World News

Warsaw archbishop calls for memorial cross removal

WARSAW (Reuters) - Warsaw’s archbishop called for the removal of a cross placed outside the presidential palace after an April plane crash which killed 96 people including the president, saying it had become politicized.

Supporters of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski gather at a wooden cross in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw August 12, 2010. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel RELIGION)

The wooden cross, erected by a scouting group after the crash on April 10, has become the center of a de facto shrine, festooned with flowers and candles by the late president Lech Kaczynski’s deeply Catholic core supporters.

In addition to being the site for a prayer vigil, critics said the cross has also become a rallying point for opposition to President Bronislaw Komorowski who beat Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw in the presidential race forced by the crash.

“One cannot push toward a (political) goal using the cross,” Warsaw Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz told a news conference, urging politicians and “cross defenders” to allow the removal of the cross to a nearby church.

A group of radical, nationalistic Catholics -- mostly followers of Jaroslaw Kaczynski who also leads the main opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party -- blocked plans by the clergy and Komorowski to move the cross.

“Cross defenders” scuffled with police during a failed attempt by authorities to move the memorial earlier this month. On Thursday, they rejected Nycz’s appeal to remove the cross.

“Nycz does not represent all of the church. We won’t pull back until a proper monument is erected here,” said Joanna, one of the most active “cross defenders.”

Poland’s powerful Catholic church is deeply split, with the moderate wing wanting to stop what they consider to be the political use of a sacred symbol. But many Poles back the cross as a tribute to the late president.

Tensions increased between the two sides on Thursday over the installation by Komorowski’s office of a memorial plaque on the walls of the palace in an unexpected, hasty ceremony hoping to satisfy “cross defenders.”

This angered not only supporters of the late president, but also many families of the victims who were not notified about the event and lawmakers who had also wanted to participate in the ceremony.

Kaczynski lost the early presidential race forced by the crash in western Russia to Komorowski, candidate of Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s ruling pragmatists Civic Platform (PO).

PO enjoys the backing of 41 percent of Poles compared to 29 percent for PiS, a CBOS poll showed on Thursday.

Writing by Gabriela Baczynska