Poland agrees new funding scheme for Catholic priests

The Polish government and Poland's powerful Roman Catholic church agreed in principle Thursday to cut a portion of public subsidies for priests and give taxpayers more choice in funding them.

The change comes amid the rise of a new anti-clerical party and growing public pressure to loosen the traditionally tight ties between church and state here as more liberal influences flood in from western Europe.

Under the new scheme, taxpayers will be able to donate 0.5 percent of their taxes to a church or religious community of their choice.

The deduction will replace a part of a hefty 21 million euro ($27 million) annual state subsidy doled out to religious institutions to cover the health insurance and pensions of clerics.

With around 90 percent of Poland's 38.2 million citizens declaring themselves Roman Catholic, the church receives between 300 and 350 million euros ($398-464 million) a year overall in state subsidies.

The funds also cover Catholic universities and a Catholic press service in Poland, the homeland of late Pope John Paul II.

"It's a draft compromise, which we will now forward to the cabinet and episcopate for approval," Administration and Digitisation Minister Michal Boni said Thursday of the new system at a press conference with Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz, a senior figure in the Polish episcopate.

The deal was done by a team led by Boni and Cardinal Nycz.

Initially the government had proposed an 0.3 percent tax deduction, while the Catholic church and other religious communities wanted up to 1.0 percent in order to guarantee income levels.

The new system is expected to get a green light and start coming into effect in January 2014 as part of a three-year transition period, Boni said.

Created under the former communist regime, the old fund was ostensibly designed to compensate the Church for the nationalisation of its properties after 1945, but other denominations and religions also benefit.

The new funding scheme has caused some alarm and indignation in the Catholic hierarchy, which fears it could be just the thin end of the wedge that could lead to the state to one day turn off the funding tap.