Poles mark century since birth of Pope John Paul II

Warsaw (AFP) –


Poles on Monday set aside deep political divisions to mark a century since the birth of the late Pope John Paul II, the first and only pontiff from Poland whose election changed the course of history.

Canonised in 2014, John Paul II was a charismatic leader who helped topple communism but was criticised for failing to tackle the scourge of child sex abuse by priests.

He was born Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, a small town near the medieval city of Krakow in southern Poland, going on to become an unrivalled authority in his homeland following his election as pope in October 1978.

German ambassador Rolf Nikel on Monday donated a piece of the Berlin Wall to a Warsaw museum honouring the pontiff, widely regarded as having paved the way to a bloodless transition from communism to democracy in eastern Europe in 1989-90.

"With this gesture, we want to thank Poland and John Paul II for their contribution to the fall of the Berlin Wall," Nikel told Polish church and government leaders at a ceremony honouring the late pontiff.

"Without him, the peaceful revolution of 1989 wouldn't have been possible," he added.

Poland's right-wing Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki hailed the pontiff as having "changed the course of world history.

"Thanks to him, thanks to Solidarity, communism fell allowing us to build a free Poland, year after year," said Morawiecki.

Liberal opposition leader Borys Budka meanwhile underscored the pontiff's stong support for Poland's 2004 entry into the European Union as a means of cementing its standing in the West.

Social distancing and masks to combat the coronavirus pandemic were mandatory during concerts, ceremonies and Catholic masses held across Poland to honour the pontiff, whose globe-trotting 27-year papacy made him an international superstar.

But a new Polish documentary on child abuse by Catholic clerics has put a damper on his centenary celebrations.

Viewed 4.4 million times since it was posted Saturday on YouTube, the film "Hide and Seek" prompted Polish archbishop Wojciech Polak to ask the Vatican to "launch proceedings" into the cases in question.

The anniversary also comes as Poland is riven by tensions over how to proceed with a presidential election delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tensions are also running high over controversial judicial reforms by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government, which critics and the European Union see as undermining the rule of law and democracy in Poland.

Pope John Paul II died in Rome aged 84 on April 2, 2005.