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Clashes between Catholics and Jews in Poland are again in the news. Since last spring, a series of confrontations between religious radicals has occurred at the Auschwitz death camp in Oswiecim. Thus far, all attempts to resolve the controversy surrounding the placement of Christian religious symbols at the site have failed. Why has the unauthorized display of crosses at Auschwitz escalated to an international incident? What makes this such an intractable issue? This problem results from the intertwining of religious social action and political activity in Poland since 1989. In fact, the current controversy is a way of illustrating the contemporary dynamics of religion and politics in Poland. These dynamics can be broken into four aspects: the international dimension, church-state realignment, tensions within the Catholic hierarchy, and the differentiation of the Catholic community.

The controversy's distant precondition was an act of anti-Communist opposition: in 1979 a memorial cross was placed at the site (where more than 150 Poles were shot by the Nazis) to commemorate Pope John Paul II's visit to Auschwitz during his triumphal return to Poland. Ironically, the objections to this papal cross by radical Jewish groups surfaced only in April 1998 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Poland for a Holocaust memorial ceremony. The "Holocaust walk" was organized by the Polish government to symbolize the unity of Poles and Jews in moral outrage against the Nazi genocide. Cardinal Józef Glemp's response to Jewish demands was to assert repeatedly that the papal cross must stay. Subsequently, Catholic radical groups aggravated the political tension by erecting "rogue" crosses at the site (Zwirowisko). Ultimately, the Polish national government, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, the government of Israel, the municipal courts, and several Catholic bishops were drawn into the conflict. On 19 October 1998, the government lost its legal challenge to take control over the property where the crosses stand. The situation remains unresolved.

Difficult relations between Catholics and Jews in Poland are nothing new. But why did conflict erupt in 1998, and why did it take the form of a fight over symbols at Auschwitz? To unravel the controversy, we must first consider the international dimension created by the relations between a "sacred center" and the state. In the Auschwitz case, political claimants connected to two "sacred centers" (Rome, Jerusalem) demanded recognition of their legitimacy by the state. Both Polish Catholics and Jews claim Auschwitz as a holy site of martyrdom; the conflict was internationalized when appeals from co-religionists outside the country brought political pressure to bear on government officials. Since the conflict involves the symbolic representation of core elements of faith (suffering, martyrdom, redemption), no "technical" solution is possible. Any compromise is treated as a betrayal of fundamental truths.

A second dimension concerns church-state relations. In the current geo-political situation, the Polish state has an interest in maintaining cooperative relations with the Catholic Church. Poland's government seeks legitimacy in the West, and considers a Vatican endorsement as supporting its bid for inclusion in Western institutions such as the EU and NATO. Domestically, the church acts both as keeper of social peace and to legitimize the regime. The Catholic Church, for its part, needs tax supports, building permits, and legal conditions for its operation. After 1989, the church found itself in a strong political position for two reasons. First, diplomatic relations with the Vatican were reestablished even before the collapse of the communist regime. The appointment of a papal nuncio in July 1989 coincided with the initiation of negotiations regarding a Concordat that was finally ratified this past year. Second, Catholic elites were deeply involved in organizing on behalf of Solidarity candidates in the June 1989 elections.

The third dimension concerns ecclesiastical organization, or internal church affairs. The issue of commemoration--of the dead who suffered at Auschwitz and of Woytyla's pilgrimage to Poland--has exposed conflicts within the hierarchy. For example, last August when Cardinal Glemp characterized Israel's official protests against the crosses as "an attempt to impose foreign will," Archbishop Henryk Muszynski of Gnieóno said that "the cross must not be used for fighting." Archbishop Tadeusz Gocleowski of Gdansk took an intermediate (contradictory) position condemning the placement of unauthorized crosses. He asserted that one cross at Zwirowisko was sufficient, but this papal cross must be defended at all costs. Meanwhile, Bishop Golebiewski suspended a priest for participating in the erection of unauthorized crosses. The ineffective appeals by the Primate, contradictory policies pursued by individual bishops, and lack of discipline evidenced by lower clergy and lay groups are the result of two changes after 1989. First, ecclesiastical restructuring supervised by the Vatican nuncio diminished the authority of the Primate, who no longer had the power to impose a central policy. The post-1989 episcopate was more numerous and diverse, and the bishops had to contend with increasing discipline problems among the lower clergy. Second, the loss of the communist foe and an increasingly fragmented polity also diminished ecclesiastical cohesion by removing the "us versus them" distinction.

A fourth dimension considers the social base for religious politics. The Catholic community since 1989 has cleaved into two main groups: a conservative, nationalist faction pursuing populist politics; and progressive Catholic intellectuals pursuing either liberal or social democratic politics. In the Auschwitz controversy, each camp was politically active. The populists were involved in placing rogue crosses and generating appeals through the nationalist Catholic media such as Radio Maryja. On the other side, Catholic intellectuals including Nobel laureates Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska demanded, in an open letter to the Prime Minster, an "end to provocations and adventures" at Auschwitz.

The foregoing analysis highlights the complexity of religious politics in Poland. The "commemorations" at Auschwitz have resulted in a disgraceful struggle over who can legitimately claim greater victimization. Because symbols, by their nature, are multivocal and multivalent, the attempts to solve the problem through political instrumentalities are doomed to failure. In all probability, this controversy will not end without a symbolic gesture by Pope John Paul II that creates a broader framework for interpretation than that of nationalism.

Dr. Osa spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on October 27, 1998.

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Maryjane Osa

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The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting Europe’s relations with the rest of the world through scholars-in-residence, seminars, international conferences and publications. These programmatic activities cover wide-ranging topics include: European energy security, the role of the European Union and NATO, democratic transitions, and counter-terrorism, among others. The program also investigates comparatively European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including migration, global governance, and relations with Russia, China and the Middle East.  Read more