Unlike cities in Western Europe or North America, it is rare to see a dark-skinned person walking the streets of Warsaw. Poland, an ethnically and religiously homogeneous country, has been grappling with its border policy since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and again since entering the European Union in 2007. Against this backdrop, the Polish Catholic Church is divided on asylum and migration. The hesitance may influence Warsaw’s local elections on Oct. 21, 2018, in which a liberal-conservative and far-right candidates lead the polls and compete to become mayor in the liberal city.
Poland has been portrayed in the West as hostile to migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East. It has denied access to any refugee coming from the European Union’s resettlement program and, according to European statistics, has the second-highest rejection rate of asylum seekers in all of Europe. Politicians tell voters to fear the Islamization of Catholic Poland, and this angst is amplified by a media increasingly controlled by the government.
“The Polish church still doesn’t know what role to play in the Polish community or even in the European Union.”
“The Polish church still doesn’t know what role to play in the Polish community or even in the European Union,” Marta Kolodziejska, a religion sociologist at the University of Warsaw, tells America over coffee in Warsaw’s city center.
For years, the Polish church has been torn between supporting the government’s anti-migrant stance and adopting Pope Francis’ commitment to foreigners. In a country where 87.5 percent of Poles identify as Roman Catholic, the Catholic Church helps shape a public opinion that is sensitive to topics like asylum and migration.
Poland’s history and cultural isolation are often invoked to understand the country’s reluctance to accept refugees. Since the end of World War II, Poland has been primarily Slavic and Catholic. Decades of communism once sealed the country’s borders to the rest of the world, and poverty still makes travel difficult. The historical memory of being Europe’s “bulwark of Christianity” against Muslim invaders in the 17th century, as well as of German and Russian occupation, is also still fresh in people’s minds. Because of this particular combination, Poles have not been in touch with other ethnicities or religions for half a century.
Bishop Krzysztof Zadarko, the chairman of the Council for Migration, Tourism and Pilgrimages, adds that Poland does not want to repeat failed policies that have, according to him, beset Western Europe. “Words of politicians are a reflection of our experience—or rather its lack thereof—mainly with Islam,” he tells America. “Failed integration processes in Western Europe, for example in France, Germany, Sweden, which led to the creation of ghettos, discourage us and do not give hope that a common future can be created.”
“In this context, it is easy to create fear of the unknown by simply stating that migrants will come with terrorism, burqas and rape,” Ms. Kolodziejska says. According to her, the Polish church has helped stir xenophobia. “The church has become part of this; it entertains this fear,” she says.
“The church has become part of this, it entertains this fear,” she says.
In 2015, the far-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) won national elections, thanks, in part, to nationalist values, an anti-migrant agenda and support from conservative clergy. Since then, refugees and N.G.O.s believe the atmosphere has changed.
“Conservative Catholic media like Radio Maryja are the main forces shaping public opinion; they are the ones with the largest audiences, and they openly associate with right-wing parties,” Ms. Kolodziejska says. Radio Maryja is run by the Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk and regularly has the leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, on air.
“Before 2015, the situation was better for us,” Muhamadjon Kabirov, a refugee from Tajikistan, tells America. “Then it changed because the new government and propaganda in the media changed people's minds.” Between May 2015 and April 2016, the number of Poles strongly opposed to receiving refugees from the Middle East and Africa more than doubled.
Agnieszka Kunicka, the chairwoman of the nonprofit Refugee.pl, agrees. “Especially since 2015, people think all refugees are terrorists and that they will force all Poles to become Muslim,” she explains. She deplores that politicians have closed all forms of dialogue with her organization and that funds are directed only to associations working with refugees abroad.
Yet both the Polish church and Caritas Poland, the largest charitable group in the country, believe that helping refugees in their country of origin is more effective. “The answer of the Polish church is to help refugees within the countries that have war crises and in neighboring countries,” Bishop Zadarko says. Nearly 20,000 Polish donors give 2 million Polish Złoty (roughly $534,000) to 8,700 Syrian families each month through Caritas’s flagship program “Family to Family.” It is hailed as an all-around success and proof that Poles are willing to financially support people in need.
“Polish society actually wants to help,” Sylwia Cieślar Hazboun, a foreign project specialist at Caritas Poland, says. “The program exists not because Poles are afraid of Syrians coming to Poland,” Ms. Hazboun adds. “Bishops in Syria asked us for help, and they said that helping on the ground in Syria works better.”
“Bishops in Syria asked us for help, and they said that helping on the ground in Syria works better.”
Some leaders of the Polish church, however, would like Poles to welcome refugees in Poland and openly criticize the government’s unreceptive attitude. Last year, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek told thenewspaper Rzeczpospolita that “not accepting refugees practically means resigning from being a Christian.” In March, retired Archbishop Henryk Muszynski of Gniezno accused the Polish government of falsifying data on refugees.
The government “still relentlessly insists it won’t accept a single one,” he said. The Polish church wants to provide humanitarian corridors for those who need help the most, but these efforts have been thwarted by the government.
Another chasm separates high ranks of the church and local clergy. The N.G.O. Refugee.pl claims that when they invite parishes, priests and Catholic organizations to collaborate, they are met with silence. “At the high level, the level of the cardinal, the church adopts the position of Pope Francis with regard to refugees, but in practice, it’s hard to meet people at the local level,” Ms. Kunicka says. “It is easier to work with German and Austrian parishes than with Polish ones,” she adds.
Bishop Zadarko disagrees. “In Poland, there were parishes that accepted refugees,” he says. “But after a short time, they fled to the west of Europe because there they have their ethnic and religious minorities, and this is discouraging [for parishes].” Yet he acknowledges that different approaches to dealing with migrants and refugees exist.
For Ms. Kolodziejska, this divide symbolizes Poland’s soul-searching in the post-Communist era. In the years running up to 1989, the Polish church played a crucial role in ending Communist rule. When this goal was achieved, the church was left to justify the new liberal regime and capitalist economy in which hundreds of people lost their status and their jobs. In response to a perceived loss of identity, she says, the Polish church promoted politically conservative policies on education and reproductive health care.
“By getting into conservative politics, the church has paid the price of marginalizing other groups."
Such efforts alienated socially liberal Catholics. “By getting into conservative politics, the church has paid the price of marginalizing other groups, like lay people and clergy who do not think like them,” Ms. Kolodziejska says. This might, in turn, result in some Catholics feeling disaffected. For Ms. Kolodziejska, the increasing politicization of the church partly explains why regular Mass attendance is dwindling every year. In 2018, that figure reached an all-time low of 37 percent.
On Oct. 21, Warsaw will either vote to stay in the opposition or sway to the far right with a PiS candidate. “The official statements from the church warn the clergy against becoming politically involved or using the church for political agitation, but as usual, some abide by this, and some don’t,” Ms. Kolodziejska says. As the church in Poland remains polarized and continues to lose members, it remains to be seen how much influence it has over voters.