Poland's cross wars revive debate on role of church

Wed Aug 18, 2010 9:45am EDT
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By Gabriela Baczynska

WARSAW (Reuters) - A simple wooden cross honouring victims of a plane crash that killed Poland's president in April has spurred demands that the influence of the powerful Roman Catholic Church be pared back to forge a more secular Poland.

The Roman Catholic Church was a focus of Polish national resistance over centuries of foreign occupation. Most recently, it provided protection for the Solidarity trade union in its battles with Soviet-backed communist rule in the 1980s.

Churches were packed after an air crash on April 10 killed conservative President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other people, mostly senior state figures. Many Poles gathered spontaneously to honor, and often pray for, those who died.

A scout group set a crucifix outside the presidential palace in Warsaw, which turned into a shrine for the victims.

Four months later, the three-meter-high cross is still there, festooned with candles and flowers despite attempts by the state and some clergy to move it to a nearby church. The "cross defenders" stood their ground, squabbling with police.

The cross debate reflects political divisions. It has become a rallying point for radical rightists backed by the main opposition, the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Kaczynski's twin brother, Jaroslaw.

"The problem of too close links between church and politics exists here for so long that many people don't even see it," said Jacek Kucharczyk, head of the Institute of Public Affairs.

Poland, a country of 38 million people, is one of the few strongholds of Catholicism in a largely secular European Union.   Continued...