On Sunday, Nov. 21, thousands of tourists and Roman Catholic pilgrims gathered in the small town of Swiebodzin, near Poland’s border with Germany. They came to witness the consecration of Christ the King, now officially the world’s tallest statue of Jesus—at 167 feet, including the hill it’s perched upon, it’s a full 42 feet higher than Rio de Janeiro’s famous Christ the Redeemer monument. Bishop Stefan Regmunt, who led the ceremony, called the statue a visible sign of faith—hardly an incendiary statement.
But its geographical position also makes it a visible sign of the cultural divide between the largely Roman Catholic Poland and an ever-more-secular Germany. Scholars say the church has become a center of Euro-skepticism in new European Union member states, where many among the devout fear that joining the EU could mean having to trade their traditional values for a secular European identity.
Poland is perhaps the epicenter of this movement. On Sunday afternoons, protesters gather outside Warsaw’s presidential palace, singing hymns and waving their version of the EU flag—in which the ring of golden stars is modified with a picture of the Virgin Mary at its center. University students frequently stop by to heckle the protesters. As for the Swiebodzin statue, the students lament that they don’t live in a normal European country.
The ideas of Christianity and Europe weren’t always so at odds, according to Asle Toje, a European integration expert at the Norwegian Nobel Institute. One of the first attempts to politically unite Europe was on the basis of a common Christian identity. Even now, during later incarnations of the European project, Toje argues, this concept of Christendom continues to have a profound hold on the public’s imagination—at least in certain countries. But today religion has generally become a key element dividing old and new Europe. “The new EU member states are relaunching the debate on the Christian nature of Europe with dedication, fervor—and now massive statues,” said Toje. “This statue is in one way a claiming of land for a Christianity that stands in direct opposition to older member states, where Christian religious symbols have come under pressure through the selective tolerance associated with multiculturalism.”
Toje added that Europe could be headed for the same sort of culture war between secular elites and religious grassroots that has colored U.S. political discourse over the past 20 years. If so, the small town of Swiebodzin will be on the front lines.
Father Sylwester Zawadzki, the local priest responsible for the idea and design of the Christ the King statue, rejects any academic attempts to analyze his project. He told NEWSWEEK that speculating over the giant Christ statue’s symbolic meaning—as a declaration of culture war or anything else—is useless. “Thirty-three meters of height stand for the 33 years of Christ’s life,” Zawadzki said. “Other than that, there is no symbolism here. There are no hidden messages for anyone.” Warriors who have a stake in Europe’s self-image, on both sides of the secular and evangelical divide, might strongly disagree.