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. The same penalties apply for malicious disruption of religious services.
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 nongovernmental organizations (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 168 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 states that relations between the state and all churches and other religious unions are based on 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, cochaired 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, cochaired 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. In addition, there are separate joint committees consisting of government representatives and representatives of the Evangelical Alliance, the Lutheran Church, and the Orthodox Church.
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 the group’s 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 188 registered and statutorily recognized religious groups and organizations 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. Religious representatives on the joint commissions stated that (contrary to prior information) parties have appealed final decisions by the commissions. 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 properties in Warsaw 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 the property shall remain public and not be subject to any future claims, or returning the property or monetary compensation to the original owner. As of October, amendments to the law established new grounds outside claimants’ control on which Warsaw city authorities must refuse the return of properties.
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 on 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.
In January, the MIA approved the registration of the Christian Church of the Full Gospel – Camp of God and the Reformed Catholic Church in Poland. On July 14, Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro filed a motion with the MIA to invalidate the registration of the Reformed Catholic Church, arguing the Church failed to meet several requirements. On September 15, the MIA ruled the Church’s registration invalid. The MIA said registering the Church, the only registered group that recognizes same-sex marriages, violated the constitution, which defines marriage as “a union of a woman and a man.” The Church and the ombudsman stated the MIA’s decision was inconsistent with the constitutional provision providing for the autonomy and independence of religious organizations in relations with the state. According to the ombudsman, the prosecutor general’s intervention following the registration of a religious group was unprecedented. On October 5, the Reformed Catholic Church filed a motion with the MIA requesting it reverse its September 15 ruling. On December 4, the MIA upheld its previous decision. At year’s end, the Church remained registered and retained options for appeal to an administrative court.
According to MIA statistics, the religious community property commissions resolved 22 communal property claims during the year, out of approximately 2,938 pending claims by religious groups, compared with 151 claims resolved the previous year. At year’s end, the commissions had partially or entirely resolved a total of 2,863 of the 5,504 total claims by the Jewish community deemed valid by the commission (the commission had previously dismissed 40 as invalid), 981 of 1,182 claims by the Lutheran community, 375 of 472 claims by the Orthodox Church, and 90 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, leaving 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, a case for restitution of the old Jewish cemetery in the city of Kalisz remained unresolved after 20 years. Religious representatives of other commissions also reported considerable delays in resolving cases, which they attributed to the actions of government officials sitting on the commissions.
During the year, Warsaw city authorities continued implementing a 2015 law with the stated purpose of ending abusive practices in the trading of former property owners’ claims. Legal experts expressed concern that 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. In November, Warsaw city authorities stated that since the 2015 law entered into force, the city had resolved approximately 352 dormant claims filed before 1950, which included the rejection of 135 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 on the identity of those claiming prior ownership or how many of them belonged to religious minority groups.
A special government commission continued to investigate accusations of irregularities in the restitution of private property in Warsaw. In 2019, the Justice Ministry published a report on the commission’s operation between 2017 and 2019. According to the report, the commission overturned restitution decisions for 56 properties and ordered the recovery of improper compensation in the amount of almost 100 million zloty ($26.93 million). There was no information available on how many of these cases involved claims by members of religious minorities. 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 in response to the commission’s decisions.
On April 15, during a parliamentary debate on citizen-initiated legislation to protect property from heirless property claims (the “Stop 447” bill), opposition Confederation Member of Parliament (MP) and former presidential candidate Krzysztof Bosak described the bill as “the first step towards the protection of Polish property from unjustified Jewish property claims.” He also criticized the government’s response to the U.S. Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act. PiS opposed the proposed legislation, arguing it was unnecessary because the Ministry of Treasury automatically assumes ownership of heirless property. Parliament sent the draft legislation to committee, where it remained at year’s end. PiS MPs said they voted to send the legislation to committee to “respect” the voice of citizens who submitted their signatures for the legislation.
Restitution became a topic of the presidential election campaign. On July 8, President Andrzej Duda stated the government would not pay damages for heirless property and said he would not accept any law that would privilege any ethnic group over others. He continued, “If someone wants compensation, please turn to those who caused World War II.” On July 9, PiS Chairman Kaczynski said opposition Civic Platform presidential candidate Rafal Trzaskowski’s comments years earlier that discussion on the issue of compensation for Jewish property was required indicated he did not have a “Polish soul, Polish heart, [or] Polish mind.” Kaczynski stated that PiS and President Duda were a guarantee that the country would not pay such compensation. Trzaskowski said on July 6 he would not sign a bill to provide heirless property restitution.
In June, reports in the government-controlled public media during the presidential campaign drew accusations of anti-Semitism from the domestic and international Jewish community and others. On June 15, state-run television TVP ran a story in which journalists stated the main challenger to the incumbent president would use public funds to “compensate Jews” with respect to private property restitution, should he be elected. The story also said the candidate’s approach to restitution “was not based on Poland’s interests,” and that it included images of Israel, a well-known American Jewish businessman, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and money falling out of a bag.
On June 16, American Jewish Committee Central Europe Acting Director Sebastian Rejak sent a letter to the Media Ethics Council, a journalist-led media watchdog, stating that public television coverage could “incite hatred and contempt towards Jews in the world and Polish Jews.” On June 17, the Media Ethics Council responded, echoing Rejak’s concerns and identifying other pre-election TVP broadcasts that it found problematic. The organization said the broadcasts were in breach of the Media Ethics Charter and stated, “Inciting anti-Semitism, racism, and hatred towards minorities is not in the interests of the country.”
On June 18, Chief Rabbi Schudrich and the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland released a joint statement that said, “Public media should educate and integrate, not divide,” and, “We must all speak against the use of anti-Semitism or hatred of any other group for political purposes.” On June 29, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a first-round presidential election assessment that said public television had become “a campaign tool for the incumbent,” with reporting that had “clear xenophobic and anti-Semitic undertones.”
On July 31, opposition Confederation Party MP Grzegorz Braun said when commenting on the release of the U.S. JUST Act Report that the U.S. Department of State “serves as a bodyguard to Jewish blackmailers,” and he called the report “an attempt to force the Polish state…to create a precedent for [the benefit] of the Jews.” Braun said it was time for the lower house of parliament to adopt previously submitted citizen-initiated legislation banning heirless property restitution. Braun stated his country’s government was misinforming the public by downplaying the “serious threat” of such attempts.
On February 19, the Rabbinical Commission for Cemeteries, led by Chief Rabbi Schudrich, called for the immediate blocking of the construction of a road outside the town of Jaslo, stating the road went through a Jewish cemetery. Local authorities disputed that the area was part of the cemetery, but while preparing the ground for construction, workers had uncovered several graves. Despite the chief rabbi’s request, Jaslo authorities directed the exhumation of the bodies on June 12. On the same day, the chief official of Jaslo County, Adam Pawlus, held a town meeting and informed those present that the exhumations took place over the objections of the commission because, “We act in accordance with Polish law, because we live on Polish soil, and we do not interfere with matters which are dealt with in Israel.” Upon authorization from the chief official of Podkarpackie Province Ewa Leniart, and against the objections of the commission, the remains were reburied on October 27 in a nearby cemetery for WWII victims.
On February 27, opposition Confederation Party MP Janusz Korwin-Mikke said, “As a result of the pogroms [against Jewish people], the strongest and the most gifted [Jews] survived…The Jews are a power because they had pogroms.” He added, “There are even theories that rabbis deliberately provoke pogroms precisely so that Jews survive, and then there is natural selection.”
On January 22, independent Member of the European Parliament Sylwia Spurek shared on social media an image likening the meat industry to the Holocaust. The image contained cows at a slaughterhouse wearing striped uniforms and yellow stars.
On January 28, the Warsaw local prosecutor’s office indicted an artist who in July 2019 initiated an online sale of rainbow-colored pendants of the Virgin Mary in the shape of a vagina. The artist was charged with offending religious sentiment by publicly desecrating an object of religious worship, for which she could face up to two years in prison. At year’s end, a trial had not been scheduled, and the artist was not in detention.
In April, the Walbrzych regional prosecutor’s office filed charges against a man who posted anti-Semitic comments on the internet in 2018. According to the prosecutor’s office, the man incited hatred on national grounds, offended Jewish people, and publicly praised the Holocaust by arguing that the killing of Jews during WWII was a positive development. If convicted, the man faced up to three years in prison. At year’s end, there was no further information on the status of the case.
On July 1, the Plock local prosecutor’s office issued a statement announcing the indictment of three persons for offending religious sentiment in 2019 by creating and posting on various sites in the city of Plock posters of the icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa with her halo painted in the colors of the rainbow flag. Some posters were allegedly placed on trash cans and portable toilets. In 2019, police had detained and subsequently released one of the three persons covered by the indictment. If convicted, the accused could face up to two years in prison. Their trial was scheduled for early 2021.
On December 3, the Czestochowa district prosecutor’s office announced it had indicted a man for offending religious sentiment by using an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa with her halo painted in the colors of the rainbow flag during the Equality March in Czestochowa in 2019. Once tried, and if convicted, the accused could face up to two years in prison.
In August, following a two-year investigation that reportedly began after authorities blocked an international concert scheduled to take place on Hitler’s birthday in 2018, prosecutors filed charges of promoting fascism against 13 persons, including two leaders of neo-Nazi group Blood and Honor and a former employee of the Gdansk regional branch of TVP.
On July 30, the Warsaw district prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into the placement of rainbow flags on several Warsaw monuments, including an historic statue of Jesus outside of a church, as a desecration of monuments and offense to religious sentiment. In December, prosecutors discontinued the investigation because they could not identify the perpetrators.
In September, media reported the government awarded a grant to create a “Digital Library of National Thought” – an online collection of books and other works published before WWII by Polish nationalist politicians. Some of the publications, for example a book by Stanislaw Piasecki, editor in chief of a right-wing weekly magazine, contained anti-Semitic content, including some that the library recommended for reading on its social media page.
In September, the lower house of parliament approved legislation endorsed by PiS Chairman Kaczynski that would include a ban on the religious slaughter of animals for export, while continuing to allow it for domestic production of halal and kosher meat. Chief Rabbi Schudrich and Mufti of the Muslim Religious Union Tomasz Miskiewicz met with parliamentary leaders to express concerns about the legislation. The upper house of parliament voted to weaken the ban, and on November 1, Minister of Agriculture Grzegorz Puda announced the legislation would be withdrawn and replaced. Legislators did not introduce new legislation by year’s end.
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 January, President Duda and other political and religious leaders joined Holocaust survivors to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In his remarks, Duda said, “Distorting the history of WWII, denying the crimes of genocide and the Holocaust, as well as an instrumental use of Auschwitz to attain any given goal, is tantamount to desecration of the memory of the victims whose ashes are scattered here. The truth about the Holocaust must not die.” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki participated in separate commemorations in Berlin, where he also spoke out against Holocaust denial and distortion.
On January 14, President Duda hosted a New Year’s meeting for representatives of various churches, religious unions, and national and ethnic minorities. He stated that all participating communities in the event had their place in the country, and he cited their cooperation and openness to dialogue, “brotherhood,” and a “good coexistence.”
On March 24, the National Day of Poles Rescuing Jews – a national holiday introduced in 2018 to honor Polish citizens who risked their lives to save Jews during the Nazi occupation – President Duda called Poles who saved Jews “heroes of the Republic” and cited their example of “respect and solidarity towards all people and nations co-creating the Republic of Poland.”
On April 19, Prime Minister Morawiecki laid a wreath in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Monument to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
On June 8, Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Glinski and the mayor of Krakow signed a letter of intent to establish a new museum – the Krakow-Plaszow Concentration Camp Memorial Site – to commemorate all victims of the former Nazi concentration camp located in Krakow. The museum was scheduled to open on January 1, 2021. Under the agreement, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and Krakow city authorities each agreed to provide the museum with one million zloty ($269,000) in subsidies per year, and to spend 25 million zloty ($6.73 million) each to modernize the commemoration site and purchase equipment for the museum.
On June 15, President Duda commemorated the 80th anniversary of the first transport of Poles to Auschwitz. The President laid flowers at the site where the first trainload of prisoners arrived at the camp. In his address he called for remembrance, stating, “We never forget, lest anything like this ever happen again.”
A musical on divergent Polish-Jewish narratives of the Holocaust titled “Letter from Warsaw” continued its run 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.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.