Polish election stirs debate over role of church

Krakow, Poland - The mood is of quiet contemplation as the faithful leave the Lagiewniki sanctuary in the southern Polish city of Krakow on a cold autumn afternoon.

But a question about Poland's upcoming election quickly stirs passions outside the church, in a country that is more devoutly Catholic than most in Europe and where the role of priests in politics has become part of the election debate.

Churchgoers generally favour the socially conservative ruling Kaczynski twins and helped bring them to power in 2005. That support is in no doubt ahead of the Oct. 21 election.

But there is disagreement over the part played by priests and in particular the powerful media empire of right-wing Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, which swung behind the Kaczynskis at the last election.

"That is going a little bit too far," says Maria Biskup outside the Lagiewniki sanctuary, who nonetheless affirms her support for the Kaczynskis.

"The church should not be openly doing this," she says, prompting ill-tempered reactions from elderly men and women nearby.

"Rydzyk is good and the others are liars," one man shouts. "Yes, they are liars and they hate the church," adds someone else.

Rydzyk's Radio Maryja, his television station and newspaper -- branded xenophobic and anti-Semitic by detractors -- called on voters at the last election to prevent "the devil's force from taking over the country".


Listen to Radio Maryja and you can hear preaching against the evils of the European Union, world Jewish lobbies and also the Kaczynskis' main opponents -- the centre-right and liberal Civic Platform.

The Civic Platform is neck-and-neck in opinion polls with the Law and Justice party of Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is battling for re-election, and his brother Lech, the president.

The support of Rydzyk and other priests could be just as crucial in this election.

While the church has long lost most political sway in the rest of Europe, that is far from the case in Poland, a country of 38 million where 95 percent calls themselves Catholics and the majority attend church regularly.

Many remember the church's role in ending decades of communist oppression, particularly under the guidance of Pope John Paul, who as the young Karol Wojtyla used to visit the Lagiewniki sanctuary during World War Two.

But times have changed in almost two decades since the fall of communism. Some in the church see the politicisation of priests as a danger in a Western democracy.


"The Radio Maryja problem is very harmful for the church and it will backfire," said Andrzej Luter, a priest and religious journalist. "We should be totally freed of political pressures otherwise we will pay a price for it."

The question of Rydzyk goes far beyond Poland's borders. Leaders of the World Jewish Congress have asked Pope Benedict to take action against him. European Union partners are dismayed at Rydzyk's role.

Many Polish bishops seen as moderates, led by Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the late Pope's closest aide, accuse politicians of abusing the church for party propaganda and call on the clerics not to get involved in politics.

"There are forces in the Polish church which have not realised that in the 21st century there is a secular state and that the church and the state are separated," said Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, a moderate cleric from Krakow.

"Such behaviour is scandalous," he said.

But despite an official order from Polish bishops to stop political agitation in churches, many priests are still using mass to deliver advice on who to vote for.

The Polish bishops have repeatedly discussed the issue, but also want to tread carefully. Some believe that by sidelining Rydzyk, many faithful Catholics would turn away from the church.

For a lot of elderly Poles, Radio Maryja is an essential part of life.

"I listen to Radio Maryja the whole day," said one 75-year old woman from the little town of Podstolice in southern Poland who would give her name only as Maria. "And I have to say the Kaczynskis are the first politicians who care about religious people like me."