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Walls of the World: The rising tide of East vs. West, Church vs. State in Poland (1)

People parade through the streets celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Poland, in the capital Warsaw, on Nov. 11, 2018. (Mainichi/Koji Miki)

WARSAW, Poland -- "Yesterday Moscow, today Brussels takes our sovereignty from us!" yelled a member of a nationalist group here during a protest, referencing the complicated history of the country between the Soviet Union in the past and the European Union now.

The demonstration was held on the 100th anniversary of the independence of Poland, an Eastern European state, on Nov. 11, 2018. A wave of people carrying the country's red and white flag flooded into a main street in the capital of Warsaw. Roughly 250,000 people participated, but the main members were from nationalist groups or groups connected to the Catholic Church. Unlike the nationalists, the Catholics held up images of Jesus Christ, crying out, "Christ is King for us," demanding the country return to its religious roots. There were also some citizens without affiliation that followed the protestors chanting "anti-EU" and "pro-Catholic" slogans.

Wiestau Nowakowski, a 53-year-old public servant, said, "Our national pride is always stepped on by the large powers around us. Today is the day we join together to give thanks to God for Poland's independence and celebrate the Polish people." He held high a flag on which it was written, "God, give glory to our homeland."

University student Agnieska Barnas, 23, emphasized the righteousness of the nationalist rhetoric, "On the 100th anniversary of our independence, there is a need for us to join together and send the world a message."

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the revolution that subsequently spread over Eastern Europe, toppling one socialist government after another. However, present-day Poland, which was the earliest country in the Eastern bloc to succeed in grasping its freedom and should be oriented more toward a Western European ideal of democracy, is now being tossed up in a storm of nationalism where ideas going against Western Europe stand out.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, the group behind this new wave of nationalism is the priests and others in the Catholic Church -- who 30 years before helped to topple the socialist system in Poland.

With 90 percent of Poles being devote Catholics, the Church is said to be part of the country's national identity, and at the end of the Cold War, the Catholic Church threw all its support toward the Independent Self-governing Trade Union "Solidarity," which was then led by former President Lech Walesa -- who was squaring off against the socialist government. By planting the seeds of revolution among the citizens, the church played a role in the realization of a democratic Poland.

Now, however, many Catholic priests support the right-wing opposition party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc; PiS), which is pushing an anti-EU platform.

Cardinal Jopsef Michalik speaks about his criticism of Western Europe during an interview in Przemysl, eastern Poland, on Nov. 11, 2018. (Mainichi/Koji Miki)

--- Angry priests once again involved in politics

"We have to fight against the sickness coming from the West," said Jopsef Michalik, 77, the regional cardinal in the eastern city of Przemysl. "But this is not easy because capitalism is not a moral ideology -- the same as communism." When Poland fell under the control of other sovereign powers, the Catholic Church and its priests were the ultimate force telling people how they should live under such circumstances, based on God's teachings.

After World War II, a communist government propped up by the Soviet Union was set up in Poland, and the citizens were forced to live under an oppressive regime -- one that cracked down on religion, which the administration considered a threat. In 1980, electrician Walesa and other labors raised their voices of discontent, and "Solidarity" began anti-government protests. The Catholic Church supported the movement, and even provided spaces for their activities.

Just before the foundation of the self-governing trade union, John Paul II, a Pole, became the Pope in 1978. Frequently visiting his homeland, the Pope also showed his support for Solidarity in his speeches. As the word of the Pope is considered the word of God by the Polish people, Catholics naturally gravitated toward the anti-government movement.

When the Soviet Union's economic crisis surfaced in 1989, through mediation by the Church, Solidarity and the Polish communist government opened round-table discussions, and it was decided to hold a free election. Following the June election, the first non-communist administration came to power, and Poland became a democracy. It was decided that in principle, a line would be drawn separating Church and State, but the Catholic Church's strong influence on politics remained.

After 1989, Poland continued to develop a free economy based on the Western European model. With free competition, the economy flourished, but the gap between the poor and the wealthy also widened. As an "ally of the poor," the Catholic Church voiced its concerns to the government. However, according to several individuals familiar with the time, the administration placated the church by providing subsidies and other favors. The conservative Catholic Church had also apparently been against joining regional groups such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and even the EU, as the countries around Poland overlooked their religious citizens and moved forward with secularization.

When the moderate Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska; PO), which supports EU President Donald Tusk, came into power in 2007, Poland's Westernization sped up even further. The larger economy saw a boost, but people in rural areas were removed from the benefits, and the job market for young people took a turn for the worst.

"Donald Tusk's speech (in 2011 was) important for Catholics," said Warsaw priest Henryk Zielinski, 58. Tusk, who was prime minister at the time, said during the 2011 election, "We will not kneel before priests and bishops...When I go to work, my faith I leave in the cloak room." It was a declaration of separation from Catholic Poland.

PO, which won the election, then furthered debate on issues that Catholics consider to be sins, such as allowing in vitro fertilization, loosening restrictions on birth control and legalizing same-sex marriages. Zielinski said, "(The) government obeyed (the) EU. They ignored Catholic and Polish identity." With that, the anger of the priests had reached its peak. That was when the right-wing PiS party, sympathetic to their woes, appeared on the scene.

Former Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz is pictured in Warsaw, Poland, on Nov. 2, 2018. (Mainichi/Koji Miki)

--- Nationalists 'use Church' to gain support

However, former PiS member and Prime Minister Kazimier Marcinkiewicz, 59, told the Mainichi Shimbun that the party simply uses the Catholic Church to further its own agenda and rally support for its causes. The party was formed by the Kaczynski twins, Lech and Jaroslaw, in 2001. Jaroslaw was a member of Solidarity. Unhappy with the democratic government not holding the past communist administration responsible for its actions, and also against free market economics, the brothers called for "anti-communist" and "anti-liberal" policies. In 2005, the party led a coalition administration, and Lech became president. In 2006, Jaroslaw rose to prime minister, but lost power the following year.

PiS approached the Catholic Church in order to take back control of the administration. The relationship between the two groups grew even more intertwined after the crash of the presidential aircraft in 2010. The plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski and other important government officials failed to make a landing at an airport in Russia, and everyone aboard was killed. Jaroslaw singled out Russia as the enemy as he had during his time in Solidarity, and turned his twin into a kind of saint. He also called the accident symbolic of the failure of the post-democratic government of Poland.

It was with that PiS that many priests rallied. Andrzej Luter, a 62-year-old priest explained, "The presidential aircraft incident became a kind of spark, a trigger." Because of the crash, he said, priests dissatisfied with the current state of affairs became more patriotic. PiS politicians would frequently visited church events, and presented a hard-line attitude toward in vitro fertilization and same-sex marriage. Some priests, meanwhile, came to call for their congregations to vote for PiS in their sermons.

In 2015, PiS won a simple majority in the lower house of parliament, and started to emphasize the creation of a "new republic" that negated the system Poland had built up until then. The party opposed the EU's request to take in refugees, and in order to "chase out judiciaries from communist times," started to interfere in the courts by introducing judges appointed by President Andrzej Duda. Meanwhile, PiS also beefed up social welfare policies "for the poor."

While many priests support the Catholic leanings of PiS, they do not feel the same when it comes to refugee policy or judiciary reform. Even then, the party has spread the message that it is backed by the Catholic Church, and won over the trust of many Polish citizens. While many agree with the party on supporting the poor, there are many priests who also worry about their connection to a party whose authoritarian colors have begun growing stronger.

Several priests admitted that religion and politics have now become too involved with one another, and warned that if PiS were to fail now, that it may also lead to a downward spiral in believers in the Catholic faith.

(Japanese original by Koji Miki, Vienna Bureau)

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