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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK
Polish voters hear Church's voice
By Adam Easton
BBC News, Warsaw

Father Tadeusz Rydzyk
Fr Rydzyk has been an active political player since the early 1990s
The Roman Catholic Church has the potential to influence Sunday's general election in Poland, where millions of people are regular churchgoers.

Officially, the Polish Church follows Vatican directives and tries to steer clear of politics.

But Poles link the Church with their national identity and more than 90% of them say they are Roman Catholic. Unlike in Western Europe, Sunday Mass services are full to overflowing.

The Polish pope, John Paul II, was an enormously influential factor for Poles' faith. He was not just a respected spiritual leader in his homeland. Many Poles say his greatest achievement was his role in ending communist rule.

The bishops are well aware that for a short period after the fall of communism in 1989 the Church's authority was dented because it became too active in politics.

That is why a letter written by the bishops and read out during Mass services last Sunday emphasised that "the Church does not identify itself with any political party" and that the Catholic media should not "engage themselves in the election on any side".

The letter did not name any media but many people see it as a clear reference to the controversial priest, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, who runs Radio Maryja, its sister TV channel, Trwam, and the newspaper, Nasz Dziennik.

'Demonic' influence

The charismatic 62-year-old Redemptorist priest has bucked the trend and clearly engaged himself in politics since the early 1990s.

The late Pope John Paul II (left) with Solidarity's Lech Walesa. File pic.
Pope John Paul II inspired Solidarity during its freedom struggle
The radio station styles itself as "the Catholic voice in your home" and broadcasts a mixture of Mass services, prayers and talk shows.

With its traditional and nationalistic brand of Catholicism, it appeals in broad terms, to an older audience in medium and smaller cities and the countryside. Its commentators rail against the European Union, liberals and Jewish groups.

The nationalist message falls on fertile ground. In the 19th Century, when Poland was carved up by foreign powers and ceased to exist, the Church played a major role in keeping Polish identity alive. It played a similar role during the communist era, when the regime was associated with the Soviet Union.

Father Kazimierz Sowa, a prominent Catholic priest and journalist, described Radio Maryja's influence on society as "demonic".

"It has a good influence from a religious point of view but from the political point of view it is a totally destructive force in Poland," he told the BBC.

"Talking about politics is not correct and Radio Maryja has influenced people's thinking on everything from economics to politics to the EU. It's always looking for an enemy, be it the Masons, Jews, liberals, or rich people," he said.

'Social broadcaster'

Although the Vatican has expressed its concern about Radio Maryja's involvement in politics, Father Sowa estimated about a third of Poland's bishops supported Fr Rydzyk's media empire.

Radio Maryja listeners during a pilgrimage in Czestochowa. File photo
Radio Maryja claims a daily audience of about one million

Radio Maryja did not respond to a BBC request for a comment on the role of the Church in politics.

When asked about the radio's role in the election campaign, Archbishop Leszek Slawej Glodz recently told the Dziennik: "Radio Maryja is a Catholic radio station but it's also a social broadcaster."

"Because of that, they have the right to present the programmes of all the political parties except for the ones whose programmes are against Catholic faith and morality. It would be improper if a party campaigned on the radio but presenting programmes and attitudes is acceptable", he said.

'Liars and hypocrites'

Since the height of its popularity in the late-90s, Radio Maryja has steadily lost listeners but it still claims a daily audience of about one million.

That is why Fr Rydzyk has probably more influence on Poland's political life now than he has ever had.

Before the 2005 parliamentary elections the station's listeners were courted by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the conservative Law and Justice party and current prime minister.

The party's leaders and ministers regularly appear on Fr Rydzyk's radio and TV stations.

During this campaign, candidates associated with the priest are running on the Law and Justice ticket.

The station says it does not favour any political grouping, but during a recent broadcast a priest advised people to vote for Mr Kaczynski's party.

During another recent show a Radio Maryja commentator, Prof Jerzy Robert Nowak, phoned in to denounce the opponents of Mr Kaczynski's political vision as "liars and hypocrites".

A recent opinion poll said 74% of the radio's listeners would vote for Law and Justice.

"Obviously it is influential, especially because of its million listeners, about a half are decided, like an army, and they will go out and vote for Law and Justice," Fr Maciej Zieba, the head of the Dominican order in Poland, told the BBC.

"But every Sunday about 15 million people go to church, so half-a-million is not a great proportion, but this phenomenon exists and it's bad," he said.



SEE ALSO
Country profile: Poland
11 Oct 07 |  Country profiles
Resignation rocks Polish Church
08 Jan 07 |  Europe

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