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Wooden Cross Controversy Exposes Cultural Divide in Poland

In Warsaw, Poland, a fierce dispute over a wooden cross has galvanized religious conservatives, antagonized the younger generation and ignited a national debate about the role of the Catholic Church in Polish politics.

At first, it appeared a harmless gesture, just days after a tragic plane crash last April near the Russian town of Smolensk, a simple wooden cross was erected outside the presidential palace in Warsaw. The cross was meant to commemorate the 96 people who were killed in the crash - among them Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski.

From shrine to battleground

The cross soon became a sort of shrine, a place to pray and to place candles. But more recently, it has turned into a battleground that exposes the deep cultural and political rifts within Polish society.

On August 3, a riot nearly broke out in front of the Presidential Palace when a group of officials tried to move the cross to a nearby church. Protesters scuffled with police, and one woman even tried to tie herself to the cross. In the end, the government backed down.


Since then, a group of deeply religious, strongly conservative demonstrators has been holding a round-the-clock candle-lit vigil in front of the Presidential Palace. They call themselves "defenders of the cross."

Most are elderly women. They take turns standing behind police barricades in front of the cross, and insist they will not move until a religious monument to the victims of the plane crash is erected in its place.

This is a Catholic country, says one of the women, and if they take down this cross it will be terrible.

Emotional mix

Other emotions are mixed in - some insist the plane crash was part of a Russian plot. And, some are also unhappy about other things - such as rising prices and the results of July's presidential election. Virtually all of them support the far-right opposition party, Law and Justice, led by Lech Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw.

But not everyone agrees. Many younger Poles find the situation unacceptable, and for days thousands held counter-protests in front of the cross. Polish opinion polls show that a majority want the cross moved. One young woman says the sooner the better.

"I think it should be moved," she said. "Everyone right now supports move the cross, even the Polish church, so they should definitely move it as soon as possible. Because even the church says that it belongs to the church. Those old ladies are making fools of themselves in the eyes of younger people."

The situation has sparked a fierce debate in the Polish media about the separation of church and state, which is theoretically guaranteed by the Polish constitution.

Church and state

While many younger Poles have begun to question the role of the Catholic Church in politics, Religion professor Zbigniew Mikolejko of the Polish Academy of Sciences, explains the church still enjoys a tremendous amount of influence.

He says during communism the church became a symbol of Polish independence, and by the time communism collapsed it enjoyed a position of unparalleled privilege. Even now, he says, politicians tend to base their opinions around church dictates. It has more power than the constitution allows, he says.

And, Mikolejko adds, the cross defenders also expose deeper cultural and economic rifts within Polish society.

He says the people standing in front of the presidential palace tend to be those who have lost out in the transition to capitalism. They are mostly poor and uneducated, he says, and many come from villages that are not reaping the benefits of modernization. He adds that in the Polish countryside, the traditional language is the language of religion, and for many, it is the only way they can express their frustration.

Last weekend some cross defenders told local media they were willing to enter into a dialogue with current Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski. But, they added, if they do not get the monument they want, they will spend the entire winter standing in front of the cross.