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The Warsaw Voice » Society » October 24, 2002
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Finding the Way
October 24, 2002   
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After 1989 at least 100,000 Poles changed their religion. This number is equal to a population of a big city such as Legnica or Koszalin—province capitals until recently.

Leszek Piszewski, a 43-years-old forestry engineer raised in a deeply Catholic family, for several years has been an Orthodox Jew whom rabbis quote as an example for others. He has even become president of the Warsaw Jewish community. The former foreign affairs minister, Andrzej Milczanowski, the famous actress Małgorzata Braunek, and psychologist Sonia Raduńska who writes for the Zwierciadło women magazine, also born as Catholics, now practice Buddhism. Joanna Foryś, a teacher from Kielce, and Warsaw banker Robert Baranowski have become Jehovah Witnesses. Lawyer Janusz Mrok has converted to Islam. Twenty-three-year-old student Barbara Kowalczuk, a fervent Catholic till the age of 15, believes she has found a better way to approach God as a member of a Protestant community. The freedom regained in 1989 by Poles also means the freedom of religion. There are families, such as the Straczyński family, in which the head of the family Jan Straczyński, professes a Tibetan religion and attends meetings with the Dalai Lama while his wife and daughter still attend Catholic mass every Sunday and cherish the pope.


Poland is a country of earnest religious beliefs. The percentage of declared atheists fell from 6 percent in 1989 to 3 percent in 1999. "Still more religious dogmas are explained in scientific terms, so atheism has no perspectives in the 21st century," claims Prof. Edward Ciupak, a specialist in matters of religion from the Sociology Institute of Warsaw University.

The growth of Poles' piety, seemingly paradoxically, is connected with their departure from the dominant Roman Catholic Church which, at least in the Polish case, requires merely the presence of its "sheep," and not their deep faith. Priests do not ask their parishioners "do you believe in God?" but "do you attend church?" and they are worried that only every third Catholic "attends" mass every Sunday.
But even regularly practicing Polish Catholics do not accept all the moral rules imposed on them by the Church. Only 28.3 percent of Polish Catholics reject pre-marital sex, 36.7 percent reject abortion and 17.7 percent contraceptives. Poles love their pope, but they do not listen to him when it comes to more personal matters. Consequently, they have begun to search for religious communities, not necessarily Christian ones, which do not impose strict rules, but merely show them the way.
After 1989, 109 new religious societies were registered in Poland (today there are a total of about 160) with several thousand worshippers. Roughly half of them are based on the Bible while the rest are eastern religions, mostly various forms of Hinduism and Buddhism. These communities continue to grow exponentially.
The New Apostle Church in Poland registered in 1988 has increased the number of its members from 1,500 in 1992 to nearly 6,000 in 2000. The Good News Church registered in 1995 doubled in numbers in two years—from 2,500 members in 1997 to 5,000 in 1999. The number of Jehovah Witnesses, the third largest religious community in Poland, grew from 84,000 in 1988 to 124,000 in 1998 (95 percent of these are former members of the Roman Catholic Church). The Mormons are winning new worshippers equally quickly due to American preachers who speak Polish.

The most numerous non-christian community in Poland, the Society for Krishna Consciousness, was established in the 1980's and has 6,000 worshippers today. Several dozen Buddhist communities include around 10,000 worshippers. The Karma Kagyu Buddhist Association has tripled the number of its members from 300 to 1,000 in three years time from 1994 to 1997.

Traditional churches other than the Roman Catholic Church, which have been present in Poland for a long time, are losing members as well—the Polish Catholic Church had 60,000 worshippers in 1993 and 22,000 in 1999, and the Old Catholic Church of the Mariavites lost half of its members in the years 1997-99. New churches attract by their exotics and profit from the crises of traditional churches.

The five pillars

Some Poles, born and raised in the Catholic faith, are becoming attracted to Islam. Of 5,000 Polish Muslims, only about 3,000 are descendants of Tartars that have lived in Poland for 600 years. They inhabit mainly the north-eastern part of Poland around Białystok. Several hundred members of these Muslim communities are new citizens of Poland originating from Islamic countries. Over a thousand of them are Polish converts such as Bogusław Zagórski, founder and imam of the Ibn Chaldun Institute in Warsaw. He has changed his religion because he claims that "the intellectual coherency of Islam is based to a much smaller extent on dogma than the Catholic faith."

Conversion to Islam for Poles is considerably easy and involves a profession of faith and adherence to the five fundamental obligations. Janusz Ahmed Mrok is only worried that he may not have money for his hajj to Mecca.

The Chosen

Jewish communities set much higher requirements for potential members, particularly converts from Christianity. For Leszek Piszewski, who learned about his father's Jewish origins when he was a student, the process of gradual immersion in Orthodox Judaism took over 10 years. The rabbi court (bejt din) recognized him as a Halacha Jew in the summer of 1997. Since then Piszewski can be called in the Synagogue to read the Torah. Today he prepares new converts himself.
The B. family had an even more difficult experience. He was born and raised as a Catholic, she as a Protestant, both without any Jewish roots. They chose Judaism as the religion according to which they will raise their two sons after a Sabbath dinner to which they were invited by a director of a Jewish school in which Mrs. B. was teaching. "I saw what the harmony of home life based on deep faith means," says Mr. B. Having overcome numerous difficulties and obstacles, in December 2001 they were judged by the bejt din, consisting of orthodox rabbis from Jerusalem. Today Mr. B., a 39-year-old Internet administrator in a financial institution, wears black clothes, a yarmulke and keeps kosher. During the May census he declared Jewish as his nationality and Hebrew as the language used at home.
Michael Schudrich, the rabbi of Warsaw and Łódź, since the beginning of the 90's has conducted around 30 conversions to Judaism in Poland. This is 2.5 percent of the Jewish community in Poland, more than in other European countries. But there is no preferential treatment. Converts have to comply with much higher requirements than other Jews. "They have to learn almost everything that a rabbi has to know, and to 'know' is only the first of three steps. They also have to 'want' and 'can'," says rabbi Schudrich. For men, a necessary element of conversion is circumcision, it is a difficult ordeal for some. Several dozen people did not manage the difficulties of the multistage procedure of conversion and resigned before it finished. Some took it up again years later.
Conversions in the opposite direction take place too. Dr. Jan Grosfeld, a Jewish intellectual, was christened as an adult and today he is a professor at Cardinal Wyszyński University (Wyszyński was a primate of Poland from 1946 to 1981, called the Millennium Primate). Jaromir Kusiba, a computer scientist who for 10 years was searching for his place in Evangelical, Pentecostal and Adventist churches, eventually converted to the Eastern Orthodox church—the faith of his ancestors. Jacek Santorski, one of the most popular Polish psychoanalysts, returned to Catholicism after a fascination with Buddhism in the time of his studies. He believes that the crisis of the Catholic Church stems rather from a lack of ideas on how to reach people than the loss in timeliness of Christian values.

Pick and choose

The Catholic Church, in which over 90 percent of the population declares membership, has accepted these losses. In official statistics the "membership card" is given as christening and members are not explicitly required to lead a religious life, yet for several years priests have been obliged to cross those who have been christened and have left Catholicism out of parish registers. In two years (1997-1999) the number of worshippers in the Roman Catholic Church provided in the official data of the Central Statistical Office (GUS), fell by over 238,000. Roughly half of this number are the result of natural causes—a greater number of dead than newly christened. The other half are those who chose atheism or other religions as well as those who seek their own way. Today, it is possible to see a cross, a menorah, prayer rug and a statue of Buddha standing next to each other in Polish homes.
"Religions are being treated selectively, like shelves in a supermarket. You choose a bit of what suits you from each of them. There are more and more religious people who comply with only six commandments for example," said Dr. Andrzej Flis, a religious sociologist.
The Catholic hierarchy's opinion on this phenomenon is divided. Primate Józef Glemp thinks that "tradition is a holy thing" and he opposes the more radical attempts at transforming the Catholic Church in Poland. Father Prof. Witold Zdaniewicz from the Catholic Church Statistics Institute trifles with the size and reasons for the exodus. "Most of the Catholics changing their religion hope that they will profit from the decision, for example by receiving financial help," he said. Others, like Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, rector of the Papal Theological Academy in Cracow, consider this process to be a natural consequence of the transformation of civilization and the market economy to which other churches have to adjust as well. "Naturally, I'm not glad that Catholics convert to other religions, but according to religion man is always free." Poles are making use of this freedom to the fullest.
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