A Polish human rights activist could face jail time after being accused of placing posters near a church that depict Jesus and the Virgin Mary surrounded by rainbow halos.
Elżbieta Podleśna, 51, was arrested Monday on suspicion of “offending religious beliefs,” Amnesty International confirmed in a press release.
Prosecutors claimed Podleśna desecrated the icon by distributing the altered images. The posters were placed on walls, garbage bins and mobile toilets near Plock’s St. Dominik’s church in April, according to The Associated Press.
St. Dominik’s church was featured in local news over Easter because it had put on an anti-LGBTQ exhibition, Amnesty International’s Poland director, Draginja Nadazdin, told HuffPost. The Easter exhibition linked the words “LGBT” and “gender” to labels such as “deviation” and “aggression.”
“Activists responded by promoting inclusion, and brought LGBTQ symbols to that church,” Nadazdin wrote in an email. “However, the police ... deemed the LGBTQ display of the rainbow posters a criminal offense.”
Polish police confronted Podleśna this week after she returned to Poland from an advocacy trip with Amnesty International to Belgium and the Netherlands. The police found copies of the posters in Podleśna’s house during a raid of her Warsaw apartment, Amnesty International said. The organization said it isn’t aware of any evidence that confirms Podleśna’s involvement in this specific action.
The police reportedly confiscated Podleśna’s laptop, phone and memory cards. The activist claims that police requested security footage from the building where she lives.
Authorities then took Podleśna to the city of Plock, about 70 miles from Warsaw, and detained her there for several hours, according to Amnesty International. Police have not yet explained why the activist was transferred to another city, Nadazdin said.
“Overall, the treatment of Podlesna raises serious concerns over harassment of a peaceful protester and the disproportionality of the treatment,” she said.
Podleśna insists the actions were not an attack on religion.
Poland, a predominantly Catholic country, considers actions that offend religious beliefs to be a crime, according to The Guardian. Those convicted of such an offense could face up to two years in jail.
The image in question is an alternative rendering of Poland’s most revered Catholic icon, the “Black Madonna of Częstochowa.” The 14th-century Byzantine painting of Jesus and his mother, Mary, is housed in the Jasna Góra monastery in southern Poland. According to Catholic tradition, the Black Madonna was painted by St. Luke, an early Christian leader, on a tabletop built by Jesus himself. It’s believed to have been brought to Europe by the mother of Emperor Constantine, the first Roman emperor to profess Christianity.
The monastery is still an important pilgrimage site. Pope Francis paid a visit to the Black Madonna during a trip to Poland in 2016.
Poland’s interior minister, Joachim Brudziński, described the posters as “cultural barbarism,” The Guardian reported.
“Telling stories about freedom and ‘tolerance’ doesn’t give anyone the right to offend the feelings of believers,” Brudziński wrote in a tweet on Monday.
Nadazdin said her organization is disputing the allegations as “spurious,” saying that using Poland’s anti-blasphemy law in this case violates the country’s obligation to “respect and protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
“A display of posters with religious symbols decorated with the LGBTQ flag falls under protected actions under freedom of expression, no matter who created and distributed the posters,” Nadazdin wrote. “The only exception to this would be specific and individualized threats against members of religious groups.”
The Catholic Church is a powerful force in Poland. About 87% of the country’s 38 million people identify as Catholic. However, the Polish church has recently faced heated criticism for how it has handled the country’s clerical child sexual abuse scandal.
Poland’s current ruling party, the Law and Justice Party, is nationalist, conservative and pro-church. Ahead of two key elections this year, the party has framed LGBTQ rights as a wedge issue for voters. The party has vehemently opposed attempts to educate students about sexual orientation, discrimination and reproductive health in schools, saying that doing so would threaten Poland’s traditional Catholic values.
Same-sex marriage is still illegal in Poland and gay and lesbian unions don’t have any legal status, Reuters reported.
This article has been updated with information from Draginja Nadazdin about the incident and where Podleśna was arrested.