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Decision to Introduce Religion in Polish Schools Draws Protest

A decision to introduce Roman Catholic religious teachings and observances in the Polish public schools generated a bitter controversy when schools reopened this month after the summer vacation.

The Aug. 2 decision, made by a joint subcommittee of the Solidarity-led government and the Roman Catholic Episcopate, mandates Catholic religious instruction and prayers in public schools, from kindergarten through high school.

Many Catholics and senior Education Ministry officials, not to mention the country’s tiny Jewish community, are opposed to the new policy and resent the fact that the move was made without a parliamentary debate.

“It’s not just a problem for Jews, it’s a problem for all Poles,” said Henryka Zahariasz, who is associated with Warsaw’s privately run Jewish kindergarten.

Professor Ewa Letowska, an ombudsman, has appealed to the Constitutional Tribunal, Poland’s supreme court, to decide whether the new regulation violates previous laws separating church and state or whether it conflicts with the European Charter on Human Rights.

The policy allows for prayers to begin every school day and for religious instruction twice a week. But the classes, to be taught by priests or lay persons designated by the diocese, are optional. Parents of younger children may decide if they want them to attend.

In the higher grades, the decision is left to the students themselves. Those opting not to take catechism are supposed to be given classes in ethics or other school activities.

‘WHAT ABOUT TOLERANCE?’

But so far, it has not been established what the alternative lessons will be or where they will be given. According to teachers, there are also few details on what the religious classes should cover.

“Nothing has been done to prepare anything,” high-school teacher Anna Bogobowicz said in a recent interview. “Everyone was surprised by the decision. No one knows what to do. From a practical point of view, it’s terrible.”

Bogobowicz was clearly disturbed by the policy. “What about tolerance? What about atheists, other denominations?” she asked.

Poland is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Of its population of 38 million, an estimated 36 million belong to the Roman Catholic Church and, unlike some other Catholic countries, the majority of them avidly go to church on Sundays.

The Catholic hierarchy fully supports religious instruction in the public schools and has been advocating it in weekly sermons.

Cardinal Jozef Glemp, who heads the Catholic Church in Poland, raised the subject last month in an address to 400,000 faithful in the southern city of Czestochowa. He equated the lack of religious instruction in the schools with the old Communist regime.

But while Poles overwhelmingly favor religious instruction for their children, 59 percent prefer it be given in church classes, rather than in the schools, according to a survey made last month by the state television polling service. Of the 900 Poles surveyed, 39 percent favored religious instruction in the public schools.

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