Monday, April 12, 2010

Mystery still surrounds cause of Polish air tragedy

POLISH INVESTIGATORS say they have uncovered no evidence that Polish president Lech Kaczynski demanded that his pilot make a fatal crash landing in fog last Saturday.

Russian authorities confirmed yesterday that they had identified the body of Polish first lady Maria Kaczynska, who died along with her husband and 94 others in the air crash near the western Russian town of Smolensk.

Her remains will be flown home today, a day after those of Mr Kaczynski. The deceased president will lie in state from today at the presidential palace in Warsaw ahead of a state funeral on Saturday.

Mystery persists about why the aircraft clipped trees and crashed in flames after Russian tests yesterday revealed no mechanical defects.

Polish authorities say the aircraft had been fitted recently with new electronic equipment and the engine had been overhauled. But diplomats familiar with the aircraft have questioned why Warsaw still used a Soviet-built Tupolev 154 “badly in need of replacement”.

“It’s hard to understand how we are involved in costly missions in Afghanistan and Iraq but are unable for years to equip our [leaders] with proper planes,” said Prof Roman Kuzniar, an international affairs analyst at Warsaw University.

That has all turned the spotlight back on Mr Kaczynski. Asked whether the pilot was pressurised to land by the president, Poland’s chief prosecutor, Andrzej Seremet, said yesterday: “At the current level of the investigation we have no such information.”

After flight recorders revealed nothing unusual, Russian investigators said yesterday they had moved on to the voice recorders.

Mindful of the continuing week of mourning, Polish media have not dared even raise the possibility that Mr Kaczynski had a role in the crash. But the Russian media have recalled how, in 2008, Mr Kaczynski demanded that a pilot land his aircraft in Tblisi in the middle of the Georgian war; the pilot refused and diverted.

A Russian flight expert suggested in the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily that the crash was caused by “VIP passenger syndrome”. But this was dismissed by a colleague of Arkadiusz Protasiuk, the crash pilot.

“He was a tough man who wouldn’t let emotions prevail over common sense,” said Tomasz Pietrzak, another government pilot, on Polish radio. “He would certainly not risk passengers’ lives.”

The crash has also prompted reflection in political circles about whether the incident might have been the indirect consequence of years of competition between the president and Polish prime minister Donal Tusk.

Last Wednesday, Mr Tusk flew to Katyn for a memorial service with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Feeling snubbed at not being invited, Mr Kaczynski, from a competing party, organised a competing event on Saturday to remember the 22,000 Polish soldiers massacred at Katyn in 1940.

“As a consequence of the crash, this unfortunate situation may finally be at an end,” said Andrzej Maciejewski, political analyst of the Sobieski Institute think tank.

Mr Kaczynski’s office published his final, undelivered speech yesterday, in which he paid tribute to the Katyn soldiers and the families who kept their memory alive, and condemned the Soviet cover-up as “the founding lie of the [communist] People’s Republic of Poland”. But the president, known for his anti-Russian tirades, saved his final words to thank Moscow for its assistance ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre.

The undelivered words carry additional poignancy now: “Let’s allow the Katyn wound to finally heal,” he planned to say. “We are already on the path; we should follow it to bring our nations closer and not stop or retreat.”

Mr Maciejewski of the Sobieski Institute said: “In future we will be able to distinguish between pre-April 10th Polish-Russian relations and post-April 10th.”

Source:Poland Twitter

In dark times Poland needs the sunlight of truth

In 1943 Poland’s wartime leader accused Moscow of ordering the Katyn massacre, the systematic murder of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals. A few months later he was dead, the victim of an air crash. Was it murder? Almost certainly not, but Poland’s painful past, combined with official secrecy, created precisely the muggy and mysterious conditions in which conspiracy theory thrives.

In 2010 another Polish leader, President Lech Kaczynski, heads to Katyn to commemorate the appalling massacre that took place there. Within hours he too is dead, along with his wife and 94 other members of Poland’s elite, the victims of another air crash. Was this coincidence? Almost certainly, but a similar climate of suspicion ensures that the conspiracies are already sprouting, and spreading.

The thread connecting these events is secrecy, for it is concealment that turns a tragedy into a festering historical sore. Britain still has not released all the files on the death in 1943 of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-exile. For decades Moscow declined to admit what had happened at Katyn, and Vladimir Putin still refuses to apologise.

In the confusion and grief following the Smolensk air crash on Saturday, the whispers, rumours and accusations have begun to circulate. The Polish president’s plane, it is noted darkly, was Russian-made, and recently serviced in Russia. The Russian Government heartily disliked President Kaczynski, who had criticised Russia’s “new imperialism”. Moscow declined to invite him to a ceremony at Katyn last Wednesday — so Kaczynski decided to hold a second memorial service, and was killed en route.

Initial reports have ruled out mechanical failure, so was the pilot pressurised to make the landing by his august passengers? Polish conspiracists are already blaming the Russian secret service, while others suggest that Russian hardliners may have sought to undermine Mr Putin by sabotaging the plane.

Poland has a deeply emotional, almost mystical relationship with the story of tragedy, rebellion, courage and repression that is Polish history. The present is permanently refracted through the past. “The place is cursed,” declared Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former President, after the latest tragedy associated with Katyn.

Lech Walesa’s remark was even more telling: “This is the second Katyn tragedy; the first time they tried to cut our head off, and now again the elite of our country has perished.” Implicit is the assumption that “they”, unnamed enemies, must also lie behind Poland’s latest national calamity.

The only way to ensure against wild conspiracy theories is to conduct the crash investigation in the disinfecting sunlight; to eschew the secrecy that is Moscow’s natural instinct; and to ensure that the historical verdict on this episode is provided, or at least believed, by Poles. To do, in short, everything that Britain failed to do when investigating the death of another Polish leader, 67 years ago.

On July 4, 1943, General Sikorski, the Polish commander-in-chief of land under Nazi occupation, took off from Gibraltar in a converted RAF Liberator bomber, bound for England. A few minutes later the plane plummeted into the harbour, killing 16 passengers on board including Sikorski’s daughter, Zofia. The Czech pilot was the sole survivor.

A British court of inquiry conducted a swift and secret investigation, which ruled out sabotage but failed to establish the cause of the crash. The pilot said his controls had jammed.

The conspiracy theories erupted almost immediately, and have continued ever since. One held that the Nazis had orchestrated the crash, determined to remove a popular Polish figurehead. Even greater suspicion fell on Stalin, who had most to gain from eliminating the troublesome general. Three months earlier Sikorski had called for a Red Cross investigation into the Katyn massacres, prompting a furious Stalin to break off relations with the Polish Government-in-exile.

Alternative theories claimed that the assassination was the work of a Polish faction, or the British, keen to remove an impediment to good relations with its Soviet ally. Soldiers, a 1968 play by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, even suggested that Winston Churchill had played a role in the supposed assassination plot.

Many British documents relating to the crash remain classified, and for nearly seven decades the conspiracists have been allowed virtually free rein. Kim Philby, then head of MI6 counterintelligence for the Iberian Peninsula, was said to have had a hand in organising Sikorski’s death on behalf of his Moscow spymasters. Sikorski’s daughter was allegedly spotted in a Soviet gulag many years later. Sikorski himself was variously said to have been poisoned, strangled, suffocated or shot before being loaded on to the doomed plane.

Last year Polish forensic scientists exhumed the general’s corpse from a crypt in Cracow and concluded that he had died in the air crash after all. But, as Polish historians pointed out at the time, until or unless all the British and Soviet archives are released, the fate of Poland’s wartime leader will continue to be a source of friction and fantasy.

Sikorski’s plane probably crashed because someone accidentally placed luggage on the steering mechanism. An equally simple explanation — most likely pilot error — may lie behind the accident that deprived Poland of so much of its leadership last weekend.

If so, it is essential that the Polish people themselves see the truth being revealed. So far, Russia has made the right noises, promising an open investigation and agreeing to leave the aircraft at the scene.

But so long as Mr Putin heads the commission investigating the crash, Poles will wonder about the truth of its findings. Russia should invite Polish experts to take part in, and witness, every aspect of the investigation. Mr Putin has gone some way towards building a historical consensus about Katyn, even making a personal appearance at the service last week. This is another opportunity for him to demonstrate that history, as it unfolds, can bring old enemies together, as well as force them apart.

Like the Katyn massacre and the death of General Sikorski, the Smolensk crash will come to represent another tragic milestone in Poland’s history. The horror of Katyn was hidden for half a century behind Soviet lies; the fate of Sikorski was obscured, for far too long, by British secrecy. This time Poland itself should have the right to decide what really happened.

Source:Poland Twitter

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Polish President Kaczynski was nationalist, pro-US

WARSAW, Poland — Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who died Saturday in a plane crash in Russia, was a one-time anti-communist activist who teamed up with his twin brother to take his country in a nationalist, conservative direction.

Kaczynski, 60, pursued a strongly pro-U.S. line in foreign relations, in accordance with a cross-party consensus that has grown in Poland since the fall of communism. He was an enthusiastic backer of plans to site a U.S. missile defense facility in the country, the largest of the European Union's new eastern members.

However, the prickly nationalism of Kaczynski and his identical twin brother, Jaroslaw — who served for a time as prime minister and is now opposition leader — sometimes complicated ties with European neighbors and Russia.

The president, for example, long held out against the EU's so-called Lisbon reform treaty before signing it last November. Still, his appeal at home rested partly on his forthright representation of Polish views and his tough stance on law and order.

Kaczynski first rose to fame as a child movie star alongside his identical twin in a hit movie in 1962, "Two Who Stole the Moon," about two troublemakers who try to get rich by stealing the moon and selling it. That was the end of their film career, however.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Kaczynski brothers were activists in the anti-communist opposition and went on to serve as advisers to Solidarity founder Lech Walesa.

Kaczynski supported Walesa's presidential bid in 1990 and became the chief presidential adviser on security issues. His cooperation with Walesa later ended in acrimony over political differences, and Walesa was defeated in 1995 by ex-communist Aleksander Kwasniewski.

Kaczynski served as Poland's justice minister in 2000-2001, and his tough stance against crime laid the foundations for the popularity that would fuel his later rise to the presidency.

He became mayor of Warsaw in 2001, and won respect for a no-nonsense style and plain-speaking reputation.

His opponents, however, viewed him as narrow-minded, provincial and overzealous in his drive to cleanse the country of the influence of former communists. And he drew criticism from human rights groups for trying to stop a gay-rights parade through Poland's capital.

In seeking the presidency in 2005, he made clean government a key pledge — a promise that resonated after a string of corruption scandals that saw ex-communists swept from power.

"Our country needs renewal, the renewal of public life," Kaczynski has said.

Kaczynski's popularity declined as head of state, however. In 2007, his identical twin brother was voted out as prime minister after a two-year stint in which he failed to hold together a shaky coalition with small, unpredictable populist parties.

The government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk — the man Kaczynski beat for the presidency — has gained respect for avoiding a recession at the depths of the economic crisis and for a smoother foreign policy. Kaczynski faced an uphill struggle to win re-election later this year.

Kaczynski was a firm friend of Poland's Jewish community, which has enjoyed a revival in recent years after it was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust and later suffered from communist-era repression.

In 2008, he became the first head of state to attend a religious service at a synagogue in Poland. As mayor, he promoted a planned museum on Jewish history by donating city land to the project.

Kaczynski was killed along with wife, Maria, an economist. He is survived by the couple's daughter, Marta; two granddaughters, Ewa and Martyna; his twin brother, Jaroslaw; and the twins' mother, Jadwiga.

Source: AFP

Monday, April 5, 2010

For fifth time, Obama attends church in Washington; Easter Sunday at AME church

WASHINGTON--President Obama, First Lady Michelle, Malia, Sasha and First Gram, Marian Robinson, attended Easter Sunday services at Allen Chapel AME.

The church is in a part of the city a few miles from a recent shooting spree that left four dead. This is the fifth time Obama has attended church in Washington since becoming president. My report on the church service is here.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Obama Family Marks Easter at Washington, D.C. Church

For the fifth time since moving into the White House, President Obama attended a church service in Washington, spending part of Easter Sunday with his family and mother-in-law Marian Robinson at the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The church where the First Family worshipped is in a Washington neighborhood about three miles from where, less than a week ago, four people were killed and five injured when four armed men in a minivan allegedly went on a shooting spree.
The Rev. Dr. Michael E. Bell Sr. said it ``was no accident that he (Obama) is here in light of what happened here last Tuesday,'' referring to the drive-by shootings.

The president's presence was ``helping our community heal,'' Bell said, according to the pool report.

A White House spokesman said "the church was selected because it has more than 50 programs that help the local community, including after-school tutorials and food aid programs."
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Bell said attendees included Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and his family and Marion Barry, the former Washington mayor who is now a member of the City Council.
The family took communion as the Rt. Rev. Adam Jefferson Richardson, Jr., presiding bishop, recited the Lord's Prayer and handed out grape juice and wafers.
The church was already jammed by the time the Obama motorcade arrived, entering through a side door at 11:05 a.m. as congregants were standing, clapping and singing ``Alleilua.'' As the First Family walked to the second pew, the congregation erupted with applause, and many snapped photos of the scene with cell phone cameras.
The Obama family were longtime members of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago before quitting in 2008 during the presidential election in the wake of the controversies swirling around its former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Though they said at the time they would join another church, they never did.
The last time the Obama family attended church in Washington was Jan. 17, at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, although when they are at Camp David they worship in the presidential retreat's chapel. Last Easter, the Obama family took communion at St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House.
A reason the family does not attend services on a regular basis, the president has said, is he believes their presence is disruptive to the other worshipers.
NBC "Today" Show host Matt Lauer asked Obama about going to church in an interview that ran Tuesday.
"What we've decided for now is not to join a single church," Obama told Lauer.
"And the reason is because Michelle and I have realized we are very disruptive to services. Now, there are a whole bunch of churches who would say it's okay, but when every other member of the congregation has to be magged (go through a magnometer) any time that you attend -- so what we've done is we occasionally go across the street to St. John's, which is a church that a lot of presidents traditionally have gone to.
"The chapel up in Camp David is probably our favorite place to worship, because it's just families up at Camp David," Obama said, adding, "There's a wonderful chaplain up there who does just a great job. And so usually when we go to Camp David, we go to church on Sundays there.
"And in the meantime, what we've done -- there was a prayer circle of pastors from across the country who, during the campaign, would say a prayer for me or send a devotional. And we've kept that habit up. And it's a wonderful group, because it's a mix of some very conservative pastors, some very liberal pastors, but all who pray for me and Michelle and the girls. And I get a daily devotional on my BlackBerry, which is a wonderful thing."

Shrines at Washington, D.C., church depict Holy Land

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On a Christian pilgrimage with her church group, Kristin Toorop looks up to Calvary and her eyes open wide.

She listens as tour guide Gloria Harrington tells the story of where Christ was crucified, with Mary Magdalene kneeling at his feet.

Mount St. Sepulchre, home to a Franciscan monastery and its Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulchre, gets about 25,000 visitors a year.
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"I'm sure you recognize the scene of Jesus on the cross, between two thieves," Harrington says, before leading the group to take a closer look. "Let's go up to Calvary."

This is not the sacred Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where Christian tradition says Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Rather, it's a replica of Calvary, hidden in a leafy neighborhood in Washington.

For nearly 112 years, Mount St. Sepulchre in D.C. has been home to a Franciscan monastery and its Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulchre – complete with replicas of Jesus' tomb and other holy sites. About 25,000 people visit each year to see its shrines representing the holiest places in Christianity.

Last fall on her first visit, Toorop, a 43-year-old accountant from Philadelphia, said she was more than impressed.

"To be honest, I think this place is better than the National Cathedral," she said, walking through the Byzantine-style church located across town from the well-known Episcopal cathedral that often hosts presidents and national events. "This place is more spiritual," Toorop said. "I feel closer to Jesus and to his story and to the pain and suffering he went through."

Making a pilgrimage
Her pilgrimage to the church last fall with a busload of parishioners from Nativity of Our Lord Church in Warminster, Pa., came on the same day the Franciscan Order celebrated a remarkable moment – its 800th anniversary. The order was founded by St. Francis of Assisi, who traveled to Rome in 1209 to ask the pope's approval.

"They wanted to live the Gospel as literally as they could," said Father Jeremy Harrington, who heads the Washington monastery. That includes a simple life, serving others, with no real worldly possessions of their own. Hundreds of friars have passed through the D.C. monastery over time, often in preparation to serve in the Holy Land, where Franciscans are the Catholic Church's chief custodians of the holiest sites.

In the Holy Land, they try to foster peace and reconciliation among Muslims, Jews and other groups, Harrington said. They also strive to make the Gospel accessible to people in the tradition of St. Francis.

Harrington, 77, dressed in the friar's traditional brown robe, serves as guardian and commissary of the monastery. He's one of 20 who live there full-time, celebrating Mass twice daily and meeting for morning and evening prayer. Other priests

stay for shorter periods while studying at nearby Catholic University of America.

"We are the supply line for the friars in the Holy Land," Harrington said. "We recruit men to become Franciscans and go to serve there. We support them emotionally, spiritually and financially." Their church is filled with intricate works of art and the unique to-scale replicas of various sites.

The site dates to 1897, when Father Godfrey Schilling bought an old farm estate to build the monastery and church. He had returned from serving in the Holy Land and wanted to offer Americans a glimpse of those sites, which many would never see in person.

Architect Aristide Leonori was hired to design the building, which was made in the shape of a Crusader Cross of Jerusalem. It incorporates the Byzantine style with Italian Romanesque elements.

Leonori also visited the Holy Land to take measurements and photographs of sites that were to be reproduced inside the church. Several artists created the colorful paintings, mosaics, stained glass and statues that adorn the altars and walls.

The details are exacting. The Altar of Calvary, for example, is set high in the church to show the actual height of Mount Calvary. Tour guides at the church said Jesus' body was taken to a tomb located the exact distance across the church where a replica of the tomb is situated. Stone from the real tomb in Jerusalem was sent for use in the D.C. replica, they said.

"I've never been over to the Holy Land. I've never traveled," said Debbie Schultheis, 41, a recent visitor from the Warminster, Pa., church. "But this gives you a nice documentation of Jesus' life."

Shrine replicas
On the basement level, visitors find replicas of the shrine at Nazareth dedicated to the Annunciation – when Mary learned she would bear the child of God – and the Nativity in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

There also are replicas of the catacombs in Rome, with altars holding the real remains of St. Benignus, a second-century martyr put to death by the Roman emperor, and the body of St. Innocent, a child martyr, to show the persecution of early Christians.

Outside, the monastery's expansive gardens are filled with roses and more replicas depicting the garden of Gethsemane, the tomb of the Virgin Mary, and the Portiuncula Chapel that St. Francis restored.

The monastery is contemplating an expansion that could include private, solitary retreats in the woods of its grounds to offer a place for prayer and reflection.

"That's our life," Harrington said, "to be people of peace."



Washington, DC (Sports Network) - Andray Blatche led six Wizards players in double figures with 20 points, as Washington defeated the New Jersey Nets, 109-99, at the Verizon Center.

Blatche also dished out a career-best 13 assists while falling one rebound shy of a triple-double.

Shaun Livingston joined both Nick Young and Cartier Martin with 16 points for the Wizards, who never trailed in the game.

Mike Miller scored 17 points and pulled down a season-high 13 rebounds for Washington, which has won two of three after losing 16 straight. The Wizards also snapped a nine-game slide at home.

Devin Harris and Brook Lopez contributed 22 points apiece to pace the Nets, who have lost seven straight on the road.

The Wizards led 29-22 after the first quarter and maintained the seven-point advantage at halftime. Washington took a 78-60 lead on a Young jumper with 2:35 left in the third quarter.

New Jersey responded with a 21-7 burst that extended into the final frame. Chris Douglas-Roberts hit a driving layup to cap the run and pull the Nets to within 85-81.

JaVale McGee made a running hook shot to give Washington a 96-86 lead with about 4 1/2 minutes remaining. The Wizards held on down the stretch.

Game Notes: Terrence Williams and Douglas-Roberts scored 15 and 14 points, respectively, for New Jersey...Washington won all four meetings with the Nets in 2009-10, sweeping the season series for the first time since the 1987-88 campaign (6-0).