WARSAW (Reuters) - Thousands of Poles marched through Warsaw and other cities on Sunday to show their support for the late Pope John Paul II in the face of what they said were false allegations that he concealed child abuse in the Catholic Church.
The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which faces a tough election later this year, and other religious conservatives have said any calls to re-examine his legacy amount to a plot to discredit the nation's biggest moral authority.
That argument resonates strongly with many older Poles who were inspired by John Paul to stand up to Communism in the 1970s and '80s, although church attendance has been falling in the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
"I felt the need to show my connection with (the pope's) teaching," said Donata Pronczuk, a retired teacher, who came to Warsaw from the northern city of Koszalin for the march, which marked the 18th anniversary of the pope's death.
"John Paul II did nothing wrong. Any charges against him are false and have been manipulated."
Dozens of people around her were praying the rosary as they waited for the march to begin snaking through the main arteries of the capital Warsaw in unseasonably cold, drizzly weather.
Some carried banners reading "You fought for our freedom, now we are fighting for you", while others held wooden crosses and Polish flags as they walked.
Earlier in the day, workers of the state-owned railway company PKP gave out cream pies favoured by the late pope to train travellers heading to Warsaw.
Two separate investigations by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek and Polish private broadcaster TVN have stirred debate since last month by saying they have evidence the late pope knowingly hid clerical paedophilia scandals when he was archbishop of Krakow.
The Polish Catholic church urged Poles to respect the late pope's memory, saying a review of its archives did not confirm the accusations against the church hierarchy, adding that some files could be opened in future.
Political observers say the puling party is using the allegations against John Paul to galvanise its core electorate ahead of the ballot, with many Poles angry over steep inflation and rising energy costs in the wake of Russia's war in Ukraine.
"With so many people participating, I am calm about the future of our country," Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak was quoted as saying by niezalezna.pl news portal, after he took part in the Warsaw march.
Since the party came to power nearly eight years ago, religious values have become an increasingly contentious issue in Poland, with left-wing and moderate politicians accusing the party of seeking to instil its religious views in public life.
"Everybody should be able to speak out," said Michal, a 37-year-old web designer, who was out on the streets of Warsaw but did not take part in the march. "(But) we should not mix politics with the church or with any faith."
(Reporting by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, Kuba Stezycki and Anna Magdalena Lubowicka; Editing by Justyna Pawlak, Sharon Singleton and Andrew Heavens)