Polish bishops, president try to calm passions over memorial cross

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The Polish church and the country's top officials tried Thursday to calm passions over a cross erected in front of the presidential palace in memory of the previous head of state.

The wooden cross has become a flashpoint between conservative Roman Catholic supporters of former President Lech Kaczynski, who was killed along with 95 others in a plane crash in Russia in April, and Poles supporting the separation of church and state.

The dispute also has highlighted a rivalry between the pro-Catholic Law and Justice party that supported Kaczynski — which is led by his twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski — and the governing Civic Platform party of the newly elected president, Bronislaw Komorowski.

Poland, the birthplace of the late pope John Paul II, is an overwhelmingly conservative Roman Catholic nation, where religion still yields great power over the society and politics.

Scouting groups put up the cross to Kaczynski and the other plane crash victims several days after the April 10 crash, and it has become a major site of mourning over the national tragedy.

Komorowski, who was sworn in last week, wants the cross removed. He is supported by secular Poles who say that the cross does not belong in a public space and should be moved to a church.

But Komorowski has faced resistance from the self-described "defenders of the cross" who are protecting it around the clock to prevent its removal.

The presidential palace unveiled a plaque bearing a small engraved cross which commemorates the tragedy on the building's facade in hopes it will calm the dispute.

Komorowski himself did not attend, but he was represented at the unveiling ceremony by the head of the presidential chancellery, Jacek Michalowski. Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he hoped the plaque would be accepted as a gesture of "good will."

Warsaw Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz and other bishops appealed Thursday to a group that has blocked the removal of the cross to allow it to be moved to a nearby church. He also called on Poles not to make the religious symbol the object of political disputes.

Those defending the cross, however, said they were unimpressed by the plaque and would continue to keep vigil at the cross until a larger memorial to Kaczynski is built.