Early Monday morning, Polish authorities raided the home of Elżbieta Podlesna and questioned her for several hours on suspicion that the human rights activist was “offending religious beliefs” — a blasphemy charge that carries a two-year maximum sentence.
The alleged crime? Distributing posters bearing an image of the Virgin Mary with her halo painted in the rainbow colors of the LGBTQ pride flag in the central Polish city of Płock.
Public officials announced on Monday that a woman had been arrested for “carrying out a profanation” of the “Black Madonna of Częstochowa,” a revered Byzantine icon held within the monastery of Jasna Góra, a UN world heritage site and Poland’s holiest Catholic shrine. The spot draws hundreds of thousands in annual pilgrimages and has been venerated by pontiffs including Pope John Paul II. Posters of the altered icon appeared on walls, garbage bins, and mobile toils around the city.
Poland’s interior minister Joachim Brudziński has previously described the posters as “cultural barbarism” when they appeared in April. He said that “yelling stories about freedom and ‘tolerance’ doesn’t give anyone the right to offend the feelings of believers.”
Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki called the posters part of a campaign to “humiliate Catholics” and said it has to be stopped.
But human rights organizations and critics of the country’s conservative government are calling false equivalency on the whole controversy. Amnesty International has come to Podlesna’s defense, calling the police actions against her “unlawful.” The charges were brought against the activist upon her return to Poland from a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands with the global nonprofit. In a statement, the group claimed that police have confiscated the 51-year-old woman’s laptop, mobile phone, and memory cards; they said that investigators have also requested CCTV camera footage from the building where she resides.
The Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has also come to the activist’s defense, saying that police used excessive force and may have breached the constitution.
European Council president Donald Tusk, who was in his native Poland when the events unfolded, told the press that the Polish authorities’s reactions were “inconceivable.”
— Eva Infeld (@evainfeld) May 7, 2019
Ahead of this month’s European Parliament elections, and one month before pride festivities begin around the world, the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland has begun to vilify the LGBTQ rights movement as dangerous to families and children. The charged rhetoric plays into the government’s larger criticism of the European Union, claiming that its entrance into the governing body imposed liberal values on the country. Critics draw parallels between this tactic and Russia’s own crusade against the gay community, which is seen by Russian authorities as an imposition of Western European values. (In 2013, the Russian legislature passed a “gay propaganda law” that essentially banned depictions of homosexuality in public.)
Podlesna defended her actions on the Polish television station TVN24 on Tuesday. “This is certainly not an attack on religion, certainly not an attack on faith, this is not a form of attack,” she said. “How can you attack anyone using a picture, let’s be serious.”
Across social media, Polish activists are taking up Podlesna’s cause, posting the rainbow-colored version of the Virgin Mary online. Many gathered today in Warsaw in support of the detained activist.
The police said in a statement Tuesday that it’s “obliged to respond to any notification, regardless of whether there’s suspicion of a crime concerning Catholics or followers of another religion” and that a court would ultimately decide whether a person is guilty or not.
Freedom of speech and expression have both come under attack by Polish authorities in recent years as part of a countrywide backlash against liberalism. In March, a priest from northern Poland burned books, including some from the Harry Potter series, and other items like wooden African masks and elephant figurines that were considered to be associated with the occult. And for Easter, residents of another small town celebrated the holiday by beating and burning a straw effigy of Judas dressed as an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew.
Last week, Hyperallergic reported that Poland’s National Museum in Warsaw was the subject of widespread protests after word spread that the institution was censoring feminist art at the behest of the country’s Ministry of Culture. The museum later rehung the works after facing global condemnation, an open petition, and banana-wielding activists.
And in March, we reported on the Ministry of Culture’s attempts to seize control of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk, one of Poland’s most important cultural institutions.