Warsaw cleans up its act for the Pope's symbolic visit

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The Independent Online
THE ROADS of Warsaw have been repaved, the billboards with scantily clad women advertising lingerie have been taken down, and there's a two- day ban on alcohol.

Poland's most famous son, Pope John Paul II, is coming home this weekend, and the country is undergoing its biggest makeover since the collapse of Communism a decade ago, a process that he helped to trigger.

It is the ageing pontiff's seventh visit to Poland as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and may be his last. About six million people are expected to attend open-air services during his trip, with 60,000 due to arrive in the country from abroad, many of them Polish-Americans.

The 13-day visit starts tomorrow in Gdansk, birthplace of the Solidarity movement. It is rich in symbolism, for Saturday marks 10 years and a day since the elections on 4 June 1989, which saw opposition politicians win all but 100 seats in the Senate.

That process of dismantling the authoritarian one-party state began in 1979 when, in front of a cheering crowd, the Pope prayed: "May your spirit come down and renew the face of the earth, this earth." That phrase tapped deep into the national psyche, reviving the long-suppressed hope of a land freed from foreign domination.

Apart from the former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who started the process that eventually saw the Soviet Union collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, Pope John Paul II is probably the world leader who did most to bring freedom to that half of Europe formerly under Communism.

The eclipse of Lech Walesa, the founder of Solidarity and Poland's former president, who was blamed for fostering backroom intrigue and political instability, has left the Pope standing alone as a moral and spiritual leader of the country, not afraid to take a stand that may jar with liberal mores.

During his 1991 visit, he took a hard line on the new freedoms in central Europe that had brought street crime and porn-ography in their wake, both virtually unknown under Communism, and warned his audiences of a moral wilderness.

His views on abortion, premarital sex and divorce have often jarred with the younger generation, yet Papal and Church authority survives.