WARSAW (Reuters) - Supporters of Poland’s late president Lech Kaczynski forced the authorities to abandon the planned removal on Tuesday of a large wooden cross erected in front of the presidential palace in his memory.
Kaczynski, his wife Maria and 94 others, mostly senior political officials and military commanders, were killed in a plane crash in Russia on April 10 that plunged Poland into deep mourning and triggered an early presidential election.
The cross, erected by a scouting group after the crash, has become the centre of a de facto shrine to the dead, festooned with flowers and candles.
The plan to move the cross to a nearby church had upset and angered Kaczynski’s deeply Catholic core supporters.
Some protesters prevented priests from reaching the cross where they had intended to perform a short religious service on Tuesday before accompanying it to the nearby Church of St Anna.
“If there is no cross there is no faith, there is no church,” a woman aged about 40 told the priests as she knelt to block their way in images broadcast live on Polish television.
“Leave this cross alone. We’re Catholics, we beg you to leave this cross as a symbol of our national tragedy, as a symbol of people who gave their lives for Poland,” shouted another man, also unidentified.
Jacek Michalowski, head of the president’s chancellery, later told reporters that the cross would not be moved on Tuesday after all. It was not immediately clear whether the authorities would set a new date for its removal.
“(Is it) a defeat? Yes (but) above all this was a religious ceremony that was not allowed to go ahead,” Michalowski said.
Some bystanders watching the protests said they thought it was indeed time to move the cross to a more appropriate site.
“The place of the cross is in a church. The palace is where the president lives, it is a state institution, not a church institution,” said Warsaw resident Konrad Wieladek.
“I understand it is a symbol of grief, but what is wrong with moving it to a church? It will survive longer than here where it will get rained on.”
However, others opposed to the removal of the cross waved crucifixes, red and white national flags and banners. Some had kept a round-the-clock vigil to prevent the cross being moved.
Security guards scuffled with some protesters and briefly detained an elderly woman who tried to tie herself to the cross.
“First they finished Kaczynski off and now they want to hide the truth about it,” said Katarzyna Zaluska, a 35-year old office worker, giving vent to a suspicion among some supporters of the late president that the Polish government shares responsibility for the crash.
Poland’s powerful Catholic Church is itself split on the cross issue, with some wanting it moved because it has become overly politicised while others say it should stay where it is as a testimony to Poles’ religious faith.
Kaczynski’s successor, Bronislaw Komorowski, a moderate conservative, is due to be sworn in as Poland’s fourth post-communist head of state on Friday after beating Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw in last month’s presidential election.
Writing by Gareth Jones, editing by Peter Graff