A court trial has begun for three Polish activists charged with offending religious sentiment after they created and posted images of a revered icon with a rainbow halo.
In April 2019, Elzbieta Podlesna, Anna Prus, and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar hung the decals of Our Lady of Czestechowa adorned with haloes of rainbow colors in response to an installation at St. Dominic’s Church, Plock, which reportedly listed sins that believers needed to combat such as “greed,” or “hate,” but also included “LGBT” and “gender,” according to Politico.
“The immediate reason for our action was the homophobic and hurtful installation,” Podlesna testified, per Wyborcza.pl. “The Church, which claims to be a community of love, exposes such people to hatred…we wanted to show that someone is defending them.”
The women placed stickers around the church featuring an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, a revered image of the Virgin Mary housed at the Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa since the 14th century. They added rainbow haloes to the Madonna and Jesus to protest the treatment of LGBTQ people in Poland, particularly by the Catholic Church.
“What I saw was hatred, contempt, aggression,” said Prus. She particularly noted the hypocrisy of the church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis even while it mistreats the LGBTQ community.
The case highlights the deep tension in predominantly-Catholic Poland between laws prohibiting offense against religious beliefs and advocates for freedom of speech and for LGBTQ rights. The Polish criminal code prohibits such offenses against a person’s religious sentiments, including insulting objects of worship or religious sites. Poland has no laws against disparaging or inciting violence against LGBTQ people. The three women face up to two years in prison if convicted.
“God forbid, no, I’m not pleading guilty to having offended religious sentiment,” Podlesna said prior to the hearing, according to France 24. “I don’t believe a rainbow can offend anything or anyone. I didn’t commit a crime.”
Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (Pis) has used verbal attacks against LGTBQ people as a way of bolstering political support and celebrated Podlesna’s arrest last year. Her detainment following an early morning raid at her apartment was later found unlawful and she was awarded damages of about $2000. The Helsinki Human Rights Foundation found that the police’s actions in her arrest were “deliberately used as a form of repression.”
Additionally, just days before the 2019 protest, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the PiS party, had denounced LGBTQ rights as a “threat” and called on Poles to respect the Catholic Church, regardless of their personal beliefs.
The mostly young supporters of the three activists continue to make their voices heard. Outside of the courtroom crowds carried rainbow banners and signs proclaiming “The Rainbow Gives No Offense” and “A Secular, not Catholic Poland.” The case was postponed until mid-February because the noise made proceedings impossible.
This hearing for Podlesna, Prus, and Gzyra-Iskandar was not the only LGBTQ rights-related case before the courts in Poland in recent days. Earlier this month, a Warsaw court rejected a complaint against prominent anti-abortion advocate Kaja Godek who in May 2018 made remarks on national television linking Ireland’s abortion referendum to the “bizarre” sexual orientation of gay Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar who she said flaunted “his perversion to the people.” Speaking to the Irish Times after the charges, Godek continued to describe Varadkar’s sexual orientation as an “ailment” and the case itself as an example of “rainbow totalitarianism.”
Undeterred, the complainants filed an appeal and still see hope for their advocacy. Professor Jakub Urbanik of Warsaw noted that “the court stated plainly that it was unacceptable what she said, so that is already something.”
In another case, the European Commission has noted that a string of regional Polish cities declared themselves “LGBT-free zones.” Additionally, the city of Fermoy, Ireland terminated its twinning relationship with one such town.
Amnesty International has urged courts to drop the charges against Podlesna, Prus, and Gzyra-Iskandar, and the rainbow Black Madonna image continues to be seen at protests around Poland, clearly demonstrating its significance to many people. As Podlesna explained, “We used this image as a universal symbol of mother and child love. We decided that everyone would understand it as a symbol of care and love…we added a rainbow symbol, representing the beauty of diversity.” That love and care for diversity continues to inspire Polish LGBTQ activists, even as politicians and government voices refuse to hear it.
—Angela Howard McParland, New Ways Ministry, January 29, 2021