Church subsidy reform signals Polish revolution

A revolution is under way in Poland as the government moves to cut large subsidies for Poland's powerful Catholic Church and give taxpayers more choice in funding it.

The rise of a new anti-clerical party is symptomatic of growing pressure to reduce the traditionally strong ties between Church and State as more liberal influences flood in from western Europe.

"Cut the umbilical cord!" shouted Polish feminists at a recent rally in the capital Warsaw, reflecting changing opinions in the homeland of the late pope John Paul II.

According to various sources, the Catholic Church receives between 300 and 350 million euros ($398-464 million) a year in state subsidies, and the move by the centrist government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk affects less than 10 percent of this sum.

It is enough however to cause alarm and indignation in the Catholic hierarchy, which fears it is the thin end of the wedge.

Tusk's government announced last week its intention to liquidate, as part of a broader pension reform, a state fund used to finance social security contributions for priests.

Created under the former communist regime, the fund was ostensibly designed to compensate the Church for the nationalisation of its properties but other denominations and religions also benefit.

Last year, the subsidy totaled 89 million zlotys (21.5 million euros), with the Catholic Church the main beneficiary.

To replace it, the government has proposed that from 2013 taxpayers can choose to allocate 0.3% of their income tax bill to a church or religious community of their choice.

Authorities predict the new system will generate about 100 million zlotys in social insurance coverage which will apply to the minority Jewish and Islamic as well as Christian clergy in Poland.

But this is not going far enough for the new openly anti-clerical Palikot Movement, which stormed into parliament in October elections.

The party founded and led by Janusz Palikot, came from nowhere to take third spot in the polls and 40 out of the 460 seats, even though 90 percent of Poles still declare themselves to be Catholic.

"Just for catechism lessons in schools, the state spends the equivalent of 100 million euros a year. Why don't we use that money to build pre-schools, when it's apparent that we have the biggest nursery school shortage in Europe?" former vodka tycoon Palikot said in an interview with AFP.

Church fathers have not minced their words in slamming the pension reform, while calling for negotiations with the government.

"It was a premeditated attack against the Church. There are those who are seeking to accumulate political capital," thundered Archbishop Jozef Michalik, chairman of the Polish bishops' conference.

"The religious war lasted 50 years, during the time of communist Poland. We don't want another one and we are open to dialogue, a substantive discussion," said Leszek Slawoj Glodz, Archbishop of Gdansk.

"From a financial standpoint, this is negligible, but symbolically it is political dynamite," said Adam Szostkiewicz, a commentator specialiSing in religious matters.

In liquidating the fund, he told AFP, the government wants to play the equality card as it imposes reforms on Polish pensions that will affect a range of social groups.

The Church, meanwhile, is afraid that the State may end all funding in the future,

"The Church is terrified that eventually it will establish the kind of tax system there is in Germany" where people are obliged to designate a specific religious institution as a beneficiary for a supplementary part of their taxes.

"The Church still wants everyone to approach it on their knees," said Stanislaw Obirek, an anthropologist and former Jesuit.

However, he added, "Society will cease to be just a milch-cow. It will become a partner which is either willing or unwilling to give the Church money. The Church isn't ready for this revolution."

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