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.
A 2009 survey by the Polish episcopate's statistics body showed 41.5 percent of Poles attended Sunday mass, a number that has been gradually falling since the survey started three decades ago, but still much higher than elsewhere in the 27-nation EU.
For many Poles, the cross is as much a cultural and traditionally Polish symbol as it is a religious one.
"At times of occupation, this symbol of Polish identity was relatively safe. And by some strange paradox, this habit from times of oppression is approved today in a free country as a symbol of a free nation," said Zbigniew Mikolejko, philosopher of religion at Poland's Academy of Sciences.
Crosses hang on the walls of schools, hospitals and state buildings throughout Poland as well as in parliament, something many Poles find natural despite the fact that the constitution guarantees the separation of church and state.
The Polish Church itself is deeply split between a moderate clergy and a more nationalist-minded hierarchy. Many from the latter group openly backed Jaroslaw Kaczynski in this year's presidential election triggered by his brother's death and now call on their supporters to prevent the removal of the cross.
"This is an absolutely unacceptable role of church in a democracy. It damages the state as much as the church," said Marcin Krol, political philosopher at Warsaw University.
Kaczynski polled 47 percent in losing the presidential poll to Bronislaw Komorowski, the candidate of Prime Minister Donald Tusk's pragmatist Civic Platform (PO). Analysts said the "cross wars" could drive PiS support back down to levels seen before the crash, which occurred in Smolensk, western Russia.
"Now he can only come down toward some 25-35 percent of society constituting his core supporters," Kucharczyk said.
Analysts saw the PO's rating as stable, despite the row.
Adam Boniecki, a priest and a leading Catholic intellectual, said the cross had split Poles along political lines of PO versus PiS.
"There is a difference between fighting for a cross and fighting with it. This row has started a reflection about the role of the church," he added.
The raised voices of the "cross defenders" have led to calls for a more secular state and the elimination of religious symbols from public life.
In an interview with the weekly Polityka published on Wednesday, Komorowski said he still hoped the cross would be moved.
"The current situation is politically risky and difficult for everybody. It is particularly so for the Church, I believe, which is already paying a price for this conflict and will continue paying it in the longer term."
A survey by the ARC institute showed in July nearly 60 percent of Poles believed no religious symbols should be shown in public places, while about 30 percent took the opposite view.
About 63 percent believed religions other than Catholicism were getting worse treatment in Poland, it showed.
"The cross row unblocked a discussion that has been a taboo -- the fact that a large part of the society is tired with the Church's permanent political engagement," Kucharczyk said.
Poland's leftist opposition, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), is drafting proposals to entrench secular standards and analysts say it may win political points in this.
"We must hold a discussion in Poland, which many other European countries already have behind them," SLD spokesman, Tomasz Kalita, said. "We care for the Polish constitution to be respected. At present, it's not."
Editing by Ralph Boulton and Nina Chestney