January 28 - Freedom of Religion...in Poland

Posted on January 28, 2018

Some Americans seem to think that the idea of Freedom of Religion started in the good ole' U.S. of A. But that's just not true.

"Freedom of religion" is a phrase that is generally used to refer to tolerance of different beliefs - and different systems of beliefs, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology, and so on.

"Freedom of worship" is a phrase that is defined as individual liberty - you may kneel five times a day in prayer, for example, or chant mantras before an image of Ganesh, or follow special dietary restrictions, without being imprisoned, fined, or otherwise punished.

Religious freedom has been established here and there, at various times, all through history. Cyrus the Great established religious freedom in his Achaemenid Empire in the 500s BC (BCE), and Ashoka the Great issued edicts about religious freedom in India in the 200s BC. Muhammad declared religious freedom for Muslims, Jews, and pagans in the Constitution of Medina in the 600s AD (CE), and Roger II led the Norman Kingdom of Sicily to be multi-ethnic and tolerant of multiple religions in the 1100s.

Unfortunately, the opposite of religious freedom has ALSO occurred in many different places and times. Europe was often a place of religious divides: persecution, punishment, war, extermination. Catholics vs. Protestants vs. Church of England vs. Puritans vs. Jews vs. pagans - yikes!

On this date in 1573, the Polish national assembly signed a Warsaw Confederation granting religious freedoms. At the time, there were some unwritten customs of religious tolerance in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (and some other places), but this law may have been the first formal, written religious freedom law created by a European assembly.

Obviously, a law cannot end prejudice and conflicts, but this law did help the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth a safer and more tolerant place than most of Europe during that time. 

Poland was then situated between Orthodox Muscovy in the East (a region centered around Moscow), the Muslim Ottoman Empire in the South, and the warring Reformation and Counter-Reformation (basically, Protestants and Catholics) in the North and West. So Poland was able to be a refuge for people from all over, a sort of home for heretics.

This was an important step toward religious freedom in Europe.

Flash forward to today...

One of the most
popular recent
popes, Pope John
Paul II, was
from Poland.
I always think of Poland being almost entirely Catholic, these days, but all of Europe that belongs to the European Union have signed onto this statement of religious freedom:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance."

Also on this date:

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