Mass protests in Poland over cross tribute

Thousands of Poles have taken to the streets of Warsaw in a series of demonstrations over the future of a wooden cross erected in memory of a plane crash that killed the Polish president and dozens of others.

• Thousands of Poles have taken to the streets to demand a cross in memory of late president Lech Kaczynski be left outside the Presidential Palace. Picture: Getty

• Thousands of Poles have taken to the streets to demand a cross in memory of late president Lech Kaczynski be left outside the Presidential Palace Picture: Reuters

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In a dispute that has laid bare a huge divide between the country's secular and conservative Catholic realms, for the third night running this week thousands rallied outside the presidential palace in Warsaw to either defend or demand the removal of the eight-foot cross.

Erected by Boy Scouts just days after the air crash on 10 April that claimed the lives of President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and 94 others, the cross became a symbol of the unity of national grief, but four months on it now symbolises a widening rift in Polish society.

"This is the fourth night we have been here. The cross should be in a church, not the street," said 31-year-old Sylwester Bandura, an anti-cross activist who works as a day-trader on the Warsaw stock exchange.

"The people over there defending the cross are not true Christians. All this is not normal in a modern country."

But on the other side of the street, separated by lines of police and barriers, his opponents refuse to yield, despite the wishes of Bronislaw Komorowski, Poland's new president, who has asked for the cross to be moved to a nearby church.

Coveting it as both a memorial to the late conservative president and as a symbol of the role Christianity has played a country often considered as one of the world's most Catholic states, they have pledged to protect the cross with their lives and "defend the honour of president Lech Kaczynski".

"We go there to pray," said Anita Czerwinska, one of the cross's defenders. "We know the (presidential] palace is now an enemy of the cross so we have asked the police to protect us from aggressors. I hope that nothing will disturb our prayer."

Although few in numbers, the pro-cross supporters have managed to wield considerable clout, already thwarting one attempt by the president's office to move the cross to a church where it was to remain until a permanent memorial was built.

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Along with getting the backing of conservative members in the hierarchy of the Polish Catholic Church, they also have managed to enlist the support of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the bereaved twin of the late president and leader of Law and Justice, Poland's main opposition party.

In an act testifying to the increasing politicisation over the dispute on Monday, Mr Kaczynski laid a wreath at the cross, while Law and Justice colleagues called for it to stay.

Attempts to weld a Christian symbol to the core of Polish politics have disturbed those who believe a blend of political Christianity should have no place in an increasingly cosmopolitan and liberal country.

"What we have seen outside the presidential palace has surprised us, and even scared some of us," said Grzegorz Napieralski, leader of Democratic Left Alliance, Poland's biggest left-wing party. "We want a Poland that is modern and open. A Poland that is for everyone: believers and non-believers".

The dispute over the cross has also spawned a far wider debate in Poland over the role and power of the Catholic Church and the presence of crosses in nearly all public buildings.

Although over 90 per cent of Poles still classify themselves as Catholics, there is increasing disquiet over the power and influence the Church wields over nominally secular institutions such as government and the education system.

There have also been growing calls from non-believers to have crosses removed from public buildings such as schools and hospitals.

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