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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crosses Taken Off Auschwitz Grounds

WARSAW, Poland -- Police on Friday removed an estimated 300 crosses and a wooden hut erected by radical Catholics from a lot bordering the former Auschwitz Nazi death camp, the government and Roman Catholic church said.

In taking down the scores of crosses f from crude, handmade ones to thick, varnished crosses with inscribed plaques f the government hoped to finally end an embarrassing controversy that began a year ago and strained relations with Israel and Jewish groups worldwide.

On Thursday, a radical Catholic activist living in a tent on the property said he put explosive devices on the site to protect it. Police then detained the activist, Kazimierz Switon, and detonated the explosives.

The crosses were removed at dawn Friday and placed in a Franciscan friars cloister in Oswiecim, the city 350 kilometers southwest of Warsaw where Auschwitz is located, said a statement issued by government spokesman Krzysztof Luft and Episcopate spokesman Reverend Adam Schulz.

A larger cross on the property, erected over a decade ago to commemorate 152 Polish Catholics killed by Nazis, was left standing, according to the statement.

The eight-meter wooden cross was used in a 1979 Mass by Polish-born Pope John Paul II. Jewish groups have called for years for its removal, saying it can be seen from inside Auschwitz and insults the memory of the more than 1 million Jews killed at Auschwitz and the nearby facility Birkenau during World War II.

But conservative Catholics led by Switon launched a campaign last year to protect the papal cross, saying Poland had the right to honor its Holocaust victims with a cross. The campaign had anti-Semitic tones, with Switon complaining Jews had too much influence in Poland.

Switon rallied people to erect the 300 smaller crosses next to the papal cross and had been living on a tent at the site. He oversaw construction of a hut on the property that was consecrated as a chapel by a retired priest on May 16.

The Roman Catholic church rejected the ceremony and joined the government in calling for the smaller crosses to be removed.

"According to the earlier expressed will of the government and of the Episcopate, all crosses that were put up on the site of the gravel pit near Auschwitz, with the exception of the papal cross, have been moved to the Franciscan friars' cloister in a dignified and peaceful way, with the participation of priests," stated Luft and Schulz on Friday.

It said regional Bishop Tadeusz Rakoczy said prayers in front of the papal cross and laid flowers there later Friday morning, adding: "Order that was brought to the gravel pit area will make it possible to respect the site of the martyr-like death of Poles and of the cross."