Religious education threatens to split Poles: Politicians fear Poland risks becoming a fundamentalist Catholic state, writes Tony Barber in Warsaw

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WHEN 300,000 Polish teachers went on strike last week, they were complaining about low wages and cuts in state spending on education. But for many Polish politicians and Catholic Church leaders, the most serious issue facing the country's schools does not concern budgets but religion.

The dispute over how religion should be taught has split Poland and turned into a searching inquiry into the role of the Catholic Church in a newly democratic eastern European country. Poland's Catholic bishops issued a statement on 30 April that was a thinly disguised attack on secular-minded politicians. 'Nazism and Communism, two ideologies which rejected the order constituted by God, led to the violation of basic human rights despite the fact that both systems had been supported for some time by influential intellectuals. Now there are reasons to think that attempts to attack and ridicule Christian values may lead in the same direction,' the statement said.

Tadeusz Zielinski, who is Poland's ombudsman, appointed by Parliament to defend citizens' rights, sees it differently. 'I am afraid that we are on the threshold of a religious state,' he said last month.

He cited the example of one Polish father who exercised his legal right to write to his local school and say he did not want his child to receive religious instruction. Despite his letter, he discovered that teachers had put the child in catechism classes and then baptised the child. Other parents have written to Mr Zielinski complaining about the presence of crucifixes in classrooms.

Poland's former Communist rulers banned religious instruction from schools in 1961, but after they fell from power in 1989 it was reintroduced as an optional subject. As things turned out, most children attended the classes, for Poland is a country where more than 90 per cent of people identify themselves as Catholic believers. But last year a new rule came into force ordering grades for religious classes to be entered on children's school report cards. Some politicians, teachers and parents thought that this was going too far. Mr Zielinski said it implied, wrongly and dangerously, that Poland's constitution allowed children to be cajoled into adopting religious convictions rather than exercising freedom of conscience.

It is a vexed issue. Poland's Church sees itself not just as the moral voice of the nation but as the institution which, in Communist times and in other dark periods of Polish history, did most to preserve the country's freedom and dignity. Since 1989, it has often been tempted to dismiss Poles critical of its public prominence as godless ex-Communist, troublesome leftists, and morally dissolute feminists and pornographers.

But while most Poles respect the Church's honourable historical record, opinion polls suggest that they do not see eye to eye with the clergy on many social issues. According to a survey by the youth studies centre at Warsaw University, 70 per cent of students accept the Church's version of Jesus Christ's life but 80 per cent believe in sex before marriage and 76 per cent approve of divorce. A poll last January, published in the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, showed that 59 per cent of Poles thought the Catholic Church had too big an influence on public life.

Once the Communists had gone, it was never likely that Poland's Church would be able to continue to present itself as the embodiment of national unity. But apart from its stance on religious education, the Church has played a controversial role in two other areas: abortion and the media. The Communists passed an abortion law in 1956 which was one of the most liberal in the world. Last March, after immense pressure from the Church and Catholic legislators, a new law took effect which bans abortion unless the mother's life is at risk, pre-natal examinations indicate serious damage to the foetus, or in cases of rape or incest.

At the same time, a new broadcasting law stipulates that programmes must respect 'Christian values'. It was passed after Poland's bishops suggested that some media and lay politicians wanted 'to obscure and ridicule the values of Christianity and Polish national culture'.

If it was just a question of removing all pornographic videos and magazines, there might be less controversy. But some politicians say it goes further: clergymen interfere in politics, sometimes even advising congregations how to vote, and if it is not careful Poland will turn into a fundamentalist Catholic state.

The truth, perhaps, is rather more complex. For better or worse, the Catholic Church has for centuries been right at the heart of Polish life, and of Poland's struggle for national self-expression. Political stability in post-Communist Poland requires some form of recognition of that fact.

(Photograph omitted)