitution” of South Ossetia guarantees freedom of conscience and faith, but states, “Orthodox Christianity and traditional South Ossetian beliefs represent one of the foundations of the national self-awareness of the Ossetian people.”
De facto authorities in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses could continue to rent space for Kingdom Halls in Abkhazia.
Representatives of the GOC remained unable to travel to or conduct services in Russian-occupied Abkhazia, including in the majority-ethnic Georgian Gali District. According to SARI, the district’s ethnic-Georgian population had to travel to Tbilisi-administered territory to celebrate religious holidays.
The government continued to say the de facto authorities damaged historical Orthodox religious buildings in an attempt to erase Georgian cultural heritage. In September the head of the National Agency of the Protection of Georgian Cultural Heritage expressed concern over the state of the Bedia Cathedral, a 10th century Orthodox complex in Abkhazia, as a result of “Russian vandalism.”
De facto authorities allowed the GOC to conduct services in South Ossetia. There were GOC churches in the ethnic-Georgian-majority district of Akhalgori. SARI again reported it was not allowed to enter the occupied territory. It said it was unable to monitor houses of worship in South Ossetia and that the status of most properties in the territory was unknown. According to a report from Amnesty International released in July, residents in and outside of South Ossetia were impeded from visiting a number of churches and cemeteries within South Ossetia located near the administrative boundary line with the rest of Georgia because of the threat of detention by Russian guards. The report said residents were unable to visit the village cemetery in Kveshi and were impeded from visiting eight other cemeteries in South Ossetia near the administrative boundary line.
According to the South Ossetian news agency “RES,” Sonia Khubaeva, the de facto South Ossetian “representative for religious issues,” said in November that religious groups could function in the territory only if they were registered. She said this “law” applied to the GOC, “which has been operating illegally in the territory of South Ossetia for 11 years.”
According to an annual report published in February by U.S. NGO Freedom House, the de facto authorities in South Ossetia placed increasing pressure on the Orthodox churches in the territory to merge with the ROC. The report stated that in 2018 de facto South Ossetian border guards confiscated the South Ossetian “passport” of Bishop Ambrosi of Methone when he tried to enter the region from Russia. Ambrosi helped establish the noncanonical Alania eparchy in 2005, aligning it with noncanonical Greek churches. Both the ROC and the GOC continued to recognize South Ossetia as in the canonical jurisdiction of the GOC; however, the ROC did not always respect this in practice.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The MOIA investigated 44 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, including 10 cases of unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites, 10 cases of persecution, and eight cases of damage or destruction of property. The PGO reported criminal prosecutions were launched against 14 individuals for crimes motivated by religious intolerance. Six of these individuals were convicted on the charge. By comparison, in 2018 the ministry investigated 23 incidents reported as religiously motivated crimes.
At year’s end, the PDO reported it received 19 complaints of discrimination or hate crimes based on religion during the year, equal to 19 received in 2018. Ten incidents – of which eight targeted the Jehovah’s Witnesses – involved violence, compared with six in the previous year. The remaining nine cases concerned complaints that authorities refused to register religious organizations, as well as of discrimination in the workplace, harassment, and the “lack of involvement of religious minorities in cultural life.” At year’s end, the PDO was examining whether religious discrimination was involved when a Muslim religious organization faced difficulties importing religious literature for dissemination. The Customs Department of the Revenue Service allowed the import, saying there had been a technical issue, only after the organization raised the issue. The PDO stated cases from previous years remained largely unresolved, partly because of a lack of urgency and resources from the government.
At year’s end, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 20 religiously motivated incidents to the government, compared to 19 in 2018. Of the 20, 11 involved physical violence, five vandalism or other damage against Kingdom Halls, and four interference with religious services or damage of other property or literature. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that prosecutors investigated eight of these cases and convicted an individual in one. According to the PDO, the PGO continued to decline to classify crimes targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses as religiously motivated, despite repeated PDO requests that it do so. In 2018 the Council of Europe reported that after LGBTI persons, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most likely group in the country to face discrimination.
In one case in February, an individual verbally insulted, then attacked, a Jehovah’s Witness who had just left a religious service at a Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi. Patrol officers arrived on the scene and were able to restrain the attacker; the victim sought medical treatment for injuries to his eye and lip. Officials charged the attacker with “purposeful, less grave damage to health,” and, at year’s end, the case was ongoing. In another incident in April, a Jehovah’s Witness was verbally insulted and attacked by a Tbilisi resident after approaching the resident’s apartment to proselytize. The investigation into this case was ongoing and authorities did not press any charges at year’s end.
Authorities reported no arrests or other progress in open investigations of incidents from past years against Jehovah’s Witnesses or their property. Representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses legal department said communication with the MOIA had improved compared with previous years, and they commended the Department of Human Rights within the ministry for increased responsiveness to their concern that crimes against members of the community should be treated as religiously motivated, even though the PGO declined to prosecute them as such.
In January the Supreme Court upheld the 2018 conviction of a man the Tbilisi City Court found guilty of harassing two female Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 2016 the man kicked and insulted the two women and tore their clothes while they were sharing Bible verses in Alexandre’s Garden in Tbilisi. Although the court upheld the guilty verdict, it reduced the man’s fine from the original 2,000 ($700) to 500 lari ($170).
Representatives of the PDO’s Tolerance Center and minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values. A 2018 Council of Europe study reported 36 percent of citizens believed diversity affected the country adversely and was detrimental to its culture and traditions.
Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance from local communities to their establishing places of worship and religious schools. A Muslim boarding school in Kobuleti, near Batumi, remained closed after city officials ignored a 2018 ruling by the Batumi City Court ordering them to provide the school with sewage and water connections. On April 4 and again on November 4, unknown persons broke into a chapel used by Armenian Apostolic and Catholic parishes in Akhalkalaki and vandalized the premises, breaking icons, and damaging portraits. Authorities were investigating both incidents at year’s end.
MDF documented 55 instances of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared to 148 such incidents in 2018. The instances included a January statement by GOC clergyman David Isakadze in which he criticized a 2016 joint declaration from Russian Patriarch Kirill and Catholic Pope Francis. Isakadze said, “Catholicism is the greatest deviation and heresy from Church dogmas.” Separately, the online publication “Georgia in the World” published in October a statement by Vazha Otarashvili, political secretary of the Alliance of Patriots party, in which he said, “They will build numerous mosques so quietly, so treacherously, that people will not understand that this is the Islamization of Adjara.”
The ROC and the GOC both formally recognized the Orthodox churches in Abkhazia, as well as in South Ossetia, as belonging to the GOC; however, de facto authorities continued to restrict access to GOC clergy. According to media reports from online news outlets like Netgazeti and Resonance Daily, as well as experts on the region, some religious figures in Abkhazia continued to support turning the region’s Orthodox churches into an autocephalous Abkhaz Orthodox Church, others wished to subordinate them to the ROC, and still others wished to subordinate them to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met regularly with officials from the government, including SARI, the prime minister’s adviser on human rights and gender equality, and the president’s adviser on national minorities, to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups. They also continued to meet with the PDO and officials in its Tolerance Center to discuss discrimination against religious groups and stress the importance of interfaith dialogue.
Several embassy information offices sponsored outreach activities for religious minority communities. The Batumi office hosted a workshop for young Muslim girls to foster discussion of religious freedom, antidiscrimination, and human rights. The program also provided instruction on debunking fake news and propaganda centered on religious narratives. Additionally, the Batumi office supported members of the Young Muslim’s Union in community outreach projects meant to promote inclusion. The Akhaltsikhe office engaged with the ethnic Armenian community, which mostly belongs to the AAC, including by hosting roundtables and debates that included members of the AAC, GOC, and Roman Catholic Church. The office also sponsored a project that in part brought together government, civil society, and the local population to discuss religious pluralism and foster open dialogue. The Rustavi office was active with the largely Shia Muslim Azerbaijani community and hosted a quiz program on U.S. history that brought multifaith communities, including members of the AAC and GOC, together to encourage integration and social inclusion.
In June the embassy sponsored a performance of traditional Georgian and American sacred music by a U.S. chorale at the Gelati Monastery in Kutaisi. In welcoming remarks, embassy representatives at the performance highlighted the importance of religious pluralism. The embassy awarded a small grant to the Georgian Strategic Analysis Center to support a project on increasing understanding of democracy, including respect for religious pluralism, within the GOC. In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and a Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs met with members of the GOC’s leadership council, the Holy Synod, who were visiting the United States to mark the tenth anniversary of the GOC’s North American Eparchy. The officials recognized the country’s history of religious tolerance and encouraged the GOC to continue to promote interfaith dialogue. In November the embassy announced funds for a comprehensive assessment and conservation plan to restore the Jvari Monastery, one of Georgia’s most iconic cultural sites.
Embassy staff continued to meet with NGOs concerned with religious freedom issues, including the Center for Development and Democracy, the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, TDI, and the 21st Century Union, to discuss interfaith relations, the integration of religious minorities into society, and the promotion of religious freedom for all.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials visited the Pankisi Gorge, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, and Adjara regions on several occasions to meet with local religious leaders, including from the Sunni and Shia Muslim and AAC communities. In these meetings, embassy officials advocated interfaith understanding, dialogue, and the peaceful coexistence of all religions.
The Charge d’Affaires met with GOC Patriarch Ilia II and other senior GOC members on multiple occasions. In her meetings, she stressed the importance of the Church’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. It states religion is a personal choice, and all churches and religious organizations have equal rights. A concordat with the Holy See defines relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Statutes and agreements determine relations between the government and 15 religious groups. The law prohibits public speech offensive to religious sentiment. The government decided 151 religious communal-property restitution cases out of 3,089 outstanding cases. The president, prime minister, and interior minister denounced anti-Semitism. Senior government officials participated in Holocaust remembrance events. During the year, the government and various political parties rejected calls for broad, expedited private property restitution. Jewish groups criticized as insensitive some statements by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and other public figures about property restitution. Ruling party leaders also made statements during the year that were criticized as insensitive by Jewish groups and other observers. Some opposition parliamentarians made anti-Semitic comments during the year.
The government investigated 429 incidents in 2018 (the most recent data available) in which the motivation of the perpetrator was the religious affiliation of the victim, compared with 506 in the previous year. The 2018 data did not specify which religious groups were targeted in these incidents. Civil society groups said the figures were not comprehensive. News media, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Jewish groups reported the level of anti-Semitic speech remained relatively high, especially in online messaging and internet media websites, after an increase in 2018. There were incidents of physical attacks against Roman Catholic clergy and vandalism at Jewish and Roman Catholic sites. Most Poles believed religious discrimination in Poland was rare, although a significant portion of the population believed anti-Semitism was a problem, according to opinion polls.
The U.S. Ambassador, other embassy staff, and visiting U.S. officials discussed with government officials the status of property restitution and countering anti-Semitism. In February the Secretary of State publicly urged the government to move forward with comprehensive private property restitution legislation for those who lost property during the Holocaust. In May and September, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism engaged with government officials and Jewish community leaders on efforts to combat anti-Semitism. The Ambassador and other embassy staff also met a wide variety of groups, including Jewish groups, to discuss restitution and other issues, such as anti-Semitism and Holocaust remembrance and education. The Ambassador co-led the first official U.S. government delegation to the March of the Living event at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The embassy and the consulate general in Krakow engaged with Jewish and Muslim leaders on countering anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and sponsored exchanges, roundtables, cultural events, and education grants promoting interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 38.4 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The 2019 Polish government statistical yearbook, which publishes the membership figures for religious groups that voluntarily submit the information for publication, reports 86 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. The next largest religious groups are the Polish Orthodox Church, with approximately half a million members (religious groups report that the number of Orthodox worshippers doubled since 2014, given an influx of migrant Ukrainian workers), and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with approximately 117,000 members. Other religious groups include Lutheran, Pentecostal, the Old Catholic Mariavite Church, the Polish National Catholic Church, Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist, Church of Christ, Methodist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and Buddhist. Some Jewish groups estimate there are 20,000 Jews, while other estimates put the number as high as 40,000. Muslim groups estimate there are 25,000 Muslims, mostly Sunni. Approximately 10 percent of Muslims are ethnic Tatars, a group present in the country for several hundred years.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion. It states freedom of religion includes the freedom to profess or to accept a religion by personal choice as well as to manifest that religion, either individually or collectively, publicly or privately, by worshipping, praying, participating in ceremonies, performing rites, or teaching. It states freedom to express religion may be limited only by law when necessary to defend state security, public order, health, morals, or the rights of others. The constitution states, “Churches and other religious organizations shall have equal rights.” It stipulates the relationship between the state and churches and other religious organizations shall be based on the principle of respect for autonomy and mutual independence. The constitution specifies that relations with the Roman Catholic Church shall be determined by an international concordat concluded with the Holy See and by statute, and relations with other churches and religious organizations by statutes adopted pursuant to agreements between representatives of these groups and the Council of Ministers.
According to the constitution, freedom of religion also includes the right to own places of worship and to provide religious services. The constitution stipulates parents have the right to ensure their children receive a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions and their own religious and philosophical beliefs. It states religious organizations may teach their faith in schools if doing so does not infringe on the religious freedom of others. The constitution acknowledges the right of national and ethnic minorities to establish institutions designed to protect religious identity. The constitution prohibits parties and other organizations with programs based on Nazism or communism.
The criminal code outlaws public speech that offends religious sentiment. The law prescribes a fine, typically 5,000 zloty ($1,300), or up to two years in prison for violations.
By law, anyone who publicly assigns the “Polish state or nation” responsibility or joint responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich during World War II (WWII) may be sued by the Institute of National Remembrance and relevant NGOs, fined, and/or forced to retract the offending statement and pay compensation to the state or a charity.
Specific legislation governs the relationship of 15 religious groups with the state, outlining the structure of that relationship and procedures for communal property restitution. The 15 religious groups are the Roman Catholic Church, Polish Orthodox Church, Evangelical-Augsburg (Lutheran) Church, Evangelical Reformed Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Polish National Catholic Church, Pentecostal Church, the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, Mariavite Church, Old Catholic Mariavite Church, Old Eastern Orthodox Church, Muslim Religious Union, and Karaim Religious Union. Marriages performed by officials from 11 of these groups do not require further registration at a civil registry office; however, the Mariavite Church, Muslim Religious Union, Karaim Religious Union, and Old Eastern Orthodox Church do not have that right. An additional 166 registered religious groups and five aggregate religious organizations (the Polish Ecumenical Council, Polish Buddhist Union, Biblical Society, Evangelical Alliance, and Council of Protestant Churches) do not have a statutorily defined relationship with the state.
The law on freedom of conscience and religion states that relations between the state and all churches and other religious unions are based on the respect of freedom of conscience and religion. This includes separation of churches and other religious unions from the state; freedom to perform religious functions; equality of all churches and religious unions, no matter how their legal situation is regulated; and legal protections for churches and other religious groups within the scope defined by the law. In accordance with the law, the government and the Roman Catholic Church participate in the Joint Government-Episcopate Committee, co-chaired by the Minister of Interior and Administration and a bishop, currently the Archbishop of Gdansk, which meets regularly to discuss Catholic Church-state relations. The government also participates in a joint government-Polish Ecumenical Council committee, co-chaired by a Ministry of Interior and Administration (MIA) undersecretary and the head of the Polish Ecumenical Council (an association composed of seven denominations and two religious associations, all of them non-Roman Catholic Christian), which meets to discuss issues related to minority Christian churches operating in the country.
Religious groups not the subject of specific legislation may register with the MIA, but registration is not obligatory. To register, the law requires a group to submit a notarized application with the personal information of at least 100 citizen members; details about the group’s activities in the country; background on its doctrine and practices; a charter and physical address; identifying information about its leaders; a description of the role of the clergy, if applicable; and information on funding sources and methods of new member recruitment. If the ministry rejects the registration application, religious groups may appeal to an administrative court. By law, the permissible grounds for refusal of an application are failure to meet formal requirements or inclusion in the application of provisions that may violate public safety and order, health, public morality, parental authority or freedom, and rights of other persons. Unregistered groups may worship, proselytize, publish or import religious literature freely, and bring in foreign missionaries, but they have no legal recognition and are unable to undertake certain functions such as owning property or holding bank accounts in their name. The 186 registered and statutorily recognized religious groups receive other privileges not available to unregistered groups, such as selective tax benefits – they are exempt from import tariffs, property taxes and income tax on their educational, scientific, cultural, and legal activities, and their official representatives are also exempt from income and property taxes – and the right to acquire property and teach religion in schools.
Four commissions oversee communal religious-property restitution claims submitted by their respective statutory filing deadlines: one each for the Jewish community, Lutheran Church, and Orthodox Church, and one for all other denominations. The commissions function in accordance with legislation providing for the restitution to religious communities of property they owned that was nationalized during or after WWII. A separate commission overseeing claims by the Roman Catholic Church completed its work in 2011. The MIA and the respective religious community each appoint representatives to the commissions. The law states decisions by the commission ruling on communal property claims may not be appealed, but the Constitutional Tribunal ruled in 2013 that parties could appeal commission decisions in administrative courts. There have been no reports of parties filing such appeals. The law does not address communal properties the government sold or turned over to new private owners after WWII.
There is no comprehensive national law governing private property restitution. Members of religious groups, like other private claimants, may pursue restitution through the courts.
The law authorizes Warsaw city authorities to resolve expeditiously longstanding restitution cases affecting Warsaw properties being used for public purposes. Warsaw city officials must post a notification of specific public properties for a six-month period during which original owners of the property must submit their claims. At the end of the six-month period, Warsaw city authorities may make a final determination on the disposition of the property, either declaring that the property shall remain public and not be subject to any future claims, or returning the property or monetary compensation to the original owner.
In accordance with the law, all public and private schools teach voluntary religion classes. Schools at all grade levels must provide instruction in any of the registered faiths if there are at least seven students requesting it. Each registered religious group determines the content of classes in its faith and provides the teachers, who receive salaries from the state. Students may also request to take an optional ethics class instead of a religion class; the ethics class is optional even if students decline to take a religion class.
Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom, and the law prohibits discrimination or persecution based on religion or belief.
The constitution recognizes the right to conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds but states such objectors may be required to perform alternative service as specified by law.
The human rights ombudsman is responsible for safeguarding human and civil freedoms and rights, including the freedom of religion and conscience, specified in the constitution and other legal acts. The ombudsman is independent from the government and appointed by parliament.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to MIA statistics, the religious community property commissions resolved 151 communal property claims during the year, out of approximately 3,089 pending claims by religious groups, compared with 87 claims resolved the previous year. At year’s end, the commissions had partially or entirely resolved a total of 2,852 of 5,504 claims by the Jewish community deemed valid by the commission (40 were previously dismissed by the commission as invalid), 981 of 1,182 claims by the Lutheran community, 365 of 472 claims by the Orthodox Church, and 89 of 170 claims by all other denominations.
Critics continued to point out the laws on religious communal property restitution do not address the issue of disputed communal properties now privately owned, and the government left several controversial and complicated cases unresolved. These included cases in which buildings and residences were built on land that included Jewish cemeteries destroyed during or after WWII. The Jewish community continued to report the pace of Jewish communal property restitution was slow, involved considerable legal expense, and often ended without any recovery of property or other compensation for claimants. For example, the process of returning the old Jewish cemetery in the city of Kalisz started 19 years ago, and it remained unresolved at year’s end.
During the year, Warsaw city authorities continued implementing a 2015 law intended to end abusive practices in the trading of former property owners’ claims. Legal experts expressed concern the law limited the ability of claimants to reclaim property unjustly taken from their lawful owners during the WWII and communist eras, including from Jews and members of other religious minorities. On May 10, Warsaw city authorities stated that since the 2015 law entered into force, the city had resolved approximately 100 dormant claims filed before 1950, which included the refusal of 82 restitution claims against public properties. These included schools, preschools, a park, a police command unit site, a hospital, and city-owned apartment houses. There was no information available as to the identity of those claiming prior ownership or how many of them belonged to religious minorities.
A special government commission continued to investigate accusations of irregularities in the restitution of private property in Warsaw. On June 3, the commission reported it had reviewed 806 prior restitution cases and issued 97 decisions since 2016. The commission chair also estimated the commission issued decisions regarding the payment of compensation worth 4.2 million zloty ($1.11 million). Several NGOs and lawyers representing claimants, including lawyers representing Holocaust survivors or their heirs, stated the commission had a negative effect on private property restitution cases, as administrative and court decisions had slowed down in response to the commission’s decisions.
During the year, the government and various political parties rejected calls for broad, expedited private property restitution. At a party convention on May 17, Prime Minister (PM) Morawiecki stated Poland should not be saddled with financial obligations in providing restitution payments, saying that such a move would defy basic principles of international law and would be “Hitler’s posthumous victory.” Law and Justice Party (PiS) chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski stated on June 4 that as long as PiS was in power, the party was “a guarantee that Poland will not pay for German crimes of World War II. If Jews have any claims, let them turn to Germany. Poles owe them absolutely nothing.” Responding to a question about Holocaust-era property restitution, PM Morawiecki said on September 26, “Demanding any compensation from Poland is not only inappropriate but is also an insult to basic historical truth.” On May 15, Robert Winnicki, a member of the lower house of parliament (Sejm) and the far-right Confederation Party, said PiS, the majority party in the Sejm, “want[s] to sell Poland to the Jews” after the Sejm declined to review a bill that would ban heirless property restitution. Stanislaw Tyszka, then a deputy speaker of the Sejm with the Kukiz’15 Party, said on May 15 that PiS’s refusal to take up the legislation “shows that the Polish government is no longer on its knees, but is lying flat in front of [the United States] and Israel.”
In August PiS expelled Senator Waldemar Bonkowski, who was suspended from the party in 2018 for posting anti-Semitic material on his Facebook page, including a video edited from Nazi propaganda movies. Media reported that he was expelled partly because of his anti-Semitic comments.
In May, then European Parliament (EP) candidate and current parliamentarian for the Confederation Party Grzegorz Braun said in a press conference, “The American empire is here the political, and also military, tool of Jewish blackmail against Poland.” The same month, Braun said in a far-right magazine that Jews “have waged war for centuries” against Poles and “the whole Christian world.”
In August Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich addressed an open letter to Veterans Affairs Minister Jan Kasprzyk criticizing the government’s decision to honor WII ultra-nationalist fighters of the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade, which killed Poles it suspected of being communist, including many Jews. Schudrich called his invitation to the event a “personal insult.” “There are so many other Polish heroes, we don’t need to choose the ones who actually killed other Poles, and in this case, many of them of the Jewish religion,” Schudrich said, dubbing the ceremony “dangerous” historical revisionism.
In February Sejm member Pawel Kukiz (then from the Kukiz’15 party, afterward from the Polish Coalition) posted tweets listing persons of Jewish origin whom he alleged worked for the communist regime after the war and were responsible for death sentences against Polish soldiers. His tweets were in response to comments from then acting Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who in the same month said many Poles had collaborated with the Nazis, and Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.” In his tweets, Kukiz said, “Since Minister Katz talks about Poles involved in the murder of Jews (and unfortunately they were), I allow myself to remind [others] about the Jews who murdered Poles in the service of the Soviets.” After facing public criticism, Kukiz announced he would take legal action against anyone who called him an anti-Semite.
During a May 18 televised debate in Kielce, Confederation Party candidate for the EP Konrad Berkowicz placed a kippah over the head of Anna Krupka, a PiS candidate for the EP elections that month. Berkowicz said “[PiS] bow[s] down to Jews,” who would “sell this country for money.” The country’s then-ambassador to Israel condemned the incident, stating that all expressions of “racially motivated” hatred were unacceptable. Berkowicz was elected to the Sejm on October 13.
On January 17, Deputy Prosecutor General Krzysztof Sierak announced 105 prosecutors around the country had been selected to work exclusively on hate crime and hate speech cases. He made assurances that they would not be assigned any other cases and said that all hate speech and hate crime cases would be supervised by district and regional prosecutors’ offices and by the National Prosecutor’s Department of Investigations.
Crucifixes continued to be displayed in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as in many other public buildings, including public school classrooms.
In March media reported that a newsstand in the Sejm offered a right-wing newspaper that advised readers on “How to identify a Jew” and “How to defeat them.” On March 13, the Sejm press office said the newsstand was run by an outside contractor who was responsible for the newspaper selection, and that parliament would request the periodical be withdrawn. The contractor said it was unable to comply with the request due to laws prohibiting restrictions on dissemination of press publications because of their content.
On March 18, police and the Internal Security Agency detained three men and accused them of promoting fascism and inciting hatred. The agency’s officers found neo-fascist literature, clothes and labels with neo-fascist symbols, axes, hatchets, and knives in the men’s apartments.
On June 26, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that a law used to punish a print shop worker for refusing to produce LGBTI material was unconstitutional. The case was brought by the prosecutor general, who argued that there should be a right to refuse service based on “religion and conscience,” including “the right not to support homosexual content.” The case originated in a 2016 court ruling that fined the print shop employee for refusing to accept a printing order from an LGBTI group, telling the group that he did not want to “contribute to the promotion of the LGBTI movement.” A lower court had found the employee violated the law, which prohibits “refusing service without just cause.”
In January the Constitutional Tribunal struck down a provision of the 2018 Institute of National Remembrance law which criminalized denial that Ukrainian nationalists had committed crimes against Poles between 1925 and 1950 and had collaborated with Nazi Germany. The tribunal ruled that the creators of the provision used vague and imprecise wording when referring to “Ukrainian nationalists” and the location of their crimes, which created uncertainty regarding the applicability of the provision.
On May 6, police arrested a person suspected of creating posters of the icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa with her halo painted in the colors of the rainbow flag, which appeared in the city of Plock. The suspect was charged with offending religious sentiment but was released the same day. Then-minister of interior Joachim Brudzinski called the posters “cultural barbarism” and said, “No fairy tales about freedom or tolerance give anyone the right to offend the feelings of the faithful.”
In November the Czestochowa-North District Prosecutor’s Office reopened an investigation into the use of an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa with her halo painted in the colors of the rainbow flag during the June 16 Equality March in Czestochowa. The same prosecutor’s office had previously discontinued proceedings in October after stating there was no evidence that the march participants had committed the crime of offending religious sentiment.
In November local media reported Tomasz Greniuch, historian and nationalist, was nominated to head the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) office in Opole. Greniuch was the chief of the National-Radical Camp (ONR) in Opole, a group the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers fascist and has called upon Poland to ban for promoting “national hatred.” In 2005, Greniuch was an organizer of a march commemorating a 1936 anti-Jewish pogrom in Myslenice.
In January PM Morawiecki and other political and religious leaders joined Holocaust survivors to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and commemorate the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
On May 15, following an attack in Israel against the Polish ambassador, President Andrzej Duda said, “Just as I fight all instances of anti-Semitism, which I regard as something vile and unworthy, I will never accept any anti-Polish act.”
In an October 25 letter to the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Prime Minister Morawiecki declared the country was committed to fighting all forms of anti-Semitism and condemned all acts of violence against members of Jewish communities or attacks on their places of worship. The letter was written in response to the Jewish Agency’s request that the country secure its synagogues and other Jewish institutions following an October 9 attack outside a synagogue in Halle, Germany.
On January 27, responding to a nationalist march in front of Auschwitz, then-Minister of Interior Joachim Brudzinski declared on social media he would never tolerate any kind of Nazi or anti-Semitic propaganda. “I said it many times, and I will repeat again, there will never be any approval from my side to any activities promoting Nazism and anti-Semitism,” he wrote on social media.
In March, at the Israeli government’s request, Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz stated that Poland would deny entry to English author and Holocaust denier David Irving, who planned to lead a tour of Nazi death camps in Poland in September. The minister said, “Denial of the Holocaust is not allowed by Polish law; therefore, he will not be welcome here in Poland if he wants to come and present his opinions.”
In November, media reported that the Foundation of Cultural Heritage, which is partially supported by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, completed a mausoleum in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery for Jews who fought for the nation’s independence. Construction originally started in 1939, but World War II intervened.
In November, a musical on divergent Polish-Jewish narratives of the Holocaust titled “Letter from Warsaw” premiered in Warsaw with financial support from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The musical tells the story of a family of American Jews that rediscovers its Polish-Jewish roots when informed they are the remaining heirs of unclaimed property in Warsaw.
On May 2, Agriculture Minister Krzysztof Ardanowski marched with Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau, Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, and U.S. representatives, among others, in the International March of the Living from Birkenau to Auschwitz. The March of the Living is an annual educational program that brings individuals from around the world to study the history of the Holocaust.
In January the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, after the Supreme Administrative Court in 2018 rejected its final appeal to register as a religious organization.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In May the European Commission (EC) carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination; it published the results in September. According to the findings, 29 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 64 percent said it was rare; 82 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 89 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 84 percent said they would be with an atheist, 81 percent with a Jew, 77 percent with a Buddhist, and 70 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 88 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 76 percent if atheist, 72 percent if Jewish, 66 percent if Buddhist, and 55 percent if Muslim. The study did not break out respondents by religion.
In January the EC published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 41 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in the country, and 18 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who felt that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 43 percent; anti-Semitism on the internet, 40 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 45 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 41 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 41 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 38 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 31 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 37 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 36 percent. The study made no effort to break out respondents by religion.
In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 64 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Poland; 56 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 74 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
The national prosecutor’s office reported that during 2018, the most recent period for which data were available, prosecutors investigated 429 religiously motivated incidents, compared with 506 in the previous year. The 2018 data did not specify which religious groups were targeted in these incidents. The NGO Never Again Association and religious groups stated government tracking of religiously motivated incidents was not comprehensive or systematic.
During the year, there were several physical attacks against Roman Catholic clergy and lay people, as well as against a Muslim. There were also cases of desecration of Roman Catholic, Jewish, and other religious sites, such as churches, temples, and cemeteries.
On July 28, three men attacked a priest and a member of church staff in St. John’s Basilica in Szczecin. The priest was taken to the hospital. He said the attackers verbally abused him, bit him in the face, and demanded his liturgical vestments. On September 23, the Szczecin District prosecutor’s office indicted the three, whose pretrial detention, which began in July, was extended to at least five months. If convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison for, among other charges, using violence or criminal threats against someone on the grounds of their religious identity. On July 29, the chief of the Conference of Polish Bishops wrote an open letter to the priest expressing deep concern with what he characterized as the growing frequency of acts of hate against believers, including priests, and against religious buildings, sites, and objects of worship.
On June 10, a man stabbed a priest in front of a church in Wroclaw. The priest was walking to the church to lead morning Mass. In November the Wroclaw prosecutor’s office indicted the man with attempted murder. According to media reports, a spokesperson for the archdiocese said he believed the suspect’s intent was to attack any “man in a cassock.”
On July 26, four persons came to the parish office in Wloclawek to submit the required official documents in order to renounce their faith. When the priest explained that an act of apostasy could only be signed by a parish priest who was not present at that moment, the persons verbally abused the priest, and one man attacked him with a cross and threw him out of his chair.
On August 27, a man wearing a Star of David necklace entered a pub in Lodz city center. The man said the bartender refused to serve him and said the pub’s security guard used vulgar anti-Semitic comments and demanded he leave. The man called the police, who confirmed they received a notification about a possible crime of public offense of a person or group based on their national, ethnic, racial, or religious origin. The president of the pub’s board apologized for the incident and said the pub would take immediate steps to prevent similar incidents in the future.
In September media reported on the case of a judge – a member of the National Council of the Judiciary – who in 2015 allegedly used an anonymous online account to make anti-Semitic comments, including calling Jews “a vile, rotten people [who] do not deserve anything.” On September 16, the National Public Prosecutor’s Office announced it had launched an investigation into the case.
On May 4, the Oswiecim regional court sentenced far-right activist Piotr Rybak to one year of community service for incitement to hatred on national grounds after he led a January 27 protest of approximately 200 nationalists in front of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp. During the demonstration, he said International Holocaust Remembrance Day glorified Jewish victims and discounted the deaths of Poles, adding, “It’s time to fight against Jewry and free Poland from them.” Rybak was jailed previously for burning an effigy of a Jew in 2015.
On November 11, former Roman Catholic priest and far-right activist Jacek Miedlar led a “March of Poles” in Wroclaw to celebrate the country’s independence day. City officials decided to terminate the march after some participants, including Miedlar, shouted anti-Semitic slogans. On December 13, the Internal Security Agency arrested Miedlar on charges of public incitement of hatred against Jews. The spokesman for the national security services said on Twitter that Miedlar had been arrested in connection with his manifesto, which accuses Jews of betraying the country when it regained independence in 1918. Miedlar was released the same day. He had previously made anti-Semitic comments and engaged in anti-Semitic activities, including organizing a nationalist march with Piotr Rybak in Wroclaw in 2018.
On April 19, residents of the town of Pruchnik enacted an annual ritual that involved hanging, burning, and beating an effigy of Judas Iscariot, who was dressed to look like an Orthodox Jew. On April 22, the Catholic Church condemned the ritual, and then-minister of interior Brudzinski called it “idiotic, pseudo-religious chutzpah.” On May 14, the Przemysl prosecutor’s office said it would not open an investigation into the incident based on incitement to hatred on national grounds, describing the event as a 100-year-old tradition in Pruchnik whose purpose was to condemn the specific behavior of a historical person (Judas) rather than to incite general hatred against Jews.
On November 11, a coalition of groups, including the ONR and All Polish Youth, both of whose ideologies are considered extremist and nationalist by human rights groups, led an annual Independence Day March. March organizer Robert Bakiewicz said in a speech preceding the march, “Jews want to plunder our homeland.” There were no reports of violence, but participants chanted slogans such as “Great Catholic Poland,” and a small number displayed a white supremacist version of the Celtic cross.
On May 11, a nationalist-organized protest against Holocaust-era property restitution and the U.S. Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act took place outside the prime minister’s chancellery and the U.S. embassy in Warsaw. Several thousand people participated. The protest was peaceful and lasted several hours, with marchers chanting “No to Restitution” and “Stop [the] JUST Act.” Leaders of far-right organizations, including ONR and All-Polish Youth, spoke to the crowd. They criticized the governing PiS Party for allegedly bowing to foreign interests at the expense of the nation and vowed that the government would not pay “a single penny” in restitution. They said the JUST Act was a problem created by Jewish organizations and called on President Trump to abolish it. Marchers also chanted “This is Poland, not Polin” (the Hebrew name for Poland) several times in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, with some participants wearing T-shirts with the same message.
On April 19, the U.S. Ambassador’s tweet of Passover holiday wishes generated over 1,500 comments, the vast majority of which were negative and anti-Semitic.
Groups such as National Rebirth of Poland and Blood and Honor continued to espouse anti-Semitic views, but according to the Never Again Association, they were not as active as in previous years.
On October 1, unknown perpetrators painted vulgar anti-Semitic slogans and a swastika on the walls of the former ghetto in Krakow. City authorities immediately removed the graffiti. Police were looking for perpetrators at year’s end.
On September 3, media reported the Lublin prosecutor’s office discontinued an investigation into graffiti discovered inside the demolished workshop of a stonemason who was renovating a Holocaust memorial in Wawolnica. The perpetrator had painted the inscription “Jews away” inside the building before running through it with a bulldozer. Because the graffiti was not in a public area, it was not considered “public hate speech,” which is illegal.
On July 21, unknown individuals defaced a recently renovated wall of the Jewish cemetery in Tarnow with an anti-Semitic inscription. Tarnow mayor Roman Ciepiela immediately condemned the incident and said city authorities would cover the expenses of removing the inscription. Police were looking for perpetrators at year’s end.
On June 11, unknown individuals threw stones at a Roman Catholic church in Konin. They broke stained glass windows and damaged a monument to a Polish saint in front of the church. On June 18, police detained a man and charged him with destruction of property; he pled guilty. If convicted, he could face three months to five years in prison.
On July 9, unknown individuals placed vulgar pictures and the club logo of a Warsaw soccer team in three chapels belonging to a monastery in the town of Krzeszow. On July 15, media reported police managed to identify two teenagers, a 13-year-old and 15-year-old, who admitted to placing the pictures. They claimed they did not realize “how serious the situation was.” Their case was referred to a family court.
On May 30, unknown individuals destroyed a figure of Jesus Christ in a Roman Catholic church in Plonsk. Police initiated an investigation into the incident.
On August 10, during an on-stage performance, a drag queen participating in an LGBTI “Mr. Gay Poland” gala event in Poznan simulated cutting the throat of an effigy of Krakow Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski, who had criticized what he called “LGBTI ideology” in a sermon. Minister of Interior Mariusz Kaminski said prosecutors would look into the incident and noted such behavior was unacceptable, no matter which religion was under attack.
On June 8, at a side event of Warsaw’s Equality Parade, three men, including an LGBTI activist who stated he was a bishop of the Free Reformed Church, dressed as priests and held what many observers considered a mock Roman Catholic Mass. The Polish Bishops’ Conference issued a statement protesting the event, and the man was charged with offending religious sentiment.
On May 25, during Gdansk’s equality march, a group of participants displayed a banner with an image of a vagina imitating a monstrance. The person who carried the banner was dressed as a priest. The Polish Bishops’ Conference issued a statement that said the incident showed a lack of respect for believers and violated the right to freedom of religion. Prosecutors opened an investigation, which was ongoing at year’s end.
On August 9, the Rzeszow local prosecutor’s office pressed charges against a man who allegedly attacked a Polish Muslim woman and her three-month-old baby in Rzeszow. The man was charged with making threats and offending the woman on the grounds of religious affiliation. The incident took place when the woman was walking with her baby in a stroller along the river. The man verbally abused her and tried to flip over the stroller. He also made death threats against the woman and shouted “Heil Hitler” and “white power.”
On April 17, the Przemysl local court sentenced 20 men to 30-40 hours of community service for disrupting a religious procession of Greek Catholic and Orthodox Church believers in 2016. The procession was en route from the local cathedral to the Ukrainian war cemetery in Przemysl at the time.
On December 24, four men broke into a Sikh temple in Warsaw. At year’s end, police were looking for the perpetrators, who were accused of desecrating the area used for performing religious services and stealing two chairs.
In April following the discovery that some bags sold in the Auchan supermarket chain in Krakow had swastikas on them, an Auchan spokesperson said the bags in question were provided by a third party supplier and that store staff did not immediately notice, since the swastikas were printed on only one out of 10 bags. The chain withdrew the bags from its stores. Separately, the Zabka supermarket chain said it would remove all anti-Semitic publications from its convenience stores after media reported it sold periodicals published by a well-known anti-Semite, which included stories such as “How Adolf Built Israel” and “How Jews Collaborated with Germans [During World War II].”
In February local media reported several Jewish leaders, including the Chief Rabbi of Poland and the executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said they felt safe in the country. Media pointed out that although there was practically no anti-Semitic violence in the country, anti-Semitic speech was prevalent, mainly on the internet. Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich observed that people with anti-Semitic views had become more confident and open about their views in the last few years.
According to the Never Again Association, during the year anti-Semitism returned as a topic to the public debate, mainly due to the far right Confederation Party’s vocal opposition to comprehensive private property restitution during EP elections in May and parliamentary elections in October. According to the NGO, anti-Semitic messages appeared in online messaging, as well as on nationalist and far-right YouTube channels and internet media websites. The NGO said that while Jews had not been physically attacked, there were cases of vandalism targeting Jewish monuments and cemeteries.
On January 26, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the 19th Annual Day of Islam with the stated purpose of promoting peace among religious groups. The Church hosted an event titled “Christians and Muslims – From Competition to Cooperation” in Bialystok, which included discussions, readings from the Bible and Quran, and prayers. The Joint Council of Catholics and Muslims also issued a statement appealing to Catholics to cooperate with “Muslim brothers.”
The Polish Council of Christians and Jews organized joint Catholic and Jewish prayers to encourage tolerance and understanding on the October 27 Simchat Torah Jewish holiday. On November 11, the council organized the first-ever bus pilgrimage to sites important to the Hasidic movement in Judaism called “Following the Routes of Tsaddiks” under the honorary patronage of Roman Catholic Bishop Rafal Markowski, the chairman of the Polish Bishops Committee for Dialogue with Judaism.
On October 26, the John Paul II Center of Thought organized an interreligious prayer for peace in Warsaw, which included Archbishop of Warsaw Kazimierz Nycz, Chief Rabbi Schudrich, and Mufti of the Muslim League Nedal Abu Tabaq, as well as representatives of the Orthodox Church, Polish Ecumenical Council, and Sant’Egidio Roman Catholic organization.
Human Library projects, funded by European Economic Area grants and coordinated by NGOs Diversja Association and Lambda Warsaw, continued in several cities and towns around the country, including Warsaw, Olesnica, Wroclaw, and Lodz. The projects involved a diverse group of volunteers, including representatives of Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups, who told their stories to individuals who could “borrow” them like books. The stated intent of the project was to foster greater tolerance in general, including religious tolerance.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In February the Vice President joined PM Morawiecki and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a wreath-laying ceremony at a monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, during which thousands of Polish Jews perished. The Vice President said in remarks to Prime Minister Netanyahu at the nearby POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, “…It is very humbling for me to be here with you in this very special place on this sacred ground, to hear a prayer sung, to remember the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto. To be able to share this moment with you and with members of the Jewish community here in Poland is deeply meaningful.” The Vice President, with President Duda, also placed candles at a memorial to Holocaust victims at the Birkenau death camp.
In February, during a joint appearance with the foreign minister, the Secretary of State publicly urged the government to move forward with comprehensive private-property restitution legislation for those who lost property during the Holocaust era.
In May the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with government officials responsible for combating anti-Semitism and working with the Jewish community. He also gave broadcast and print media interviews in which he stressed the importance of combating anti-Semitic speech and explained the purpose of the 2017 JUST Act, which requires the Department of State to report to Congress on the steps taken by the signatories to the Terezin Declaration to compensate Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution. In September the Special Envoy again met with government officials to discuss relations with the Jewish community and measures to combat anti-Semitism.
The Ambassador, officers from the embassy and consulate general in Krakow, and visiting U.S. Department of State representatives met with government officials from the interior, foreign affairs, and justice ministries; the president’s office; the prime minister’s office; parliament; and Warsaw and other city offices to discuss private property restitution, communal property restitution to religious groups, anti-Semitism, and antidiscrimination.
The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general staff also met with members and leaders of the local Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities to discuss issues of concern, including private and communal property restitution and the communities’ concerns over rising intolerance, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim sentiment.
On March 25, the Ambassador met with Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation representatives to discuss the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 2020. In a tweet about the meeting, the Ambassador noted U.S. government support for the foundation’s mission to combat anti-Semitism and protect Holocaust memorial sites.
On April 19, the Ambassador attended a ceremony commemorating the 76th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
On May 2, the first-ever official U.S. delegation to the March of the Living took part in the annual commemorative walk between former Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Birkenau. Six U.S. ambassadors – to Poland, Israel, Germany, Spain, the Holy See, and Switzerland – participated, joined by the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Their participation highlighted the continuing importance of combating anti-Semitism and support for the Jewish community. In her tweet about the event, the Ambassador to Poland noted participation in the March of the Living was a U.S. public statement against anti-Semitism, adding the United States would always combat hatred and work together with others for dialogue and tolerance.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador used social media to call for respect and tolerance for all religions, to underscore religious freedom as a fundamental pillar and value of strong democracy, to condemn violence based on religious beliefs, and to highlight U.S. government support for combating anti-Semitism and protecting places related to the Holocaust.
On June 28, staff from the consulate general in Krakow participated in the Ride for the Living, a 90-kilometer (56-mile) bicycle ride from the gates of the Birkenau death camp to Krakow’s Jewish Quarter to commemorate the Holocaust and celebrate the revival of Jewish life in Poland.
The embassy continued to employ exchange programs, student roundtables, and grants for education and cultural events to promote religious freedom and tolerance. Highlights included the “Letter from Warsaw” musical on divergent Polish-Jewish narratives of the Holocaust, the Isaac Bashevis Singer Festival in Warsaw, the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, an exhibit on Poles who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, and a concert commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The embassy also supported educational programs such as a hackathon, in which computer programmers and others collaborated intensively over two days to create apps to combat anti-Semitism, and a speaker program featuring a U.S. citizen who spoke to audiences in Krakow and Warsaw about his experiences engaging in dialogue with members of hate groups to encourage them to leave organizations such as the KKK. In addition, the embassy provided support for six teachers to attend a Department of State-funded Holocaust teacher training program in the United States, in cooperation with the POLIN Museum and the U.S.-based Association of Holocaust Organizations.
The consulate general in Krakow provided grant funding for an educational project led by Christian Culture Foundation ZNAK that included workshops for Polish elementary and high school students promoting human rights and constitutional rights, including religious freedom.
In July and August, the consulate general in Krakow funded a series of basic and advanced seminars for 50 teachers organized by Galicja Jewish Museum, whose goal was to educate high school teachers about contemporary Jewish life and culture in the country and to raise awareness of its multicultural and multireligious society. The consulate general also funded the Summer Academy for Anti-Discrimination Education, an intensive one-week course for a select group of 16 high school teachers and NGO activists that focused on teaching about anti-Semitism.