by Jonathan Luxmoore, Keston News Service, 17 November 2000

A leader of Poland's Orthodox minority has accused officials in two western towns, Zgorzelec and Glogow, of preventing the construction of Orthodox churches and denying Orthodox Christians the same `rights and opportunities' as Roman Catholics. `Having refused us any usable site for a long time, they are now dragging out the building formalities,' complained Archbishop Jeremiasz of Wroclaw-Szczecin. `I can only hypothesise about the reasons, since speculation would be out of place. But it's a fact that both local governments are causing delays.' However, local council representatives denied the charge to Keston News Service, insisting that all denominations were `treated equally'.

Archbishop Jeremiasz was speaking after repeated attempts to gain church-building permits for Orthodox parishes. He said Orthodox priests in both towns had experienced `obstacles and prevarications', and had received conflicting instructions from local councils. `In many cases, the same legal and bureaucratic requirements have not been imposed on the Catholic Church,' he declared. `In these circumstances, we can only go on asking and waiting. If we went to higher authorities, they would only refer us back to the same officials.'

Orthodox parishes have frequently complained of discrimination in Poland, where Roman Catholics make up around 95 per cent of the population of 39 million. The 570,000-member Autocephalous Orthodox Church has seven dioceses in Poland and a further six abroad, but is mainly concentrated in eastern districts. The Church, headed by Metropolitan Sawa of Warsaw, is legally recognised under a July 1991 law, which confirms its right to open churches and other religious facilities.

The Roman Catholic Church's eastern Bialystok archdiocese obtained a Supreme Court injunction in 1993 in an unsuccessful bid to bar Orthodox repossession of a fifteenth century monastery at Suprasl. In January, the Orthodox church announced plans for a 1000-seat military cathedral in Warsaw, but said it had relinquished claims to other Orthodox churches in the capital which are now in the hands of other denominations.

Council representatives in both Zgorzelec and Glogow rejected the Orthodox complaints. `The principles governing building permits apply in the same degree to all,' declared Roman Latosinski, spokesman for Zgorzelec council. `The local authorities co-operate with all denominations and don't give privileged positions - nor is any pressure being applied by the Catholic Church to restrict the Orthodox presence here.'

However, Archbishop Jeremiasz said he had initially been told there was `no site available' in Zgorzelec for the Apostles Peter and Paul parish to build a church, while deliberate obstacles had been created once a workable location had been designated. `We've simply heard different things from the town authorities,' the archbishop complained. `The architect said we could begin, while the deputy mayor said `No': since an Orthodox sacral object wasn't included in the original plans for Zgorzelec, we must go through the whole decision-making process again.'

Asked to respond on behalf of the council, Latosinski said the Orthodox parish priest, Father Bazyli Sawczuk, had filed a petition to build the church only last April, and had obtained approval for the site on Lubanski Street from the town architect in October. He added that there had been no local opposition to the project, and said Fr Sawczuk's pastoral work had not encountered any `negative reception' from Zgorzelec's inhabitants.

`From these events, it cannot be inferred in any way that the town authorities have delayed this building matter,' Latosinski told Keston. `All churches are treated with identical respect and attention here, and there's no provision for conferring privileges. Intensive efforts have been made to ensure this church is set up.'

Meanwhile, the rector of Glogow's Orthodox All Saints parish, Fr Slawomir Kondratiuk, said he had also been trying to obtain a church-building permit - for six years. He added that his parish had recently accepted a deserted bunker after turning down several `unacceptable locations', but said a 31 December deadline for filing documentation could be endangered because of the town architect's failure to `fulfil his duties and responsibilities'. `We've been warned that missing this deadline could result in refusal of a building permit,' Fr Kondratiuk told Keston. `I think we can manage to collect the final documents by ourselves. But my experiences indicate there's a prejudice against the Orthodox here.'

The priest said his parish had been allowed limited use of a cemetery chapel for the past 20 years, but had been told it would have to pay ten times as much as the nearest Roman Catholic parish when the council-owned building was put up for sale in the late 1990s.

He added that he had been refused access to a chapel in the local hospital, where many patients were Orthodox, despite petitioning the Health Ministry in Warsaw. `Although they won't say it publicly, it's clear they don't want an Orthodox chaplain there, even though this right is guaranteed to us under the law,' Fr Kondratiuk declared. `They've cited financial constraints, but this makes no sense. It's just one example of the deliberate difficulties which have been created for us.'

However, the priest's claims were vigorously denied by a Glogow council spokesman, Rafal Sikora, who said officials would have `no objection' to the new `bunker church' if final consent was obtained by 31 December. He added that he was unable to comment on Fr Kondratiuk's second complaint since local hospitals were under county council jurisdiction. `There were delays by certain officials, but I don't think these had anything to do with ill will,' Sikora told Keston. `The procedures are the same for each church and parish, and we are certainly not under any pressure. Although we have no statistics about the number of Orthodox believers here, I'm sure this priest wouldn't have asked to open a church unless he had enough parishioners.'

Archbishop Jeremiasz claimed Orthodox Christians had lost jobs because of their Church affiliation. He added that Orthodox church-building permits had been withdrawn on several occasions after interventions by Roman Catholic priests and bishops, and said one parish had recently been offered a site on the local rubbish tip. `There are towns where the situation is good, and others where it is strained and difficult - it all depends on local circumstances', the archbishop said.

The director of the Polish government's Confessions Office, Andrzej Czohara, told Keston that religious freedom was `strongly established' under Poland's constitution and laws. However, he added that building permits were a matter for county and town councils. `If we had received a request to intervene in these two cases we would have responded,' Czohara declared, `but we have not.' (END)