Despite a history replete with political divisions, Poland enjoys an unfragmented identity. The credit belongs not to the state, but to the Roman Catholic church, a major force in Poland for nearly 1,000 years.

Poland’s Catholic church is an integral part of the identity it has preserved. Ninety percent of the country’s citizens are Catholic. And they raised their voices in protest when their Communist government moved recently to remove crucifixes from a public school.

Communists took control of Poland in 1945 and immediately deprived the church of its legal status. Negotiations in the 1950s led to government approval of publicly displayed crosses. But that approval was withdrawn a few years later.

Polish-born researcher Grazyna Sikorska says crosses began to reappear in 1980 as part of the same grassroots movement that spawned the Solidarity labor union. Sikorska works for Keston College, an organization that studies religion in Communist lands.

During Poland’s recent period of martial law, there were isolated incidents of cross removals. But last December the government made its stand official by ordering that all crosses in public buildings had to come down. The order went unheeded except at the Stanislaw Staszic Agricultural College near Garwolin. There, the school’s director removed crucifixes from seven lecture halls.

Three months of fruitless student protests followed. Then last month, 400 of the college’s 600 students staged a sit-in demonstration. Riot police came on the scene and the school was closed. In the ensuing days thousands of additional students joined the protest.

Authorities demanded that parents of seniors at the college sign forms declaring that public schools are secular in nature. Unless the forms were signed, there would be no more school, and no graduation certificates. With the church’s blessing, the parents refused to sign.

Authorities have since withdrawn the demand. But they maintain their stand against the display of crosses in public buildings. “The state does not try to secularize church buildings, and the church should not try to clericalize state buildings,” says government spokesman Jerzy Urban.

But Polish priests reason that the schools belong to Poland, and Poland belongs to Catholicism. “They were not Poles who came at us innocents with riot sticks, shields, helmets, guns, and gas,” said one priest to a crowd of demonstrators. “There is no Poland without a cross.”

The Catholic church holds more power in Poland than in any other Eastern bloc nation. “The government knows that the church is the only authority for most Poles,” Sikorska says. “The church is the government’s best ally. The two share many aims, such as preventing bloodshed. But at the same time the church, because of its teaching [against atheism], is communism’s worst enemy.”

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Today the government is using the church’s influence to harness some 70 vocal, antigovernment Catholic priests who support the outlawed Solidarity labor union. Addressing the controversy, Poland’s leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, charged that some priests “have confused the pulpit with the Radio Free Europe microphone.”

Jozef Cardinal Glemp, the leader of Poland’s Catholics, regularly walks the line between church and state. Glemp spoke out against the removal of the crucifixes. But he drew sharp criticism from his own ranks for his recent transfer of a pro-Solidarity priest from Warsaw to an obscure town in Poland’s countryside.

The current “war of the crosses” hit at a time when relations between church and state in Poland were thought to be rallying. Many observers viewed the Pope’s visit to his homeland last year as both a sign and a catalyst of eased tensions.

The government has suspended martial law. It has decentralized education, giving that responsibility to local communities. Thus the study of the Bible as a part of Polish culture is standard fare in public schools.

Richard Shoemaker, of the evangelical Slavic Gospel Association, says Poland’s small evangelical church has benefited from the government’s apparent magnanimity. “Censorship of literature and open evangelistic meetings has been relaxed,” he says. “It’s easier to buy property for the building of churches. And smuggling Bibles into Poland is no longer necessary because legal permits can be obtained in most cases.”

However, Sikorska says these are ostensible concessions, best understood as window dressing for the outside world and a lure to Polish citizens.

North American Scene

A Federal District Court in Houston ruled that the Baylor University College of Medicine discriminated against Jewish doctors. Judge James DeAnda ruled that Baylor physicians did not allow Jewish doctors to participate in a program that provided doctors for a hospital and research center in Saudi Arabia. The court ordered Baylor to pay the two plaintiffs, Dr. Lawrence M. Abrams and Dr. Stuart A. Linde, more than $400,000.

After five years of discussion, Methodist and Lutheran theologians are asking their churches to recognize each other’s baptism and Holy Communion as true sacraments. The international dialogue commission also wants each church to accept the validity of the other’s teaching and preaching. As a first step, the commission is urging that both groups arrange pulpit exchanges and combined Communion services.

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The wife of former United Methodist Bishop James Armstrong has filed for divorce after 42 years of marriage. Phyllis Armstrong filed papers last month in Marion County (Ind.) Circuit Court that stated there was an “irretrievable breakdown in the marriage.” James Armstrong, 59, resigned in November as United Methodist bishop of Indiana and as president of the National Council of Churches. In January, he surrendered his ministerial credentials under a provision in church rules that permit a transfer to another denomination.

The Texas attorney general has ruled that state restrictions on the teaching of evolution are unconstitutional. Jim Mattox maintains that the rules represent a “concern for religious sensibilities rather than a dedication to scientific truth.” His ruling is not binding on the state board of education. But state attorneys will not defend the state if lawsuits are filed to overturn the restrictions on the teaching of evolution.

A Pennsylvania court has ruled that laws restricting Medicaid funding for abortion discriminates against poor women. This is the first time a court has used a state equal rights law to strike down restrictions on access to abortion. The ruling intensified fears among antiabortion groups that the proposed Equal Rights Amendment would threaten abortion funding restrictions unless the amendment is reworded.

A jury has awarded $390,000 to a divorced woman who sued an Oklahoma church and three of its elders. Marian Guinn claimed that her right of privacy was violated when the Collinsville Church of Christ elders publicly denounced her “sin of fornication.” A letter from the elders regarding her relationship with the town’s divorced former mayor was read to the congregation and then circulated among four other churches. The elders said they will appeal the ruling.

A nonprofit corporation set up by the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., Inc., plans to build a $150 million complex in Atlanta’s west end. Covering 50 acres, the development would include condominiums, office buildings, a medical center, and a hospital. The project is part of the predominantly black denomination’s effort to help develop inner-city neighborhoods. The Louisiana-based denomination claims 7 million members in 30,000 churches.

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