By Alan Charlish and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk
WARSAW (Reuters) – Hundreds of Polish gay rights activists staged a protest rally on Tuesday evening over the brief detention of a woman who posted images near a church of the Virgin Mary with her halo painted to resemble the rainbow flag of the LGBT community.
Elzbieta Podlesna was questioned for almost five hours on Monday after police raided her home in Warsaw, the daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported. She remains free but could face up to two years in prison if charged with offending religious beliefs.
The prosecutor in charge of the case has so far said only that Podlesna is a suspect in an ongoing investigation.
The case highlights divisions within devoutly Catholic Poland ahead of European and national parliamentary elections in which the conservative ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) party hopes to make LGBT rights a battleground with the more liberal opposition.
“It’s important because we see an attack on LGBT people and queer people, but also because it is aimed at activists, they just want to scare us,” said one protester, Anna Pietrucha, 26, who held a poster of the Virgin Mary with the rainbow.
A police officer on the scene filmed protesters. Asked why he was filming them, he refused to comment and said the question should be addressed to a police spokesman, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
“Unfortunately they are doing this at every democratic protest for three years now and that is because they are trying to gather any evidence that could be useful in any way,” said Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska, an activist and city councillor.
Some passers-by were critical of the protest.
“Those people are brain-washed idiots,” said George Grunwald, a 60-year-old musician who had been involved in a verbal altercation with some of the protesters.
“Poland has been a Catholic country for many many years,” he said, adding that he believed left-wing groups were organising such protests to create “any kind of chaos in Poland”.
The posters, which first appeared last month in the city of Plock, have outraged many Catholics, especially as they feature the Black Madonna of Czestochowa — for Poles, the most revered image of the Virgin Mary.
They have been strongly condemned by Poland’s Catholic bishops and other religious conservatives.“No stories about freedom and “tolerance” give ANYBODY the right to offend the feelings of believers,” PiS interior minister Joachim Brudzinski said on Twitter.
Gazeta Wyborcza reported that the church in Plock had previously used a symbolic tomb of Christ — an Easter tradition in Polish churches — to convey a message opposing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.
Barbora Cernusakova of rights group Amnesty International criticised the detention of Podlesna.
“Restricting activists from freely expressing their views in the country is unlawful and must stop immediately,” she said.
LGBT rights have become an electoral issue in Poland after the nationalist PiS condemned a new sex education programme for schools in opposition-ruled Warsaw, saying it infringed traditional values.
It hopes that focussing on cultural issues will help shore up its core vote in a country where roughly 90 percent of the 38 million population identify as Catholics and some 12 million attend mass every Sunday. PiS is popular in small towns and rural areas of Poland but less so in major urban centres.
Gay marriage is illegal in Poland and homosexual partnerships are not legally recognised.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, additional reporting by Pawel Florkiewicz, Editing by Catherine Evans and Gareth Jones)