by Jonathan Luxmoore, Keston News Service, 30 November 2000

A senior Warsaw police officer has defended the establishment of police units to monitor new religious movements in the wake of complaints from the Adventist leadership, which said a police campaign would worsen discrimination against religious minorities. The units were set up at the recommendation of the government's Inter-Ministerial Team for New Religious Movements. Pawel Biedziak, chief spokesman for Warsaw's main police HQ, admitted to Keston News Service that the police had obtained training material from Catholic groups, but denied they were acting under pressure from the predominant Catholic church. `This is a complex and sensitive area, and we mustn't pursue people simply because they don't belong to the majority,' he declared. `But we can't ignore the signals coming to us either. We more often hear criticisms that we're being too careful than that we're staging an offensive against minority groups.'

Biedziak said 2-3 officers from each county were being instructed on the legal, psychological and religious aspects of `sect' activities at the main police training centre in Legionowo, outside Warsaw, and would be `kept trained and well-informed' about new religious movements. However, training was `predominantly directed' against criminal activities by religious groups, including the recruitment and detention of minors. `Such groups differ from typical criminal gangs, so we need to train police to deal with them. But we are interested in religious groups only if they are planning or committing criminal acts - not in their worldview or moral position.'

At a 13 October Warsaw meeting with Poland's police chief, General Jan Michna, leaders of the 9000-strong Adventist church expressed alarm that the scheme used material from Catholic `anti-sect' centres which `distorted reality' about religious minorities. Adventist secretary-general, Pastor Andrzej Sicinski, told Keston the aim of the `courtesy meeting' had been to urge caution when `the label of sects is used by state institutions'. He had asked General Michna to ensure that `protection of some individuals doesn't violate the rights of others. He assured us he will safeguard the constitutional right to freedom of conscience, and ensure the police respect religiousassociations that respect the law.'

The Adventists, whose church is one of 15 Christian denominations recognised under special laws, said Catholic centres were also giving `sect training sessions' to school directors and teachers with Education Ministry backing. An Adventist pastor had been barred from schools in the south-eastern city of Zamosc after his church was labelled a `threatening sect' in a Ministry brochure.

Besides 15 recognised Christian denominations, a further 139 religious associations are registered with church rights. However, religious minorities frequently complain of pressure from the Catholic church, which nominally comprises at least 95% of the country's 39 million citizens.

The Inter-Ministerial Team, set up in 1998, called on state institutions in a June report to train personnel in how to deal with sects and announced plans for a new department in the Interior Ministry's Public Order section to co-ordinate administrative and legislative measures in co-operation with non-governmental organisations (see KNS 6 July 2000). A Team official, Grzegorz Miklut, denied to Keston that any training directive had been sent to the police, and said reservations voiced by Adventists and other churches would be `considered'. The report had been intended as a `form of education in the field of sects', he said, adding that an `absolute distinction' had been drawn between `sects' and `religious groups'. `It's difficult to measure the threat posed by sects,' Miklut declared. `But the police follow orders from their commanders, not from the Catholic church. Similarly, our Team comprises officials from six ministries, none of whom are under church pressure.'

Sicinski disputes this, declaring that the report had confirmed that sects posed a `negligible problem'. `The threat from sects is largely imaginary and there are far more important dangers facing citizens.' Sicinski said Baptist and Pentecostal churches had faced `similar pressures', despite also being recognised under special laws. He believed there was `no basis' for the new Interior Ministry department, and said it would have to `justify its existence' by finding evidence against small religious groups.

Biedziak said police had taken action against several `typically destructive sects' in the 1990s, but had resisted pressure for intervention from families of members. `If adult citizens join a minority religious group which doesn't commit crimes and isn't destructive, this isn't a police matter,' he said. `You can easily cause harm to minority groups which aren't destructive or criminal, but are culturally different and more visible in this monolithic, unified Catholic society.' (END)