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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » August 26, 2010
Cross of Contention
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Cross of Contention
August 26, 2010   
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A wooden memorial cross placed by scouts in front of the President’s Palace after the tragic plane crash in which former President Lech Kaczyński and scores of other prominent figures died near Smolensk, Russia, April 10 has come to symbolize the division of Polish society.

The simple wooden cross appeared on Warsaw’s Krakowskie Przedmieście Street in front of the Presidential Palace April 15. It was brought by scouts from various scouting associations. The inscription on a plate attached to the cross read, “This cross is an appeal from scouts to the authorities and society to build a monument on this site.”

The newly elected President Bronisław Komorowski said July 10 that the cross would disappear from Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. “The cross is a religious symbol so in consultation with the Church authorities it will be transferred to a different, more suitable place,” Komorowski said.

But politicians from the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party stood up to “defend” the cross. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, Komorowski’s recent rival in the race for the presidency and the twin brother of the late president Lech Kaczyński, said that if Komorowski removed the cross “it would be quite clear who he is,” implying that the head of state was not a sufficiently patriotic Catholic and did not have sufficient respect for the symbol of the cross.

President criticized
He added the new president had won the election as a result of a “misunderstanding” because he had managed to convince voters that he was a different kind of person than he really is.

Guards of honor were placed around the cross. Meanwhile, across the street, people started to collect signatures for a petition to remove it. On July 21, it seemed that the problem would be resolved. “The cross will be transferred to St. Anne’s University Church [a few hundred meters down the street in Warsaw’s Old Town],” said Jarosław Bochniarz of the Scouting Association of the Republic of Poland. Before being moved to the church, the cross was to be carried by pilgrims to the Jasna Góra monastery in the southern city of Częstochowa, the most important shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Poland. The agreement was made between the President’s Office and church officials in Warsaw as well as scouting organizations. The date of the transfer was set at Aug. 3.

But a day earlier, PiS leaders issued the following statement: “We are convinced that the cross should return from Jasna Góra to where it is now and stay there until a permanent monument to the victims of the April crash is built. Although we do not question the right of the President’s Office to manage the area around the Presidential Palace and the adjoining courtyards, it is with astonishment and disapproval that we received the decision to permanently remove the cross once President Komorowski is sworn in.”

Anger mounts
It did not take long to see the consequences of the statement. On the night of Aug. 2, more people joined those keeping watch around the cross. Police fenced off the site but this did not help much. The protesters started to put up more crosses; there were attacks on police and the police barriers were broken. The scouts who turned up at the site Aug. 3 to take part in the transfer of the cross braved hissing and booing and shouts such as “shame, shame!” and “traitors!” Similar insults were showered on the priests who were supposed to walk in the procession with the cross. Neither the priests nor the scouts were allowed to come close to the cross.

After a few hours of commotion, a decision was made that the cross would not be transferred. “The level of negative feelings and aggression is too high. As a result, I am very sorry, but the cross will not be moved to St. Anne’s Church,” said Jacek Michałowski, head of the President’s Office. Later the President’s Office said in a statement, “The cross was put up to unite in prayer the Poles gathering together in the days of national mourning following the tragic Smolensk crash. Today, it has witnessed developments that should never have taken place.”

On the night of Aug. 9, Krakowskie Przedmieście Street saw a demonstration of several thousand people protesting against the presence of the cross in front of the Presidential Palace. The demonstration, organized through Facebook, attracted mainly young people who tried to ridicule the “defenders” of the cross by staging a street fiesta with music, singing and revelry. The “defenders” of the cross responded by intoning religious songs. The two groups were separated by a cordon of more than 100 police officers.

A PiS delegation turned up at the cross Aug. 10 in the morning to mark four months since the Smolensk crash. Jarosław Kaczyński, accompanied by a number of parliamentarians, placed wreaths and prayed at the cross for several minutes to the applause of the people gathered at the site.

Another demonstration—organized by groups demanding that the cross be left where it is—was staged on the same day in the evening. In an appeal read out at Warsaw Cathedral after a Mass for the crash victims, the protesters demanded that the causes of the crash be scrutinized and that those guilty be brought to court. “Let us defend the honor and virtue of the fallen president, let us demand that those who have sullied and are still sullying his good name be brought to account,” read the appeal. Later, participants in the Mass marched to where the cross is. Again, they were separated by police from groups opposing the cross in front of the President’s Palace.

More protests at palace
In an unexpected move on Aug. 12, Michałowski and Warsaw’s deputy mayor Jacek Wojciechowicz unveiled a plaque commemorating the victims of the Smolensk crash. The gray plaque on the wall of the President’s Palace, with a red-and-white flag and ribbon, features the sign of the cross. The inscription reads: “In this place, Polish people united by pain and concern for the fate of their state gathered around a cross put up by scouts in the days of mourning after the Smolensk crash of April 10, 2010 in which 96 people were killed, including Poland’s President Lech Kaczyński and his wife and the former President of Poland in exile Ryszard Kaczorowski.”

But the move did not help ease the tension. Just the contrary. Those protesting around the cross shouted “shame!” to criticize Komorowski, who did not attend the unveiling ceremony. They also decided that the plaque was not enough to commemorate the victims.

On Aug. 14, police removed more than 10 protesters from the site in front of the President’s Palace at the request of the Government Protection Office. But the cross remained in place.

“We are witnessing an unseemly manipulation of the cross,” said Archbishop Józef Kowalczyk, the highest-ranking Catholic Church official in Poland. Warsaw Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz spoke in a similar tone.

Some influential Church officials including Cracow Archbishop Stanisław Dziwisz and Gdańsk Archbishop Sławoj Leszek Głódź said the cross should remain where it is until a monument is built to commemorate the victims.

The dispute has continued for more than a month, but no solution is in sight. Neither the government nor politicians or the Church are able to control the increasingly emotional crowd. The commemorative plaque was desecrated Aug. 17 by a 71-year-old man, who poured feces on it. A day later, police arrested a 60-year-old man who threatened the “cross defenders” with an unarmed grenade. The conflict is escalating with each passing day.
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