The trial of three activists who distributed posters depicting Poland’s Black Madonna icon with a rainbow halo will resume next month following a tumultuous opening hearing.
Three women — Elżbieta Podleśna, Anna Prus, and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar — went on trial on 13 January accused of offending religious feelings, a crime punishable in Poland by up to two years in prison.
A crowd of mainly young people gathered outside the courtroom, chanting slogans such as “A secular, not Catholic Poland” and “The rainbow does not offend.”
Local media reported that at one point the chanting was so loud that it was difficult for the hearing to proceed. Following testimonies from the first witnesses, the trial was adjourned until 17 February.
The case is being heard in the city of Płock in central Poland, where in April 2019 the women placed posters of Our Lady of Częstochowa, a venerated icon of the Virgin Mary, with rainbow halos on Mary and the Child Jesus.
Karolina Pawłowska, director of the Ordo Iuris International Law Center in Warsaw, said she was confident that the trial had a sound basis in Polish law.
“The image that is the subject of this case — which depicts the Mother of God and Baby Jesus with the halos replaced with colours that are commonly associated with LGBT movements — I think it’s one of the cases that fulfils all premises of profanation, which is defined in the Polish criminal code in Article 196,” she told CNA on 18 January.
Article 196 of the country’s penal code says that “Whoever offends the religious feelings of other persons by publicly insulting an object of religious worship, or a place designated for public religious ceremonies, is liable to pay a fine, have his or her liberty limited, or be deprived of his or her liberty for a period of up to two years.”
Pawłowska said: “It is clear, especially when you take into consideration the Polish cultural circle, which is very much focused on and built upon Catholic ethics and values which are very important to Polish people.”
“So from the side of people who are Catholics, who are defending Christian values, defending religious freedom, it should be obvious that such provocations should not take place in public debate, because it is not an element of public debate and should not be accepted as an element of public debate but should be considered as an offence to many, many people.”
The three activists say that they attached the posters to walls around St. Dominic’s Church in Płock in response to a display inside the church which listed “LGBT” and “gender” — the Polish term for gender ideology — as sins.
But according to the Associated Press, they deny allegations that they put stickers featuring the image on garbage bins and mobile toilets.
Pawłowska said that Polish Catholics were concerned not only by the image itself but also by the way that activists have used it.
“It is also important to say that we are talking not only about the image, which was offensive and provocative of course but also about the way it was promoted. It was very widespread on social media,” she said.
“It was also placed on the walls of the Sanctuary of St. Faustina and at the convent of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Warsaw. So in places that are very important to Catholics, places that are the object of cult [religious practice]. It was also very offensive to people that believe in God, believe in Jesus.”
“This is why there should be no doubt that this particular act of ‘artistic expression,’ as the authors would like to describe it, is something that should not take place.”
Elżbieta Podleśna, a psychotherapist and activist, told the court on 13 January that she regarded the display in St. Dominic’s Church as “homophobic” and believed it could encourage the stigmatization of “people of non-heteronormative sexual orientation and gender identity.”
She was arrested in May 2019 at her home in Warsaw and taken to Płock for questioning. A court later determined that her detention was unjustified and awarded her damages of around £1,800.
Amnesty International, the human rights organization founded by the British Catholic lawyer Peter Benenson, has urged Poland’s prosecutor general to drop the charges against the three women.
Pawłowska said that Amnesty’s stance lacked merit in Polish law.
“It mostly consists of political postulates, but not arguments that have grounds in existing legal provisions in Poland,” she said.
“The Polish constitution and international law defend the right to religious freedom and defend people from examples of such offences like that. This is why the stance of Amnesty International not only has no grounds in the Polish legal system but also in international human rights provisions.”
The Catholic Church in Poland is not currently commenting on the court case, which comes as the Church appears to be losing ground in Polish society.
More than 90% of Poles are baptized Catholics and the country has the highest weekly church attendance in Europe. But statisticians announced last month that Sunday Mass-going declined by 1.3% in 2019 — before the coronavirus pandemic struck the country.
In November, a survey found that only 9% of respondents aged 18 to 29 had a positive view of the Church, while 47% had a negative view and 44% were neutral.
Pawłowska said that the Ordo Iuris International Law Center had no formal connection to the Catholic Church in Poland.
“In fact, we are a non-governmental legal organization that consists not only of Catholics but also people of different beliefs,” she said.
“We of course defend people’s rights to religious freedom and that their religious convictions be respected, but we are not referring to religious arguments. We are referring to legal arguments, which are all on our side because the Polish constitution and international legal human rights treaties are in favour of such rights.”
In October, protesters disrupted Sunday Masses after the country’s constitutional court ruled that a law permitting abortion for fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional. Amid nationwide demonstrations, protesters left graffiti on church property and vandalized statues of St. John Paul II, the Polish pope who led the Church from 1978 to 2005.
Pawłowska pointed out that the “Rainbow Madonna” image was displayed during the protests.
“Right now in Poland, we can see that this image is quite popular, especially among, for example, protesters that were using it during protests against the judgment of the Polish constitutional tribunal which banned eugenic abortion,” she said.
“And I think this image is very, very offensive to many, many people. And this is why it should not be promoted.”
She said that while the court in Płock could not ban the image, it could send a “very important message.”
“It can send the message that it is something that is offensive and ask the authors of the image to not propagate it anymore. For example, to take it off from their social media and so on,” she said.
“Of course, in the modern age of the internet, it is hard to completely erase such an image from social media, from the internet, because I think it’s almost impossible. But it would be a very, very important message.”
“And it would be a very important message for Catholics that could feel defended by our state from certain offensive, provocative images that are created by radicals.”