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Why is Catholic Poland so reluctant to help Muslim refugees?

Religious leaders have faced criticism in Polish media for anti-Muslim comments amid the ongoing refugee crisis
File photo shows Syrian refugees walking in Macedonia

In light of the constantly growing influx of refugees attempting to cross European borders and the lack of an efficient solution to this crisis, Pope Francis has urged Catholic communities to offer shelter to migrant families.

In Poland, which has the eighth largest population of Catholics in the world - with Catholics making up 94 percent of its citizens - the Pope’s request wasn’t met with approval and enthusiasm, but with scepticism and diplomatic reluctance.

In an official response, the Polish Episcopate did not directly state whether the Pope’s request would be implemented. Instead, it pushed the responsibility to help asylum seekers onto the Polish government.

“When it comes to specific assistance to refugees in Poland, there is no doubt that the major initiative and duty rests on the shoulders of secular power,” wrote the Episcopate.

The failure of Episcopate’s statement to accept or reject the the Pope’s recent appeal has triggered an avalanche of controversial comments regarding Arab refugees from Polish Catholic priests either on social media or in their sermons.

“When listening to the priests at different churches, I have the impression that the Catholic Church in Poland does not have a common view on this subject. Pope Francis encouraged parishes to invite refugees, however this kind of attitude does not reflect the statements of other priests or bishops. The messages which reach the people are just a mix of private views of priests,” said Agnieszka Kosowicz, director of the Polish Migration Forum.

Hate speech instead of Christian compassion?

Cultural differences between Christians and Muslims have been often presented as an argument against accepting asylum seekers escaping from armed conflicts in the Middle East.

In the view of Polish Archbishop Hoser, Muslim refugees would face challenges when it comes to understanding and accepting Christian values.

“Undoubtedly, it is much easier for Christians to assimilate in a country which is of Christian origin,” commented Hoser.

Hoser admitted that is not fair to open the door only to a group of refugees selected based on their religion, assuming that they will have better predisposition to fit into a socio-cultural background of the country hosting them. Nonetheless, he said that apart from a very small Tatar community in Poland, there is no other Muslim diaspora in Poland. If there were such a diaspora, it would smooth out the process of integration and make refugees feel welcome.  

“Muslims [arriving in Poland] could be condemned to a kind of 'ghettoisation' and this must be avoided,” said Hoser.

While opinions of Archbishop Hoser are clearly conservative, indicating that isolation of both religions is a better solution than finding methods to ensure a peaceful co-existence, deacon Jacek Jan Pawlowicz regularly posts on his Facebook profile hostile statements, often containing vulgarisms, insulting Islam and Arab refugees. He considers asylum seekers violent individuals who disdain European values and the rule of law, and who will turn aggressive as soon as they are granted refugee status.

In order to justify his hate speech, Pawlowicz has even included quotes from the Bible.

“The Bible teaches us to ‘dress the naked’. Let’s have a look at what these ‘naked’ have done [in response] to things that people offered them in a gesture of compassion,” commented Pawłowicz under a link to a video allegedly showing the litter refugees left behind in Hungary.

“These wild people - euphemistically called refugees, cannot respect anything - neither our rights, nor culture. It’s obvious for them that the rich Western world and Christians should offer them help,” added Pawlowicz.

He also called on women supporting the idea of welcoming refugees to Poland to “open their eyes,” claiming that the presence of Arab men would directly jeopardise their personal security.

“Maybe when such a ‘refugee’ rapes them, then they will understand what they were so fiercely agitating for and for whom they opened the door to our Polish house,” wrote Pawlowicz.

His comments have already been criticised in the Polish media, but no clear message has been published yet by the Episcopate as to whether there is any intention to investigate the matter.

“This should not have happened and this is not a Catholic behaviour,” priest Waldemar Cislo told MEE.

“If this is an official statement, then it will definitely be condemned,” added Cislo.

Credibility of refugees

In arguing against providing help to refugees from the Middle East and Africa, Catholic opponents have put the credibility of asylum seekers under scrutiny.

“If refugees have indeed fled the Islamic State [IS], then they should be satisfied with finding shelter in any country in Europe, even the poorest one,” priest Ryszard Winiarski wrote in an article.

“But they [refugees] are after social welfare offered by the richest countries. They are very demanding … Why are the refugees not searching for support from other Arab countries who are closer to them when it comes to ethnicity, culture and mentality?” added Winiarski.

In this context, Rafal Kostrzynski, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Poland, explained that Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan have taken in 95 percent of Syrians and accommodated them in camps, where they have been living below the poverty line.

“These persons have no chance of getting access to humanitarian help. They have no chance of finding employment and living a normal life comparable to the kind of life people live in countries free of conflict. Consequently, a kind of intensifying desperation drove these people to seek refuge in other places,” commented Kostrzynski.

According to Kosowicz of the Polish Migration Forum, it is also critical to understand that the level of rational thinking of an individual fleeing war and striving to bring his family to security is different from someone who has a stable life.

“I have been working with refugees for 15 years and seen that people are making decisions which we consider irrational, but at the same time these decisions are the best for them - if taken into account their knowledge and the current living situation,” said Kosowicz.

Kosowicz also commented that people fleeing Syria are making their decisions based on the knowledge that Germany is a country ready to provide assistance, while all others are not willing to take that responsibility.

“Searching for a safe place is not a misuse [of refugee rights],” said Kosowicz.

Selective help

A recent poll revealed that in the view of 64 percent of Poles, the Catholic Church should actively participate in providing assistance to the asylum seekers. At the same time, only eight percent of interviewees were in favour of receiving more than 20,000 refugees in Poland, sending a clear message that the help measures should be limited.

Consequently, in July 2015, Foundation Estera organised, with the approval of the Polish government, the arrival of over 150 Syrian refugees to Poland. The NGO, however, limited its assistance to Christians.

The foundation managed to establish contacts with various Catholic and Protestant churches across Poland, which volunteered to take care of Syrian families.

Although all Syrians were provided with shelter and financial support, the spokesperson for the foundation, Przemyslaw Kawalec, said that more than half of them have already decided to move to Germany.

The departure of Syrian families turned out to be a disappointing experience for some parishes.

“They [Syrian families] moved into furnished flats. Children received bicycles. They even did not have to cook, because they were dining at a local restaurant. One night someone picked them up and they simply disappeared without having thanked us. We will never take in any more refugees,” said a women working at a parish in the city of Srem.

Nonetheless, priest Waldemar Cislo explained that the Church prepared places for refugees a long time ago, and is ready to receive refugees.

Consequently, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of the city of Wroclaw has recently announced its willingness to support asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa irrespective of their religion, race or any other criterion.

“We cannot divide people into better or worse, less and more worthy of our support and saving lives,” Jozef Krupny, Metropolitan Archbishop in Wroclaw, wrote on Twitter.

The Catholic Community Hallelujah in the city of Wroclaw has already opened its doors to two Syrian families from Damascus and Homs, who arrived in July and August this year.

Both families have successfully adapted in Poland, and are busy with learning the language and searching for employment.

“We have a very good relationship with them, it’s even a friendship. We meet very often. They invite us for a tea or dinner, and we do the same,” said Tomasz Piechnik, leader of the Catholic Community Hallelujjah.

In Piechink’s opinion, the families’ presence in Poland is a unique opportunity for a cultural exchange.

“We are for them less exotic than they are for us - in the sense that they have watched Western movies and know what to expect, whereas we had no idea. But we have already learned many interesting things about them,” Piechnik told MEE.

Time will show whether more Poles will change their mind about refugees, especially those with a Muslim background, and offer them help and support in their difficult situation - or whether the majority of Poles will remain opposed to taking in further asylum seekers. 

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