National Catholic Register


New Religious Groups Flourish In Eastern Europe

Church and governments struggle for best response to post-communist reality

BY Jonathan Luxmoore

January 11-17, 1998 Issue | Posted 1/11/98 at 1:00 PM


WARSAW, Poland—When a certain Bogdan Kacmajor was given a 16-month suspended jail sentence Dec. 18, the obscure case had legal implications for religious freedom in Poland.

Kacmajor, a former faith-healer, heads an “independent state” in eastern Poland called Niebo (Heaven). He proclaims himself “the Holy Spirit's only representative on earth,” and says he can cure the lame and even bring back the dead.

The case was brought to court in Lubartow by Kacmajor's ex-wife. She accused him of kidnapping their 14-year-old son, Dawid, and detaining him at the Niebo headquarters. When Kacmajor received his sentence, it wasn't for religious heresy, but for the more mundane offense of flouting a court order depriving him of parental rights.

Cases like this are new to Poland, where at least 95% of citizens claim membership in the Catholic Church. But they're set to become increasingly common, as attempts are made to control the wave of exotic religious groups who have found their way here since the fall of communism.

Two weeks before the Niebo judgment, Poland's “Chaitani Mission Institute for Knowledge of Identity” sued the Catholic leader of a Church-based family defense group who had accused it of abusing drugs and breaking up families.

The “Mission” objected to being branded a sect, claiming the term “injured religious feelings.” The Catholic leader's own son, a Chaitani member, testified against her. He told the court he didn't understand Catholicism, and had joined the group in his last year at school after coming under “psychic pressure” from parents who “smoked, ate meat, and drank alcohol.”

Buddhists, Moonies, Satanists, etc.

The Chaitani Mission, active since 1990, is one of six registered Hindu groups in Poland, which is also home to 11 legally recognized Buddhist sects and seven Muslim organizations, as well as 81 non-Catholic Christian or quasi-Christian denominations.

The largest are Poland's Orthodox and Lutheran Churches, with 570,000 and 92,000 members each. But other mainstream denominations are dwarfed by the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose 10% annual expansion has so far brought in up to 250,000 Polish adepts.

Besides 45 legally registered non-Christian faiths, the California-based New Age movement gained 150,000 Polish followers in 18 months and has screened films on state television.

The “Moonie” Reunification Church has several hundred trained missionaries in Poland, and was allowed to stage a Warsaw rally when its leader was refused entry to Western Europe. The Rosicrucians have two communities in the western city of Wroclaw alone. The Hare Krishnas have five and run their own Warsaw school.

Reports have persisted since the 1980s of a Satanist movement in Poland, which is widely blamed for a spree of church and cemetery desecrations.

In early 1997, Catholic leaders protested the commercial publication of a “Satanists' bible.” In August of last year, a Satanist leader was charged in Biala Podlasie with forcing two teenagers to commit suicide.

The Polish government's Confessions Office requires no more than an address, doctrinal summary and 15 Polish signatures to grant registering religious groups full Church privileges, including the right to broadcast, teach in state schools, accumulate property, and avoid tax.

There are plans to raise the threshold to 100 signatures. But for now, Polish regulations are the most permissive in Europe.

“Converts to alternative religions under communist rule tended to belong to poorer social and professional categories,” said Edward Ciupak, a Polish sociology professor. “But today's trends are more complex. Post-communist changes haven't provided the anticipated chances. Many young people especially have succumbed to a sense of hopelessness which sects can easily exploit.”

Up to a third of the several thousand non-traditional religious groups known to be active in the rest of Eastern Europe are estimated to spread apocalyptic teachings, raising fears for the social and cultural fabric of the region's tense post-communist population.

In Russia, researchers say non-traditional groups have mostly attracted former atheists, searching for new forms of identity after the disintegration of Soviet society.

Moscow alone was home in the mid-1990s to more than 420 registered religious associations. Among these, the Moonies were helping train State school teachers, while the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult was proved to have had contacts with government officials.

In neighboring Ukraine, the White Brotherhood movement numbered 144,000 when its leaders were arrested in 1993 for inciting mass suicides. Its leaders, now at large again, believe a third of the world's population will disappear into a crevasse in a coming enactment of St. John the Divine's prophecy.

In distant Kazakhstan, the Jehovah's Witnesses held their first mass rally last August, while Lithuania's Catholic bishops warned their country was being “overrun” in a 1994 pastoral letter.

Outside the ex-Soviet Union, at least 60 new religious groups were active in the Czech Republic by the mid-1990s. In Bulgaria, 70% of mental patients were reported suffering illnesses connected with religious experiences. Social researchers said activities by at least 300 new groups had generated hostility to Bulgaria's mainstream Churches and contributed to a decline in Christian observances.

Many Catholic dioceses in Eastern Europe now run information centers on sect activities. Yet effective responses have proved elusive.

At a meeting in Hungary last October, co-sponsored by the Vatican and Geneva-based World Council of Churches, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant representatives from 16 countries said they planned to table “practical recommendations” for government action.

Some governments have already responded. Among recent incidents, the German government introduced curbs on Scientologists in early 1997, while Jehovah's Witnesses also face legal restrictions in Austria and Bulgaria. Yet measures in this direction have proved controversial.

Russia's new “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations,” enacted in September, says religious groups “enjoy legal protection” even if not officially registered. But it requires them to have government confirmation of 15 years' legal activity before conducting religious activities or claiming full rights.

The law allows “foreign religious groups” to open a “representative body” in Russia. But it states, bluntly and ambiguously, that they “may not engage in liturgical or religious activities.” Long-present religious minorities, including Catholics, could face serious repression from January 2000, when the new law's two-year deadline for registration expires.

Ironically, some politicians are demanding similar curbs in Poland—including a minimum time scale for gaining rights, and a tighter distinction between “traditional” and “non-traditional” faiths.

But putting this into practice could prove difficult. In Hungary, where at least 30 new groups have gained full Church rights since 1989, a 1995 Media Law sparked vigorous objections by granting new religious groups equal rights with mainstream Churches.

But conservative parliamentarians have failed in past attempts to raise the registration requirement from 100 to 10,000 signatures. At least one new group, the Community of Faith, enjoys close links with Hungary's co-governing Alliance of Free Democrats.

“Protestant Churches feel the dangers even more than Catholics, since the sects attract followers from traditional Churches,” the Hungarian Church's chief spokesman, Father Laszlo Lukacs, told the REGISTER.

“Suggesting legal restrictions and measures is not in our Church's competence. But here too the whole phenomenon is very pressing.”

Classifying New Groups

One key problem concerns definitions. In a 1996 reference book, Bishop Zygmunt Pawlowicz, a Polish auxiliary, defined a sect as a “group or religious movement separated from a religion or confessional group, which cut itself off from one of the Churches or religious communities, accepting its own doctrinal and cultic principles and organizational structure.”

But Bishop Pawlowicz included in his category groups such as Adventists, who are recognized by other Churches as valid ecumenical partners. Not everyone agrees sects can be defined this way.

Another problem is posed by varying government policies. Whereas Poland requires just 15 signatures for registration, neighboring Slovakia stipulates 20,000, and has so far barred all but 15 historic Churches from claiming rights.

The Anglican Church, the world's third largest, has had members in Poland since the 18th Century. But it took weeks to muster just 15 Polish founding signatures when it reapplied for legal status in 1995, half a century after its last priest fled the German invasion. Had the requirement been like Slovakia's, it would have stood no chance of registering.

Meanwhile, though traditional religious affiliations have been cited in shaping government policies, these often bear no relation to reality. Communist-era repression not only suppressed religious affiliations downwards: it also profoundly altered the respective strengths of mainstream Churches.

Yet a 1990 UN report on Albania, where all religion was savagely suppressed under communism, claimed Albanian citizens were still “70% Muslim, 20% Orthodox, and 10% Catholic.”

Even in 1997, a U.S. Congressional official, Karen Lord, claimed in a report to the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to see virtually a 100% religious breakdown in the secularized ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

In Russia, surveys suggest practicing Orthodox believers currently amount to no more than 10% of the population, calling into question the Orthodox Church's legal claim to special “national status.”

Though 30 million Orthodox baptisms were recorded in the years following Russia's 1988 Christian Millennium—reaching 50,000 monthly in Moscow alone—the return to the Church petered out after 1992. High figures for declared religiousness since then almost certainly reflect an interest in the supernatural and paranormal, rather than any mass commitment to Orthodoxy.

Problems also occur when it comes to identifying “new religious groups”. Although the main expansion of such groups in Poland occurred after 1989, Muslim communities have lived in the country since the medieval Tartar invasions, while Lutherans and Calvinists played a key role in Polish culture from the 16th century.

A total of 14 non-Catholic Churches, from Methodists to Pentecostalists, are recognized as historically Polish under special laws. Meanwhile, the Jehovah's Witnesses claim to have been active in Poland since the 1880s, and Scientologists since the 1950s.

Most of the 34 religious groups registered in Poland in the 1980s predated the communist period. Of the approximately 90 groups registered since then, many were active earlier and merely came into the open with the return of democracy.

Against this background, some observers doubt whether legal curbs will stop the new groups. Instead, as in Russia's case, they could merely risk fresh injustices—especially if larger Churches are given a say in determining the rights of smaller ones.

In Western countries, laws and democratic procedures provide a screening process, which allows genuinely fraudulent or subversive sects to be isolated and monitored without intruding on the rights of others.

Once stable laws and procedures are established in Eastern Europe too, conflicts of tradition versus innovation, authority versus pluralism, will safely resolve themselves.

In a special 1997 report commissioned for the 54-nation OSCE, an international panel of experts said the disparaging use of terms such as “sect” had fueled discrimination and intolerance, and urged governments to exercise extreme caution in demarcating the boundaries of state intervention in religious life.

“History, tradition and differing cultures and social situations have a profound influence on the way the institutions of religious freedom are understood,” added the panel, which included U.S. and European academics, Russian and Bulgarian Orthodox representatives, and a founder of the London-based Muslim Calamus Foundation.

“Constitutional provisions vary from country to country, and may proscribe state action in one country that would be perfectly permissible in another.”

Professor Ciupak, the Polish sociologist, agrees on the need for maximum caution. In a mid-1990s European Values Study, two-thirds of Europeans called themselves religious, while only 5% claimed to be atheists. There have been signs across the continent that religiousness is growing rather than receding. And though surveys suggest it tends to be hidden and takes non-traditional forms, it's enough to call in question the very concept of “secularization.”

Why Sects Are Growing

Ciupak thinks larger Churches are mistaken in assuming modern society is increasingly non-religious, and should instead find ways of responding to a new culture and psychology of “post-materialism.” He believes the spread of new religious groups reflects the Churches' failure to do this, as well as their complacency in assuming institutional strength is what counts.

At least 80% of Polish sect members come from Catholic families, the professor estimates. Many were previously active in Catholic renewal movements, but found their religious needs unsatisfied.

“What's attractive about most sects is that they offer full, equal participation in rituals, as well as more varied forms of self-expression,” the professor said.

“Of course, priests can also talk about love and community from the pulpit. But these things sound completely different when heard from a young person on the street.”

Bogdan Kacmajor's “Niebo” group is listed as a “destructive sect” in Bishop Pawlowicz's book, alongside Satanists, Scientologists and Moonies. But telling fact from fiction is sometimes hard.

It took Kacmajor's ex-wife four years to track down their missing son, who was spotted last February when police came with a doctor to examine the group's children. Kacmajor insists the 14-year-old stayed on in Lubartow of his own free will, but isn't sure if he'll appeal his sentence.

“Since I now have my passport, which they took away from me during the case, I've decided to make a voyage abroad,” was all the former faith-healer was prepared to tell journalists.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland.