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Poland adjusting to more secular age

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Janusz Palikot, leader of the Movement of Support party in Poland, gestures during a news conference in Warsaw Oct. 10. The party, which campaigned against church involvement in government and placed third in recent parliamentary elections, has generated discussion about the role of Catholicism in Poland. (CNS photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters)

WARSAW, POLAND -- The traditional primacy of the Roman Catholic church in Poland has been shaken. On Oct. 9, one of every 10 Poles voted for the socially egalitarian and explicitly anticlerical party known as the Palikot Movement, named after founder Janusz Palikot.

While politicians generally avoid criticism of the church in a country that is 97 percent Catholic, the Palikot party has already demanded the removal of a crucifix from the main chamber of Poland’s Sejm (parliament).

This new party, which won 40 seats in the 460-seat parliament, seeks to end tax exemptions for priests, religion classes and crucifixes in public schools, and all state subsidies for churches. It favors marijuana legalization and same-sex civil unions.

Palikot has brought controversial issues into the open.

Among the Palikot members seen during the nationally televised swearing in of parliament Nov. 8 were a transsexual woman and a gay man. Conservative Poland has never experienced anything like this.

The Palikot platform embraces secular Western European ideas that appeal to young Poles. A third of Palikot voters are under 25.

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“Major parties and the Catholic church never want to discuss changing attitudes on gays, abortion and legalizing marijuana,” said Magda Koralewska, 29, a graphic computer designer who campaigned for Palikot. “The Palikot party is confronting all these issues head on. That’s why I decided it’s the party for me.”

Like Koralewska, many young Poles say they feel abandoned by the governing centrist parties. Much of Palikot’s success also stems from anger with the church’s rightward tilt during the past 10 years and its powerful political clout.

“The church has become more and more reactionary,” said Konstantin Gebert, a columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily newspaper. “It’s not surprising that a segment of our population organized around this new anticlerical party.”

The church recently silenced Marian Fr. Adam Boniecki, a priest who made conciliatory comments about the Palikot party and its position regarding the crucifix in parliament. The Congregation of Marian Fathers directed him not to speak publicly about either subject.

Boniecki responded Nov. 3 during a television interview on TVN, a 24-hour cable network, saying, “Discussion of these subjects is very much needed.

“It is needed by the church because the church has to realize that outside its circle of friends and people within the church society, there are quite a large number of people who are highly critical of the church. Discussion can resolve a lot of confusion about what the church does.”

Boniecki was editor in chief of the liberal Catholic publication Tygodnik Powszechny until he was transferred from his post in Krakow to Warsaw last March. He continues to write for it.

Critics question the motivation of Janusz Palikot, the party’s millionaire founder. Flamboyant in style, he once appeared at a rally with a toy gun and dildo to publicize sexual abuse charges against Lublin police. His naming a party after himself reflects a history of unabashed self-promotion.

But even some critics of the movement concede the party serves a purpose.

“Someone needs to oppose the church and Palikot does this,” said Olga Linkiewicz, assistant professor of anthropology at Warsaw University.

The major political parties’ failure to clarify a murky relationship between church and state contributes to Palikot’s success. For example, catechism lessons are given in public schools, and taxpayer money is allegedly used to subsidize church pension funds.

“The nation’s poor are not getting the government support because the money is going to the church,” said Michal Kabacinski, 23, a Palikot parliament member. Kabacinski, the youngest member of parliament, also said the presence of a crucifix in parliament was a violation of the constitution, which is neutral on religion.

Palikot has also vowed to punish the blatant anti-Semitism often seen at football matches. In September, a huge banner inscribed with the word “Jihad” was unfurled when an Israeli team from Tel Aviv played the Legia team from Warsaw.

“The display of the Jihad banner was an expression of hatred for Jews,” said Rafal Pankowski, 35, a sociologist at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw and an expert on the Polish radical right. He is deputy editor of “Never Again,” a website that exposes racism.

According to Gebert, the Palikot gains may not be good for Poland’s Jews.

“Public expression of anti-Semitism will increase because anti-Semites see Palikot as part and parcel of [what they believe to be] the ultimately Jewish-driven offensive against the Catholic church,” Gebert said. “There is this concept that is quite popular on the right wing that there has been for ages a Jewish plot against Poland because Poland is the bastion of Catholicism.”

While 3.2 million Jews lived in Poland before World War II, 3 million were murdered in the Holocaust. There remain only 15,000 Jews in Poland. Most Poles know little about the Jews who lived in their country for 1,000 years. And yet anti-Semitism persists.

According to Maciej Kozlowski, director of the Middle East and Africa Department of the Polish Foreign Ministry, there are competing visions of Poland. While many young, well-educated Poles, including Palikot supporters, envision a multicultural Poland, the country’s nationalists reject this inclusive vision. This nationalist vision of a Catholic Poland only for Poles has historically bred anti-Semitism.

The Foreign Ministry is proactive in its campaign to counteract such bigotry and to promote tolerance. To this end, it spearheaded a “Poland for All” day in October, during which Poles from all segments of society were encouraged to focus on projects devoted to multiculturalism.

Kozlowski said it was important to “change thinking at the ground level.” He cited a new academic program to improve Jewish-Christian relations in which younger priests are enrolled.

“Things are moving forward,” he said, “But obviously not as fast as we would like.”

[Donald Snyder is a freelance writer who worked at NBC for 27 years as a news producer. He retired from the network in 2003.]

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