Mixed Reception for Polish Catholic Radio

The tower of Radio Maryja, a network accused of hostility toward Jews, gays and former ruling communists.
The tower of Radio Maryja, a network accused of hostility toward Jews, gays and former ruling communists. (By Czarek Sokolowski -- Associated Press)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 27, 2006

WARSAW, May 26 -- When Poland's fractious Parliament cobbled together a new government in February, lawmakers kept the pact a secret from most of the country's mass media. Then they permitted the initial ceremony to be broadcast exclusively by affiliates of Radio Maryja, a powerful Catholic broadcaster that is blurring the lines here between church and state.

Accused of hostility toward Jews, gays and the former communists who ruled the country until recently, the network reaches an estimated audience of some 4 million Poles. Most of them are rural, elderly Catholics who feel left behind by the free-market transformation of the country since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

For nearly a decade, Radio Maryja served primarily as a voice for opposition parties and others on the political margins. But it has become the preferred medium of Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski, and his twin brother, Jaroslaw, the de facto parliamentary leader.

Its aggressive support of the Kaczynski brothers and their Law and Justice party during last fall's election helped propel them into power. That has given the Catholic network an outsized influence on affairs of state, critics say. Secular parties and even the Vatican say that role could prove dangerous for Polish democracy.

On Thursday, during the start of a four-day visit to Poland, Pope Benedict XVI alluded to the debate over Radio Maryja by saying that the church should stay out of politics. "The priest is not asked to be an expert in economics, construction or politics," the pope declared in an address at St. John's Cathedral in Warsaw. "He is expected to be an expert in the spiritual life."

That came on top of a sharply worded statement from the Vatican last month expressing "grave concern" over the operations of the radio service and its close relationship with the government.

The statement was issued shortly after a Radio Maryja political commentator accused Jews of profiting from "the Holocaust business" and complained that Jewish groups were "humiliating Poland internationally by demanding money" as compensation for property confiscated during World War II.

Critics said the comments were just the latest example of the network fanning anti-Semitic sentiments in Poland and called on the church to shut it down. Marek Edelman, a prominent survivor of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, wrote a letter to parliamentary leaders accusing Radio Maryja of a pattern of "xenophobia, chauvinism and anti-Semitism."

So far, Polish church officials have shown little inclination to tone down the broadcasts. Bishops in Warsaw note that the network is operated by Catholic priests from the Redemptorist order and is therefore not under their direct control. In response to the Vatican's criticism, the bishops formed a council to work with the Redemptorists to advise the network on programming, but also issued a statement praising Radio Maryja for its "great evangelizing work."

Radio Maryja's political allies have rallied to its side. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice party leader and the country's top power broker, condemned critics of the network as "enemies of freedom" and accused them of trying to stifle an independent media voice.

Wojciech Wierzejski, a member of Parliament and deputy chairman of the League of Polish Families, a party in the new governing coalition, said Radio Maryja's enemies were trying to tame a popular network by asserting that it is a tool of the government.

"The question of Radio Maryja is raised mostly by free-market and leftist groups, the post-communists," he added. "These people are usually against the church and not Radio Maryja itself."

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