Memorial cross exposes Poland's religious divide

A cross honouring the victims of the plane crash that killed the late Polish president Lech Kaczynski has provoked thousands of protesters to take to the streets to demand its removal.

Polish scouts erected the 30-foot wooden cross in front of Warsaw's presidential palace nearly four months ago to commemorate the 96 passengers, including the president, who died when their plane crashed in thick fog in western Russia on 10 April.

Official attempts to move the cross to a church have led to violent clashes between police and Catholic pro-cross demonstrators and mass counter-protests by youthful secularists who insist the emblem must go. "The cross has no place in front of a presidential palace in a secular state," one protester told Polish television yesterday.

Television footage of the scene outside the President's palace has shown the surrounding streets thronged with placard-waving protesters confronting a hard core of pro-cross demonstrators who are holding a round-the-clock candle-lit vigil. "We will not move from here until a permanent memorial for the victims has been approved," said one pro-cross demonstrator.

The Polish government and the Warsaw city authorities have called off all attempts to remove the cross while the dispute simmers. Commentators argue that the row has become a symbol of the social divide in Poland, where a staunchly Catholic and conservative older generation is struggling to hold sway in an increasingly emancipated post-communist society.

The row has since turned party political. The late president's twin, Jaroslaw Kaczyniski, who heads Poland's conservative Law and Justice Party, has made a public appearance at the cross site, laid flowers at its base and insisted that it should be allowed to remain in place.

Mr Kaczynski, who also served a term as a conservative Polish prime minister, had hoped to succeed his brother as president but lost out in last month's elections. The country's new President, Bronislaw Komorowski, is a leading member of Poland's liberal Civic Platform party, which is pro-market and favours reform.

However, Mr Kaczynski managed to confound most of his critics on the left by softening his usual hard-line conservatism to secure 47 per cent of the vote and force the contest into a second round. His critics have suggested that he is now trying to make up the political ground he lost in the presidential race by openly campaigning in the cross dispute.

Mr Kaczynski, who is renowned for opposing gay rights and abortion, boycotted President Komorowksi's official swearing in ceremony last week and has since argued that he was elected "as a result of a misunderstanding".

President Komorowski has opted to stay away from the presidential palace while the dispute continues and has set up a temporary office in the city's Belvedere palace.

Poland's Civic Platform Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, has since criticised Mr Kaczynski for politicising the issue.

Public opinion remains divided. One poll showed that 71 per cent wanted the cross removed, while a second suggested that 57 per cent wanted it kept in place until a permanent monument for the crash victims was built.

Poland's powerful Roman Catholic Church is also split over the issue. In Warsaw the Church favours moving the cross from its palace site to the city's St Anne's church. But Radio Maryja, the country's radical nationalist Catholic broadcasting station, has called on the faithful to rally to the defence of the cross in Warsaw.

Kazimierz Nycz, the Archbishop of Warsaw, has appealed to President Komorowski to intervene. "It is not up to the church to solve this issue, it is the job of the new president," he said.

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