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Poland: Tension Rises Over Crosses In Auschwitz

Warsaw, 10 August (RFE/RL) - Several new crosses were erected this weekend near the former Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp, adding to the escalation of tension between Poland and Jewish groups.

There are currently more than 90 crosses ranging in size from one to 4 meters. The crosses were placed by Catholic faithfuls in response to appeals by a conservative Catholic radio station (Radio Maryja) and a former Solidarity activist and author of anti-Semitic pamphlets, Kazimierz Switon.

The faithful were urged to place 152 crosses in the field adjoining the camp to commemorate the execution of 152 Poles by the Nazis and in protest against efforts to remove a large (8 meter) cross that has stood at the site since 1989.

Several Jewish groups have protested the presence of the large cross saying that its location was disrespectful of the Holocaust's Jewish victims. More than 1.2 million people were killed at the Auschwitz camp, the overwhelming majority being Jews.

Last week the Israeli government and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial protested the addition of dozens of crosses.

The Polish government said in a statement that it was watching the situation with anxiety. The government said that the "initiatives by few irresponsible people, who use the policy of accomplished facts, cause an escalation of the conflict and the mobilization of radical elements on both sides."

But the government also said that it lacks the authority to remove the crosses because the field is privately owned and the placement of religious symbols was the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church.

Catholic bishops are to meet in two weeks. It is assumed that the meeting will attempt to find a solution.

Last week, Poland's Catholic Primate Cardinal Jozef Glemp called Israel's protests an attempt to "impose foreign will." But Archbishop Henryk Muszynski, head of the important Gniezno diocese said that the "cross must not be used for fighting."

The Polish government is concerned that "the problem of the presence of religious symbols, which requires peace, understanding and the spirit of dialogue, is used in activities that have the character of political fight."

According to the government, such actions contribute to creating false stereotypes about Poles. They also threaten to disrupt the developing Polish-Jewish relationship.

The government will seek to deal with the problem "in consultation with the Church authorities and all interested parties, in the spirit of tolerance, respect for religious sensitivity of Christians and Jews."

The government admitted that the site of the former Auschwitz camp was a symbol of the Holocaust, "first of all of the Jews but also of Gypsies, Poles and Russians." The government said that respect for the memory of all victims of the camp must be ensured. Last week the Polish Foreign Ministry told Israeli ambassador to Poland, Yigal Antebi, that the Polish authorities wanted a compromise solution to the problem.

Today, the head of Poland's National Security Bureau Marek Siwiec said on a radio program that "the government cannot stay indifferent and after appeals (to the extremists) should take some action." Siwiec said that all new crosses should be removed and representatives of Poland and Jewish organizations should start talks on ways to resolve the conflict.