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 But that approval was withdrawn a few years later.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 ...

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