WARSAW (Reuters) - A decision to bury Polish President Lech Kaczynski in the crypt of Wawel cathedral in Krakow, a place reserved for the nation’s heroes, poets and kings, has sharply divided Poles days before the funeral. Kaczynski died in a plane crash in Russia on Saturday along with 95 other people including his wife Maria and many members of Poland’s political and military elite.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz announced on Tuesday that Kaczynski and his wife Maria would be buried at Wawel on Sunday following a request from the president’s twin brother Jaroslaw, who heads the main opposition party, and other family members.
Numerous heads of state and government, including U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are due to attend the funeral.
“The decision to bury him in Wawel is hasty and emotional,” said leading daily Gazeta Wyborcza in a front-page editorial.
“It is inappropriate to demand that Lech Kaczynski after his death become the equal of Jozef Pilsudski, architect of Polish independence ... This decision will certainly divide Poles.”
Pilsudski helped Poland regain its independence in 1918 and dominated its politics through the 1920s and 1930s.
About 500 people staged a noisy protest in central Krakow late on Tuesday against the decision, waving banners that read “Not Krakow, not Wawel” and “Are you sure he is the equal of kings?”
Others organized protest campaigns on the social media site Facebook.
By Wednesday morning, the “No to Kaczynski’s burial in Wawel” group had attracted over 26,000 fans. Nearly 5,000 had joined a group bearing the ironic name “I want to be buried in Wawel too.”
The protests were the first cracks in a display of national unity since the crash. Tens of thousands of mourners welcomed home Kaczynski’s coffin and that of his wife. People were queuing in rain for hours on Wednesday to view the coffins in Warsaw’s presidential palace.
Lech Kaczynski, president since 2005, was a polarising figure whose support levels had fallen to about 20 percent before his death. He had been expected to lose a presidential election due in the autumn and now likely to be held in June.
To his conservative admirers, Kaczynski was a patriot and man of deep moral and religious convictions. To his foes, he was a narrow-minded reactionary out of step with an increasingly liberal, outward-looking and European Poland.
His supporters defended the decision to bury him at Wawel.
“It’s dangerous to fuel rows over the burial of the first couple,” Witold Waszczykowski, one of the few Kaczynski aides not to die with him on Saturday, told Polish television.
Wawel is a large complex of buildings on the Vistula River that includes a castle, cathedral and fortifications. It traces its roots as a center of political power back to the end of the first millennium.
The cathedral was the coronation site of virtually all of Poland’s monarchs, and Wawel Castle was the center of government for five centuries until the end of the 16th century.
Historian Tomasz Nalecz, who is also a presidential candidate for a small leftist party, said he did not believe Kaczynski himself, whom he described as a man with a strong sense of history, would have expected to be buried at Wawel.
As well as Polish kings, the Wawel crypt also contains the bodies of legendary military commander Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who fought in the U.S. war of independence, Poland’s wartime leader Wladyslaw Sikorski and national poet Adam Mickiewicz.
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Noah Barkin; Editing by Kevin Liffey