Thousands of Poles joined marches on Sunday in defence of the late pope, St John Paul II, following a TV documentary that alleged he covered up child sex abuse involving clergy in his native Poland before his election as pontiff.
The marches, which took place in Warsaw and other cities on the 18th anniversary of John Paul’s death, were organised by an anti-abortion group under the slogan: “You awakened us, we will defend you.”
Participants prayed before marching behind religious relics in the capital. Some marchers carried photos of John Paul. Since the anniversary fell on Palm Sunday, they also carried pussy willows and other tree branches, which is a Roman Catholic tradition on the Sunday before Easter.
The investigative documentary was aired last month by TVN, an independent broadcaster often critical of Poland’s conservative government.
The issue has taken on political dimensions in Poland, particularly since the country is due to have a parliamentary election in the fall.
The government has called the documentary an attack on the nation’s identity and ideals by the liberal political opposition.
It is a view that resonates with many Poles and which seems to have given the ruling Law and Justice party added strength as its leaders campaign.
In Warsaw, some marchers carried Polish national flags and the flag of Solidarity, the trade union that John Paul inspired after he was elected pope in 1978 and which played a crucial role in toppling communism across eastern Europe a decade later.
A couple who joined the march, Eleonora and Stanislaw Sochal, said they were furious at TVN for producing a documentary they regard as defamatory to the late pontiff.
They remembered communism as a dark time when the nation was controlled by the Soviet Union and described John Paul as the person who inspired the resistance that led ultimately to the country regaining its sovereignty and freedom.
“TVN slanders our authorities. It slanders John Paul and it slanders all of our values,” Mrs Sochal, 76, said.
Amid the emotional debate about John Paul’s legacy, a statue of the late pontiff was vandalised overnight in the central city of Lodz. Someone covered the monument in red and yellow paint and the words “Maxima Culpa”.
Foreign minister Zbigniew Rau, who visited the sculpture on Sunday morning, called the vandalism a “despicable act” and a well-organised element of hybrid warfare.
“It’s about dividing society along these most fundamental lines of our identity,” Mr Rau said.
He did not suggest who the perpetrator might be, but when Polish authorities speak about hybrid warfare, they usually are referring to alleged Russian efforts to sow discord and distrust in Poland.
Polish authorities also marked the anniversary by offering passengers on some state railway rides free cream-filled pastries that are now famous because John Paul loved to eat them.
The freebies inspired mockery and criticism on social media, with some saying the state should not be spending taxpayer money to hand out “papal” pastries.