A bronze statue of Pope John Paul II by Georgian-born Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli stands in Ploermel, Brittany, western France © AFP/File / DAMIEN MEYER

, RENNES, France, Mar 2 – French town councillors have agreed to sell the Catholic Church a statue of late pope John Paul II that sparked a diplomatic row with Poland.

The bronze statue has stood in a car park since a Russian artist gifted it to the small northwestern town of Ploermel in 2006.

But in October France’s highest administrative court ordered town authorities to remove the cross overhanging it, on the grounds that it breaks a 1905 secularism law.

The decision sparked debate over France’s tradition of secularism, or “laicite”, which tightly restricts the public display of religious symbols and is fiercely defended by many French.

The laws regularly prompt public debate over issues affecting Muslims such as the wearing of the veil, but is also sometimes invoked in debates over Christian symbols, such as Christmas nativity scenes.

Last year, tens of thousands of people signed online petitions protesting the removal of the cross and Poland’s then prime minister Beata Szydlo offered to have the statue of the Polish pope shipped there to “save it from censorship”.

Local mayor Patrick Le Diffon’s solution was to sell the statue, which looms 7.5 metres (25 feet) tall over the car park, to the Catholic Church for 20,000 euros ($24,000).

It will be moved a few dozen metres down the street onto a piece of Church-owned land next to a Catholic school, where it will still be visible to the public.

Secular activists challenged the statue through the courts even before it went up, and have hailed the October court ruling as a victory.

“It’s what should have happened from the start,” said Andre Le Beherec, head of the local Freedom of Thought association which took town authorities to court.

Even the rightwing former mayor who put the statue up, Paul Anselin, said ahead of the vote that he backed the sale simply as a means of ending the saga.

“We have to move on from this situation,” said the 87-year-old former paratrooper.

But he regretted the fact that the town was selling off a statue that had been offered as a gift.

“Selling presents, it just isn’t done,” he said.



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