The death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and an entourage in a plane crash in western Russia has united Poles as well as Christian leaders from the country who lost nine clergy in the accident - writes Jonathan Luxmoore.
"Poland is experiencing its greatest tragedy of post-War times," bishops from the minority Evangelical Augsburg (Lutheran) church said in a recent pastoral letter.
"The post-Easter Annunciation gains a profound character in the context of this experience. For we are forced to contemplate the joyful Easter message which, in the face of death, allows us through our faith to look beyond the grave towards eternity," the bishops stated.
The letter was read in churches as the body of President Kaczynski was driven through crowds after being flown back to Warsaw for lying in state at the presidential palace during a week of national mourning.
At the same time, Poland's 570,000-member Orthodox church held memorial prayers for the victims, who included Archbishop Miron Chodakowski, the Polish Army's Orthodox chief chaplain.
Kaczynski died alongside his wife, Maria, as his Russian-made Tupolev TU-154 plane attempted to land in fog at Smolensk for 70th anniversary commemorations of the April 1940 Soviet massacre of more than 22,000 interned Polish officers, many at the nearby Katyn Forest.
Poland's 54-year-old Roman Catholic field bishop, Tadeusz Ploski, also died in the crash, alongside Lutheran pastor Adam Pilch, the Evangelical Augsburg church's acting army bishop.
In a 13 April letter to Polish Lutheran Bishop Jerzy Samiec, Lutheran World Federation General Secretary, the Rev Ishmael Noko, expressed the LWF's prayers for the pastor's family, his congregation, and the families of all the deceased. "We think also of the other churches in Poland that lost leaders and companions in Christ's service in this tragedy," stated Noko.
The LWF leader noted that Poland had "lost many of its most outstanding leaders" in the plane crash.
The dead included Poland's former president-in-exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, National Bank president Slawomir Skrzypek and nine generals, as well as Anna Walentynowicz, a hero of the anti-communist Solidarity movement, and Grazyna Gesicka, parliamentary chairperson of Poland's opposition Law and Justice party.
In a message on 10 April, Pope Benedict XVI told Poland's acting head of state, parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, he had received with news with "deep pain".
In a statement the same day, the Polish Bishops' Conference said the whole nation was "united in pain and suffering," stating that Masses will continue for victims throughout the week. "A president, directly elected by the nation, personifies concern for what is most important for Poland in our tradition," the statement said.
"As Christians, we must view this national tragedy in the light of Christ's Resurrection, whose secret we experience in the church's liturgy," the bishops said.
Russia's Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, said in a message on 12 April he felt "particular pain" at the disaster, after serving for 25 years as an archbishop in Smolensk.
Memorial services for the disaster victims were held nationwide and among Polish communities abroad, as well as at Katyn Forest and in Russia and neighbouring countries, which also declared official days of mourning.
The Conference of European Churches, which groups 120 Anglican, Old Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches, said in a statement on 12 April it would hold Poland and its churches in its prayers "during this time of grief and in the time of rebuilding to come." It noted its presidium was to meet in Warsaw in mid-April.
In letters to the Polish government, ecumenical and church leaders, the World Council of Churches said its members would be praying, "for the healing or the healing of this deep loss for Poland and the entire world".
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]