Polish police have launched a program to protect the country's Roman Catholic parishes after a spate of attacks on churches and clergy.

Jan Drob, financial officer of Poland's Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference, said church leaders were particularly looking for police advice on protecting 15th- and 16th-century wooden churches, because most of them contained valuable statues, sculptures and crosses and were especially vulnerable to arson and theft.

"The thieves know church protection is lax since many parishes with valuable objects can't afford security devices," Drob said. "People will steal whatever they can—this is the main problem."

Last month the bishop of Lowicz, Alojzy Orszulik, threatened to excommunicate thieves who had made off with the crown from a madonna in his cathedral unless they returned it and did penance.

The crown has not been returned, and the bishop has hired a private detective and offered a 10,000 zloty (U.S. $2,500) reward for its return—a recompense 10 times more than the crown's value, according to a Polish television report.

The new security campaign reflects growing concern about security at the 9000 Roman Catholic parishes in Poland, where armed robberies have quadrupled since the early 1990s, according to police.

"Priests' houses have to be open places," said Inspector Pawel Biedziak, spokesman for Poland's central police headquarters. "But we're concerned they should be better protected."

"The criminals know a lonely old priest in his residence won't put up a struggle," the inspector continued. "Those involved are invariably third-rate crooks with a weak command of mathematics. They don't realize that, however much is placed in collection plates, priests keep little money at home."

Last summer, a 71-year-old priest was stabbed and strangled by robbers at his home in Odrowazek. During the same week, violent robberies occurred at the homes of three other priests, and church property—including Renaissance and baroque crosses and figurines—was stolen in cities throughout Poland.

Incidents of church vandalism and arson also broke out the same week. Burglars at a church in the northern city of Gdansk left graffiti stating "Priests are thieves," and "The church is a social parasite." A 16th-century church was burnt to the ground at Dobroslowo, and a church in Radom was profaned with satanic language.

Drob denied any suggestion that the wave of attacks reflected "anti-clerical feeling" in Poland, where the Roman Catholic Church claims the spiritual loyalty of 95 percent of the population of 39 million.

Under communist rule, Roman Catholic priests, currently numbering 25,000, constituted one of Poland's richest social groups.

Although clergy incomes dropped sharply under post-communist economic reforms, a national Roman Catholic synod warned priests in 1999 to avoid "luxurious lifestyles" and encouraged them to use "total transparency" in parish finances.

"What a priest earns from his functions, after securing his own dignified upkeep, should be used for charity," the synod noted. "The clergy's luxury lifestyles are a cause of shame. So are their smart cars, their high fees for pastoral services, and their lack of understanding for many families' financial problems."

Over 80 percent of Poles denied that Poland was a "safe country" in a survey conducted earlier this year by Warsaw's Public Opinion Research Center, compared with 25 percent in the final period of communist rule. Almost three-quarters feared for the safety of family members.

A party favoring vigorous law-and-order measures, including restoration of the death penalty, placed fourth in Poland's September parliamentary election. The election resulted in a landslide for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which is dominated by ex-communists, and the elimination from parliament of Poland's governing Solidarity Election Action (AWS) party.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:
Survey points to 'growing concern' about violence against British clergy | Clergy homes are often clearly marked making them targets for violence. (Oct. 9, 2001)

Your Church, a Christianity Today sister publication, offers tips for making churches safer.

The Big Issue in the North, an English periodical, offers this story on church crimes. Stateside, the New York Daily News and Associated Press looked at the topic in the wake of incidents in St. Lucia and New York.

A church in New Mexico is taking a different approach to crime prevention: prayer. Read more from Christianity Todayhere.

Previous Christianity Today articles on church violence:

Church Attacks Increasing in the U.K. | Insurance figures show attacks on church workers and property are growing. (Jan. 29, 2001)
Rising from the Ashes | Congregations rebuild after Satanist arsons. (Nov. 7, 1997)