Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Captive Faith: The Polish Orthodox Church, 1945-1989

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Captive Faith: The Polish Orthodox Church, 1945-1989

Article excerpt

The disappearance of Poland as a sovereign state in the late eighteenth century and subsequent unsuccessful Polish attempts to regain unity and independence throughout the following century thrust the Roman Catholic Church into a position of "guardian" of the Polish "national spirit." This was particularly true in juxtaposition to the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox faiths, which came to be identified with German and Russian rule, respectively. The reemergence of the independent Republic of Poland following World War I placed these two faiths in the category of "minority" denominations, whose believers came from predominantly non-Polish ethnic groups, and thus became objects of official as well as popular pressures. This unfortunate historical legacy continued throughout the century, and resulted in a situation wherein the fortunes of the Orthodox Church have been closely intertwined with those of both the Polish state--irrespective of its governing ideology--and the Roman Catholic Church. An overview of the situation, development, and activities of the Polish Orthodox Church from the conclusion of World War II to the collapse of the communist regime in 1989 is the subject of this article.

POLISH ORTHODOXY PRIOR TO 1945

The Polish Republic was a multinational state with substantial religious as well as ethnic diversity among its inhabitants. The last official prewar census of 1931 listed 3,762,484 Orthodox believers in Poland, or 11.8% of the total population. (1) In terms of nationality the vast majority of Orthodox were either Ukrainian/Ruthenian (40%) or Belorussian (24%), with Poles comprising 12% and Russians a scant 3% of the total. (2) By the eve of World War II, the number of believers registered with the Orthodox Church had risen to 4,220,000; since most were concentrated in those provinces bordering the Soviet Union, they were susceptible to being labeled "security risks" by official as well as nongovernmental sources.

From the outset the Orthodox Church became the focus of three conflicting concepts of its role in the new Poland. The Orthodox clergy, predominantly of Russian ethnicity and exclusively so in the hierarchy, viewed the Church as the best means of retaining a viable Russian presence in Poland, with an eye to the eventual restoration of tsarist rule in Russia. Conversely, many Ukrainians and Belorussians saw it as a prime instrument in their struggle to develop cohesive national movements that could shield their populations from both official and informal oppression by the Poles. Finally, the Polish state envisioned the Church as a useful device to control its Slavic minorities and implement official policies within those regions, once the faith had been purged of its Russian character and shielded against Ukrainian domination. Additionally, a state-controlled Orthodox Church could be a useful counterweight to the powerful Roman Catholic Church, which expected to play a dominant role in the new country. (3)

These three conflicting visions have affected every aspect of Orthodoxy into the present century. During the interwar years the issue with the most direct and far-reaching impact on the believers concerned the organizational structure of the Church, especially its network of parishes and places of worship. Resolution of this matter involved the Roman Catholic Church, which laid claim to properties that originally had been either Roman or Greek Catholic(Uniate) until transferred to Orthodox possession by Russian authorities in the nineteenth century. From the outset civilian and, after 1935, military authorities actively supported Catholic demands for return of the contested sites. The forcible reclamation for Catholicism of Orthodox holy places, and their actual physical destruction in the Lublin province by the army, left a residue of animosity among the predominantly Ukrainian believers that continues to smolder. …

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