Wooden cross has become a symbol of the place of the Church in the life of the state
BY HUW TWISTON DAVIES
ATTEMPTS to move a memorial to the former president of Poland have sparked a dispute over the separation of Church and state.
The cross was erected outside the presidential palace in Warsaw in memory of the former President Lech Kaczyfrski following his death in a plane crash which also killed 95 other Polish dignitaries on April 10.
The cross was erected by Scouts groups soon after what was described as Poland’s worst peacetime disaster. The cross has acted as the focus of Polish mourning for the 96 who died, with tens of thousands laying flowers or lighting candles around the cross.
It has also become symbolic in a row over the place of the Church in Polish society.
But plans to move the cross to a nearby church have caused controversy, with protestors both for and against the cross’s position holding demonstrations in front of the presidential palace.
The “defenders of the cross”, as they are called by local Polish media, wish the cross to stay in its present place and disrupted plans for the cross to be moved to nearby St Anne’s church on August 3 as part of a ceremony which would have included a pilgrimage, taking the cross to various sites of religious importance in Poland. The prospective move angered the defenders by not including plans for a permanent memo rial at the palace. President of Poland Bronisław Komorowski said in a statement that the decision to move the cross to St Anne’s church was “arrived at through discussion and dialogue”, and that it will “enable everyone to remember all those who perished in the Smolensk catastrophe in an atmosphere of appropriate solemnity and concentration”.
Despite the announcement of a memorial at the palace a few days later, and the appearance of a plaque engraved with a cross on one wall of the palace a week after the planned removal of the cross, defenders remained unconvinced, and finally went on Saturday to clear the area for the Army Day celebrations on Sunday.
The memorial at the palace states: “Here in this place, in the days of mourning following the Smolensk tragedy, which took the lives of 96 individuals, among them the President of the Republic of Poland Lech Kaczyfrski and his wife, as well as former President Ryszard Kaczorowski, beside a cross erected by boy and girl Scouts, assembled numerous Poles united by pain and concern for the fate of the nation.” President Komorowski said that the memorial was “something obvious – and not done as a political move or a political game or in anyone’s political interest”, but it has done little to ease tensions over the memorial cross.
Akcja Krzyż (Cross Action), a group which wishes it to be removed, has gained around 43,000 members on Facebook, and several thousand people demonstrating in the streets in favour of the cross’s removal. Independent opinion polls carried out recently suggest that 71 per cent of Poles want the cross moved to the nearby St Anne’s church.
The Polish Church has stepped into the row, also calling for the cross to be moved to the church. Bishop Stanisław Budzik, press secre tary for the Polish episcopate said that those praying at the cross “despite their good intentions” are “being exploited for political purposes”. He added that the bishops “urge everyone to make the transfer of the cross possible”, but also called on politicians “not to use the cross as a tool to achieve their goals”, asking the government to “open dialogue that would defuse social tensions”.
Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw has also commented on the cross controversy, saying: “The cross cannot be held hostage to a political dispute.” Although Poland is a predominantly Catholic country, its constitution defines it as a secular republic.
Although both President Kaczyfrski’s Law and Justice Party and President Komorowski’s Civic Platform party are morally conservative, the former is seen as having closer ties to the Church while the latter favours a constitutional approach.