Poland has a secular government that respects religious pluralism while according special recognition to the Roman Catholic Church as a central element of Polish national identity. Though officially Catholic since 966, Poland was long known for its unique religious tolerance. The 1264 Statute of Kalisz safeguarded Jews as an autonomous entity for over five centuries. The Warsaw Confederation of 1573 formalized religious tolerance, sparing the territory from much of the Protestant-Catholic violence that devastated Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Nazi occupation (1939-45) led to the deaths of 90% of Poland’s Jews in the Holocaust. The Church earned its place in Polish national identity through being a refuge for nationalists during periods of foreign domination, such as under atheist Soviet control (1945-90). The current Constitution grants religious freedom and equality while recognizing the historical importance of the Catholic Church. The right of minorities to establish educational and cultural institutions to protect their religious identities is also constitutionally guaranteed.
In 966 CE, Duke Mieszko (962-992) converted to Christianity, and the Papacy officially recognized his holdings as an autonomous principality. Over the next century, Mieszko and his successors consolidated Poland as an independent and Catholic state. The most famous incident of church-state conflict took place in 1076, when Polish King Boleslaw II (1058-1079) assassinated the bishop of Krakow, Stanislaw, precipitating a rebellion that ended in the overthrow of the king. In contrast to other rulers, the Polish crown practiced a measure of religious toleration, and the country became a haven for Jews escaping persecution elsewhere in Europe. The thirteenth century marked a sharp decline, as invasions by Mongol and German Crusaders combined with political fragmentation to weaken the Polish state. However, within a century, Poland reemerged as a European power, a process consolidated by the union with Lithuania in 1385. The latter was the last polytheist state in Europe, and many of its inhabitants were Eastern Orthodox or non-Christian. In this diverse religious environment, which included the largest Jewish population in Europe, even the Protestant Reformation did not initially lead to religious conflict. The Polish-Lithuanian Union flourished until the mid-seventeenth century, when political instability invited invasions by Russia and Sweden. One consequence of this troubled period was a rise in sectarian conflict. The Jewish population was particularly affected by this development, as anti-Jewish sentiments became increasingly commonplace. In the eighteenth century, a weakened Poland was partitioned three times between Austria, Prussia, and Russia, finally losing its remaining sovereignty in 1795. Poland remained under the control of foreign powers until 1918.
During the ninteenth century, Polish nationalism grew significantly, prompting various rebellions against occupying powers. By the late 1800s, both Russia and Germany sought to aggressively assimilate their Polish subjects, a process that included attempts to limit the power of the Catholic Church. In addition, nationalism and social dislocation brought about by economic transformation resulted in increasing anti-Semitism, and several pogroms took place which cost the lives of thousands of Jews and prompted many others to emigrate. The First World War (1914-1918) devastated Polish lands, but 1918 brought about renewed independence, and the boundaries of the new Polish state were formally secured in 1921. Although many Jews fought for Polish independence, the interwar years were marked by the growth of persecution and prejudice, and the Jewish community became increasingly impoverished and isolated. In 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and partitioned Poland, and both totalitarian states persecuted and massacred their opponents. In one infamous example, Soviet secret police massacred over 20,000 members of the Polish intelligentsia at Katyn Forest in 1940. From 1941 to 1944, the Nazi occupiers along with local Poles engaged in the systematic murder of approximately 3 million Polish Jews. Another 3 million Polish civilians were killed during the conflict. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Soviet forces occupied Poland, leading to the establishment of a Communist state.
Under Communism, Polish Jews continued to face systematic government oppression. In 1968, a major protest against the government, known as the Polish political crisis, along with the straining of all Soviet relations with Israel after the Six-Day War the previous year, drove Polish General Secretary Wladislaw Gomulka to purge the Polish Communist Party of people of Jewish origin, leading to the exodus of almost 13,000 Jews from Poland. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church became one of the central vehicles for popular resistance to the government, a stance that was enhanced in 1978 by the elevation of the bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, to the Papacy under the name of John Paul II. His visit to Poland in 1979 was a turning point, as it demonstrated the limits of the regime’s influence and the desire of Poles to end Communist rule. Over the next ten years, the Catholic Church became one of the main supporters of Solidarity, the social movement that directly challenged the government and, after 1989, negotiated with the government to reinstate democratic rule. Following the end of Communism in Poland, the Catholic Church sharply diminished its direct involvement in politics. However, Poland remains an overwhelmingly Catholic country, with over 95 percent of the population having been baptized in the faith and nearly 90 percent still professing adherence to it. The Jewish population in Poland remains very small, although attempts have been made to reinvigorate its presence in the country and to recognize its historical importance. Discrimination against Jews remains a concern, with some radical politicians involved in anti-Semitic incidents.
Politically, Poland was deeply shocked by the April 10, 2010 plane crash that killed dozens of its top officials, including President Lech Kazcynski (2005-2010), on their way to commemorate the Katyn massacre. Despite this tragedy, the government has managed to continue to function effectively and even achieved a benchmark in October 2011, when Prime Minister Donald Tusk of the Civic Platform Party won reelection, marking the first time in Poland’s post-Communist history that a major party won a reelection campaign. Attempts to move beyond prior conflicts have prompted Poland to look back at periods of pervasive repression and anti-Semitism. The adjudication of Nazi- and Communist-era property claims by individuals and religious communities reached a peak in recent years, but due to the 2011 fiscal crisis, the government announced that delays of payments for claims are inevitable. Nearly one-half of the communal property claims lodged by religious groups against the Polish government have been resolved, although the resolution of Jewish claims lagged behind those of other denominations. On June 15, 2010, the European Commission on Racism criticized Poland for its lack of progress in combating anti-Semitism. In January 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of a Polish family whose son's request to take ethics instead of religion classes was denied by the Polish public school system. The Court found that Poland's educational policies violated Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
The Polish Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the Polish legal system criminalizes public speech that offends “religious sentiment.” Though the Polish constitution officially separates church and state, public schools provide religious instruction, and the Catholic Church is afforded considerable influence in crafting the curriculum. The place of religion in Poland’s public school curriculum has been challenged through the Polish court system, yet it was ultimately upheld by Poland’s highest court. Due to these challenges and others voiced through international courts, students have been allowed to take ethics courses or a supervised study period instead of religion. To enhance religious freedom, the government funds and supports programs designed to educate and builds awareness concerning anti-Semitism and the extermination of Poland’s Jews during the Second World War. The president participates in the annual March of the Living, an event honoring Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust, and the government has supported the construction of a museum for Polish Jews. Furthermore, the Polish government, in a partnership with the United States, sponsors the Bridges of Tolerance program, which supports and facilitates interreligious and intercultural dialogue. Despite these efforts, acts of anti-Semitic violence and vandalism remain common in Poland, perpetrated by fringe right-wing groups and neo-Nazi groups. The most common offenses--the distribution anti-Semitic literature and vandalism of synagogues, cemeteries, and former concentration camps--are strongly condemned by the government and often prosecuted.
The Polish Constitution came into force in 1997 and balances the rise of pluralism with the historical importance of Roman Catholicism. The Preamble recognizes both those who believe in God and "those not sharing such faith but respecting universal values arising from other sources." The Constitution guarantees religious freedom, as well as prohibiting compulsion to participate in religion or disclose religious beliefs. Article 25 enshrines the separation of church and state and the equality of religions under law, though it also provides for a special relationship between the state and the Catholic Church as determined by treaty with the Holy See. Article 53 gives parents the right to ensure their chosen form of religious education for their children. The Constitution also allows religious education in public schools, provided no citizen's religious freedom is thereby violated. The document guarantees the right of conscientious objection, as well as the right of minorities to establish institutions protecting their religious identity. Article 233 further protects the right to religious expression, prohibiting the government from limiting it even in states of emergency or martial law.
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