Three LGBT activists accused of being responsible for producing and distributing images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus with LGBT rainbows added to their halos have been indicted for the crime of offending religious feelings. If convicted, the three women could face up to two years in prison.

The indictment follows an incident in April last year, when posters and stickers bearing the image – which was a modified version of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, a venerated Catholic icon – appeared in the vicinity of a church in Płock, in central Poland.

The doctored image swapped the golden halos around the heads of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus with depictions of a rainbow flag, a common symbol of the LGBT community.

The stickers were an apparent response to an Easter display in the city which warned of the dangers of “LGBT”, “gender” and “deviancies”. The images quickly became widespread on social media, as well as appearing on banners at subsequent LGBT equality parades.

The three activists – Elżbieta P., Anna P. and Joanna G., whose full names are concealed under Polish law – were indicted under article 196 of the Polish penal code.

This states that “anyone who offends the religious feelings of other people by publicly insulting an object of religious worship of place intended for public performance of religious rites” may be fined or sentenced to up to two years in prison.

The district prosecutor of Płock, Małgorzata Orkwiszewska, said that “all the people covered by the indictment acted jointly and in agreement”, TOK FM reports.

She added that the accusations concerned sticking prints portraying the icon with a rainbow flag “on a toilet, rubbish bin, power transformer, road signs and the walls of buildings”.

In May last year, the week after the initial protest action, the police raided the flat of Elżbieta P., confiscated electronic equipment, and detained the activist.

The interior minister at the time, Joachim Brudziński, declared that “freedom and ‘tolerance’ do not give anyone the right to offend the feelings of believers”. He described the stickers as an act of “cultural barbarism”.

At the time, Fr Paweł Rytel-Andrianik, spokesman of Poland’s Catholic episcopate, said that “the profanation of the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa caused enormous pain”.

“This profanation fills Poles with pain and anxiety,” he continued, and called on people, “regardless of beliefs and personal views, to respect the religious feelings of believers”, reports

In response, activists put up posters with the same image and the legend “Rainbows don’t offend” on a number of churches in Warsaw as well as around the offices of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

The controversial image resurfaced in Częstochowa itself the following month, June 2019,  when it was held by protesters at an LGBT march in the city, and also featured on items of clothing and bags.

Participants in the demonstration were reported to the police by observers who said their religious feelings had been offended. However, in October, the Częstochowa prosecutor’s office decided to dismiss the case, reports

The prosecutors argued that “the rainbow itself…is not disparaging or vulgar in nature” and that there was no proof that the organisers of the march intended to offend religious sentiments. But just weeks later, the prosecutor decided to reopen the case, reasoning that his decision had been “premature”. The case is ongoing.

Protester charged for crime of insulting president over banner calling Duda “idiot”

At Częstochowa’s first ever pride march, a year earlier in 2018, police reported marchers for carrying a Polish flag and coat of arms with rainbow colours added.

Prosecutors said that there was “a reasonable suspicion a crime was committed” since under Poland’s law it is illegal to “publicly insult a state emblem”. In this case, however, the prosecutor later decided that there were no grounds to pursue the investigation, reports Rzeczpospolita.

Poland has the joint-highest number of defamation and insult laws in Europe, according to a recent study by the OSCE. As well as offending religious feelings, it is also illegal to insult the president, the Polish nation or state, public officials, and even monuments.

This week, court proceedings began in Gdańsk against Adam Darski – better known as Nergal, the lead singer of Polish death metal band Behemoth – for offending religious feelings. The notification to prosecutors against Darski was made by a PiS MP (now MEP), Dominik Tarczyński.

The charges against him relate to a 2018 video that he posted online of himself waving a model of a penis with a crucifix attached to it. He has pleaded not guilty, saying the video was a “joke” that is part of the “work of an artist” such as himself, reports Radio Gdańsk.

Last year, prosecutors launched a separate investigation into Darski for desecrating an image of the Virgin Mary. In 2008, Darski was also investigated for offending religious sentiment after destroying a copy of the bible during a concert in Gdynia. But the case against him was eventually dismissed.

Main image credit: Jakub Wlodek / Agencja Gazeta

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