In Poland, mixed feelings over Pope’s visit

The pope's viewpoints on sexuality and refugees are at odds with conservative sensibilities and policies in Poland.

Gregorio Borgia/Pool/AP
Pope Francis holds a life jacket vest of Syrian girl who died while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, during a meeting at the Vatican in May. The pontiff’s advocacy for refugee rights faces a diplomatic test Wednesday when he begins a five-day visit to Poland, where a populist government has slammed the door on most asylum seekers.

When Pope John Paul II returned to visit his native country of Poland in 1979, he was greeted by political and religious leaders at the airport. Two million onlookers cheered him as he was driven into Warsaw. And while the former pope said the trip was purely religious, that visit has been characterized as a formative blow against Soviet communism’s hold in Poland. Former Czechoslovakian president and political thinker Václav Havel called it a “miracle” for the Polish people.

When Pope Francis arrives in Poland tomorrow for a five day trip centered around World Youth Day, he may receive a different kind of welcome than what greeted John Paul II nearly four decades ago, observers say. 

Poland is still a bastion of Catholicism. Ninety-two percent of the country identifies as Catholic, and 40 percent attend church on a weekly basis, The New York Times reports. Yet Francis will find himself in a nation that experts say is out of step with some of his positions, such as his increased tolerance of homosexuality and divorce.

A central point of contention likely to emerge during the trip is Poland’s stance on refugees: Francis has been vocal in his belief that there is a Christian duty to look after those in need. This spring, he took in twelve refugee families in the Vatican, and expressed his hopes that "all our brothers and sisters on this continent, like the Good Samaritan" aid refugees "in the spirit of fraternity, solidarity, and respect for human dignity that has distinguished its long history.” 

Poland's ultraconservative government has taken a different approach in its response to Europe's influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

This past spring, Poland’s newly elected Law and Justice (PiS) party leaders backed out of an agreement made during the previous administration, where the country agreed to accept 7,000 refugees as part of the European Union’s quota plan. 

“I don’t see a possibility to implement this decision and I can’t see it happen also in most EU countries,” said Konrad Szymański, Poland's deputy foreign minister, in an interview with Polish newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawna this spring. “This decision is dead.”

The rise of the PiS marked a swing to the far-right for Poland. Following the election last May of President Andrzej Duda, the country, which had emerged as a beacon of new democracy in the post-Soviet era, has seen a tighter grip on media and state controls. Though Mr. Duda won with just over 50 percent of the vote, the PiS went on to win a resounding victory in parliamentary elections last October. A May article in The Christian Science Monitor describes the shifting mood in the nation:

Now that PiS is in power, the liberals are the object of derision. Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s foreign minister, criticized his predecessors, members of the pro-business, pro-EU Civic Platform, for moving Poland into a nation made up of 'a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and fight all forms of religion.'

Those views have been mirrored in the politics of asylum and accepting refugees.

In 2014, the country accepted 0.21 asylum-seekers for every 1000 citizens – a stark contrast to Sweden, for example, which welcomes 8.43 asylum-seekers for every 1000 citizens. Jaroslaw Kaczyński, who heads PiS, said last year that the refugees were bringing “various parasites and protozoa” to Europe.

At the popular level, reasons for opposition to migrants varies, The Christian Science Monitor reports – some Poles are worried about job security, while others are concerned about taking in non-Christians in large numbers.

Others fear that national security will be compromised by refugees of Muslim faith, as national parliamentarian Jerzy Paul told The Christian Science Monitor this spring: “People here are not against their religion but against terrorism. Poles who emigrated usually have jobs, help to build economies, and they integrate with local societies. They don’t terrorize others.”

The pope has been critical of such rhetoric. On Saturday the Vatican issued a statement that mentioned a political climate in Poland where “fears are fed by some political parties and by inappropriate statements by politicians;” it denounced an “artificially created fear of Muslims.” The statement was revised the next day to remove these statements, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Polish Catholic leaders themselves have not openly broken with the pope; on the contrary, the Rev. Pawel Rytel-Andrianik has told the Associated Press that the bishops have also called upon parishes to house refugees last year.

But University of Maryland history professor Piotr Kosicki says that leading Catholic figures are aligned with the government’s conservative and nationalist leanings. As a result, he tells the AP, “the substance of what [Francis] says doesn’t compute for the vast majority of Poland.”

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