Poland’s Catholic Church has doubled down on the anti-gay rhetoric that has become the nationalist ruling party’s dominant theme in recent weeks, drawing a rebuke from liberal politicians who compared an archbishop’s remarks to incitement to genocide.
In a sermon given to mark the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising by Polish resistance fighters against Nazi occupation, the archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jedraszewski, described Poland as under siege from a “rainbow plague” of gay rights campaigners he compared to Poland’s former Communist rulers.
“Our land is no longer affected by the red plague, which does not mean that there is no new one that wants to control our souls, hearts and minds,” he told a mass in the medieval St. Mary’s Basilica, one of the most important churches for Poles.
“Not Marxist, Bolshevik, but born of the same spirit, neo-Marxist. Not red, but rainbow,” he said.
Robert Biedron, an openly gay politician from the progressive Wiosna party, denounced the sermon.
“We already had such people, politicians who used similar words and that lead to huge slaughters, genocide. This is an incitement to crime, to hatred,” he said.
Ahead of parliamentary elections expected in October, the ruling PiS party has made hostility to gays a central focus of its campaign, depicting LGBT rights as a dangerous foreign idea that undermines traditional values in staunchly Catholic Poland.
The issue spilled onto the streets in July when thousands of demonstrators went on a rampage through the provincial city of Bialystok to block the city’s first ever LGBT pride parade.
Video showed anti-gay demonstrators, who vastly outnumbered those attending the pride event, chasing people through the streets and beating them. Thirty people were arrested.
PiS has launched its anti-gay campaign in an apparent attempt to re-energize its mainly rural base, with hostility to LGBT rights partly supplanting the anti-immigrant rhetoric that formed the party’s core message in previous elections.
A conservative magazine distributed “LGBT-free zone” stickers last week, while a number of towns have declared themselves “LGBT-free”.
Unlike nearly all Western European countries, which have legalized same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples in recent years, the former Communist countries of the EU’s east have mostly held back on expanding gay rights. Same-sex marriage and adoptions are both illegal in Poland.
The Catholic Church has unusually strong influence in Poland, having been a focus of resistance to Communist rule for decades. One of Jedraszewski’s predecessors as archbishop in Krakow, the Polish Cold War-era Pope John Paul II, remains a beloved national hero.
Nevertheless, Church influence has declined since its heyday in the 1990s, hurt by polarizing political battles over abortion and more recently by a documentary film on priestly sex abuse.
“I have nothing against LGBT people. What the archbishop has said should not be said in a Church,” said Jaroslawa Szczerbinska, 55, pre-school worker in Warsaw.
According to a survey published by state pollster CBOS on Thursday, the share of Poles criticizing the Church rose last month by 4 percentage points to 38%, while those who asses it favorably fell by 5 points to 48%.
A CBOS opinion poll released in April showed that 54% of Poles think homosexuality should be tolerated. Less than a quarter think it is abnormal and unacceptable.
The violent Bialystok anti-gay demonstration has energized some liberals, with hundreds of people demonstrating in favor of LGBT rights in Polish towns in days that followed.
Agnieszka Kwiatkowska, a sociologist at Warsaw’s private SWPS University, said the Church’s strident anti-gay position “mobilizes radical church supporters but may discourage moderates who are believers, but tolerant.”
“It will also discourage young people who are tolerant of LGBT,” she said. As Church support becomes less universal, its polarizing rhetoric can backfire: “Such a strategy of a besieged fortress works only as long as the fortress is large.”