At first glance the scenes from the Polish capital Warsaw in recent days resembles those iconic images from the 1980s of a country under martial law. Barricades stand before the seat of government, rallying youths swing from lamp posts, and police employ pepper spray to subdue violent protests. However, in 2010 the atmosphere of fear which this country once knew has been replaced for many, by the apprehension of farce.

The controversy centres on a large cross placed in front of the presidential palace by a Scout group following the Smolensk catastrophe in April (in which president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others were killed), and which swiftly became a focal point for people in this deeply Catholic country to place candles, pray and reflect.

Earlier this month a small but dedicated group of protestors managed to disrupt a procession to relocate the cross to the St Anne’s Church, just metres down the road. Stalemate followed. The self-named ‘Defenders of the Cross’ demanded that a permanent monument be erected in its place, and vowed to maintain a round-the-clock vigil.

Opponents in turn coalesced online, organising a large counter-protest with sardonic banners reading, “Bring down the palace, it obscures the view of the cross!” Theirs was a more irreverent celebration, with beach balls and costumes, enraging the cross-defenders who labelled them “drug addicts and Satan worshippers.”

However, behind the predominantly young crowd’s derision lay two important messages. Firstly, that the generation who came of age politically after 1989 would not be subject to the same influences as their parents. And secondly, that Poland’s commitment to secularism was being seriously threatened, if indeed it ever existed at all.

Figures vary, though the CIA World Factbook claims roughly 90 percent of Poles identify as Catholic. Even if the number of those practicing is substantially lower (about 75%), the country has withstood the global trend away from religion better than most. In large part this is due to the Catholic Church’s role morally underpinning the Solidarity movement during the 1980s as the communist regime unravelled.

John Paul II gave his famous “Do not be afraid” speech in Warsaw in 1979 shortly after becoming Pope, and the following year the leader of the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) trade union –and subsequent Nobel Peace Prize winner — Lech Walesa, signed an agreement with communist authorities using a giant novelty pen resembling the pontiff.

This summer thousands attended the beatification of Jerzy Popieluszko, a priest from the Warsaw suburb of Zoliborz whose sermons that tied the actions of Solidarnosc to the Christian message were broadcast on Radio Free Europe, until his brutal murder by the secret police in 1984.

This moral authority is reflected in the Polish Constitution, which was formally adopted in 1997 and envisaged what has been described as a “friendly separation” between church and state. Freedom of religion is enshrined as a fundamental right, though as always the practice of politics has proved a poor servant for its ideals.

According to a recent survey, 63% of Poles believe religions other than Catholicism are receiving worse treatment. Incredibly, for a country which witnessed first-hand the horror of the holocaust, anti-Semitism did not end in 1945 and as recently as January of this year a Jewish community building in Warsaw was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.

The mayor of Warsaw is yet to announce whether she will approve plans for the construction of what would be Poland’s fifth mosque. That issue has stirred considerable emotion, and a rally organised by far-right elements in June to ‘Stop!’ the perceived Muslim invasion, was cancelled at the last minute due to security concerns.

Poland’s ascension to the EU in 2004 has also heralded new challenges. The late President Kaczynski claimed, following a decision by the European Court of Justice, that “Nobody in Poland will accept the message that you can’t hang crosses in schools… Perhaps elsewhere, but never in Poland.”

The political and the spiritual in Poland are forever interweaving, hence the common label, the ‘Christ of Nations.’ The constitution’s preamble reflects this struggle when it posits a nation, “Beholden to our ancestors for their labours, their struggle for independence achieved at great sacrifice, for our culture rooted in the Christian heritage of the Nation and in universal human values.”

This month has already marked the 90th anniversary of a rare triumph over the Red Army, the 64th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, and a commemoration of four months since the Smolensk tragedy, which occurred while the president was travelling to commemorate the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD. How to master the art of remembering without treating suffering as the only way to honour suffering is another question lurking at the heart of the current upheaval.

The cross currently remains in front of the palace, though almost everyone — including the church hierarchy — agrees it should be moved. A small plaque unveiled on the side of the palace however satisfied no one, and today a devout core of sometimes fewer than a dozen cross-defenders remain at the palace. A third plague-on-both-your-houses viewpoint is growing increasingly common.

In recent days the atmosphere has again turned sinister as one man was detained for throwing a jar of faeces at the plaque, and another reportedly held after being discovered walking with a grenade near the presidential palace. Police have threatened to cordon off the area, which at present offers a soapbox for just about anyone willing to give their two cents about the role of the past in Poland’s future.

As the poet Tadeusz Rozewicz wrote after 1989: “something has ended/nothing wants to begin/Perhaps it has already begun.”

Vince Chadwick is an Australian law student and journalist, currently studying Polish literature at Warsaw University