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Pope stays silent as militants erect more crosses at Auschwitz

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ROME, Aug. 27 (JTA) — Ignoring pleas from Israel’s chief rabbis, the Vatican has decided to stay on the sidelines of the escalating crisis over the placement of more than 150 crosses outside the site of the Auschwitz death camp by Polish Roman Catholic militants. A Vatican spokesperson told JTA that it was unlikely that Polish-born Pope John Paul II would make a pronouncement on the issue or that the Vatican would soon express a public position. “The matter is not under the jurisdiction of the Vatican,” the spokesperson said in an interview. “We refer everyone to the Polish bishops.” But neither Polish bishops nor the Polish government has so far been able to defuse a crisis that has chilled Polish-Jewish relations, embarrassed Poland internationally and increasingly assumed powerful nationalist and anti-Semitic overtones. On Wednesday, Roman Catholic militants defied the Polish Bishops Council — the highest body of the Polish Roman Catholic Church — and erected two more wooden crosses outside the Auschwitz walls. Kazimierz Switon, the leader of the militants, complained in an interview with CNN aired Wednesday that “Jews cannot tell Poles what to do” on their own soil. The CNN report, seen all over the world, also showed skinheads erecting crosses at the site. On Tuesday, the Polish Bishops Council called for the removal of the 150 crosses that have been set up there in the past month and urged that no more be erected. They said, however, that a 26-foot-high cross that has stood there since 1988, and which was used by the pope during a mass at Birkenau in 1979, should stay in place. The bishops warned in a statement that the crisis is hurting both the Polish Church and Poland itself. “Escalating the conflict brings harm to the church and turns against our homeland,” the statement said. It added that the campaign of erecting crosses at Auschwitz “painfully harms the different sensitivity of our brothers, the Jews.” Poland’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Menachem Joskowicz, rejected the bishops’ stand on Wednesday, reiterating that all crosses, including the papal cross, must go. The presence of any cross prevents Jews from praying at Auschwitz, he said. “We Jews suffered there the most, so I think it would be bad if in this sacred place we could not pray for our nation, our relatives, our friends and for all who suffered there,” said Joskowicz, a Holocaust survivor. At least 1.5 million people, some 90 percent of them Jews, were killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Throughout the world, Auschwitz is regarded as the symbol of the Holocaust and the biggest Jewish graveyard. Jews say no religious symbols should be allowed to be placed there. But tens of thousands of Polish Catholics also were killed at Auschwitz, and Poles regard the camp as the symbol of Polish suffering under the Nazis. Ostensibly, the militants began placing the crosses last month to protest the possible removal of the so-called papal cross to another location. They also say the crosses commemorate 152 Catholic Poles who were killed there by the Nazis. Polish officials and church leaders have come under pressure from Israel and from Jewish organizations in the United States to resolve the crisis. The American Jewish pressure is coming from a coalition of groups led by Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. The coalition has been attempting to work out a deal with the Polish government on how to protect and preserve Auschwitz-Birkenau, but has made removal of the crosses a prerequisite to further discussions. Poland’s leaders, including President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, have called for an end to the cross-planting campaign, which Kwasniewski denounced as politically motivated. “This is a political activity which is unacceptable, both for us and our Jewish partners,” he told a news conference Thursday in Krakow. Earlier in August, the government canceled the lease on the site, held by a right-wing association of war victims. The head of the Polish Catholic Church, Cardinal Josef Glemp, has also denounced the placement of the crosses, saying that the campaign is likely to incite Jewish anger. Speaking to a crowd of more than 100,000 worshipers Wednesday at Jasna Gora, Poland’s holiest shrine, the primate called the crosses “wrong,” but also was quoted as saying he was sorry that Jews “cannot find words today of understanding and compromise.” Israel’s chief rabbis have appealed to the pope to step in. The pope’s intercession was needed to resolve an earlier crisis at Auschwitz several years ago, over the establishment of a Carmelite convent in a building just outside the camp walls. The nuns eventually were moved to a new convent after the conflict was resolved in 1993. (JTA correspondent Daniel Kurtzman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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