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Poland's religious right digs in heels over divisive cross

Religious supporters of late president Lech Kaczynski stand guard over a cross set up as a memorial, despite pleas from church officials. Secularists demand it be taken away from the presidential palace.

People light candles under the cross

The cross is at the center of a bitter national divide

Supporters of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party have remained defiant in their vigil at the site of a cross erected in memory of their late hero - despite calls from church leaders to allow its removal.

Those loyal to the former president see him as defender of Polish Roman Catholic values and say that the cross should remain outside the presidential palace in a Warsaw square until a more permanent structure is found for the site.

Church officials have said that it is time for supporters to give up the fight - warning that they are being manipulated for political, not religious, reasons.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski

Some think Jaroslaw Kaczynski is using the dispute for political capital

"To all those who pray at the cross we must say that - despite their good intentions - they are being exploited for political purposes. We urge everyone to make the transfer of the cross possible," press secretary for the Polish Episcopate, Bishop Stanislaw Budzik, told reporters in Warsaw on Thursday.

The palace, now occupied by President Bronislaw Komorowski, unveiled a plaque on Thursday commemorating the tragedy on the facade of a side-wing to the building.

A first attempt to move the cross - initially to a church in the old part of the city and later to a shrine in the south of the country - met with fierce opposition on August 3. Both the church and the scout group that first erected the four-meter (13 feet) wooden cross had agreed to the plan.

Facebook campaign and rally

But opposition is mounting to the cross staying in place. Secularists - many of them younger, and opposed to the policies of the former president - rallied on Monday in response to a Facebook campaign to have the cross removed.

The palace square

Secularists say the palace is not the place for a cross

By midnight, several thousand had gathered in front of the presidential palace chanting the slogan, "To a church!"

The cross was spontaneously erected after the April 10 crash of the presidential plane in western Russia, killing the president, his wife and 94 others.

As well as highlighting religious divisions, the row is indicative of the political tensions currently simmering in the country.

Some critics of former president Kaczynski were unhappy with his right-wing politics and traditional approach to family values. Opponents also say his nationalist and euroskeptic policies placed Poland on an isolationist course within the European Union. Current president Komorowski is expected to take the country in a more pro-European direction.

Commentators say Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw, who has called for the cross to stay in place, is possibly using the issue as a political weapon to gain support before the country's parliamentary elections in 2011.

Author: Richard Connor (AFP/AP/dpa)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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