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Free Speech Vs. Blasphemy: Artists Say Poland Stifles Their Freedom

Majority-Catholic Poland has some of the strictest defamation laws of any democratic country, which includes laws defaming the Catholic Church. For many artists, this has meant years of legal trouble, including threats of jail time.

Painting of cross entering a woman's body.

Krzysztof Soroka, a Polish-Dutch artist, was charged with "offending religious feelings" for displaying this painting.

Katarzyna Maria Skiba
Katarzyna Skiba

Krzysztof Soroka, a Polish-Dutch artist living in Szczecin, a city in northwestern Poland, was among an estimated 430,000 Poles who took part in the 2020 women’s strikes. The activist movement protested the government’s decision to ban abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities, including those that were life-threatening.

These were the second-largest protests in modern Polish history, surpassed only by the Solidarity movement of the 1980s, which prompted the fall of the communist Polish People’s Republic.

While attending the protests in Szczecin’s Solidarity Square, Soroka displayed one of his paintings, which showed a cross entering the lower half of a woman's body, in order to express his frustration with what he believed to be the church's entry into women's personal decisions.

On the way back to his apartment, he was detained by police officers, who took down his address. He was called to the police station two weeks later, beginning a years-long legal struggle.

In Poland, where 84% of the population identifies as Catholic, "offending religious feelings” by “publicly outraging an object of religious worship or a place dedicated to the public celebration of religious rites” is a criminal offense under Article 196 of the Polish Penal Code. Violating this law may result in fines, restrictions of liberty or prison sentences of up to two years.

Uncomfortable conversations

According to a 2017 study by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Poland has some of the most extensive defamation and insult laws of any democratic nation. For the religious right, notably including the ruling Law and Justice party, the law is a means of protecting religious institutions, including church services, and respecting symbols of the faith.

But in Soroka’s view, the law aims to silence any criticism of the Catholic Church and its involvement in Polish politics.

“I understand that someone could become emotional by seeing such an image,” Soroka said, adding that “the fact that here in Poland, there is a law banning this, that a group of people is being protected, that their feelings are being protected, I don’t agree with at all.”

Though it was not his intention to go to court for his painting, Soroka admitted he did expect to stir up uncomfortable — albeit in his eyes, necessary — conversations about the role of the Catholic Church in Polish society.

“I like to communicate with simple images and simple ideas, and to show them as strongly as possible,” he said. “My works aren’t always beautiful; they are not made to be beautiful. I believe that art fulfills its function when it allows people to think.”

In recent years, Article 196 has been applied to activists, musicians and artists, like Soroka, with what experts are describing as “increasing frequency.” According to Jan Kulesza, a professor at the University of Lódź and co-author of the book "Blasphemy Law in Poland,” the “provisions on blasphemy belong to the canon of the oldest punishable acts” in Poland, but “the scope of punishable acts and the justification for criminality have changed” over time.

Soroka holding his painting.

Krzysztof Soroka holding his painting as he did during the 2020 protests.

Katarzyna Maria Skiba

Tensions between art and the church

In 2019, the blasphemy law made international headlines after three activists — Elżbieta Podleśna, Anna Prus and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar — were put on trial after displaying an image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, a defining symbol of Polish Catholicism, with a rainbow Halo.

Podleśna, who is credited with creating the image, told BBC News at the time that she did so as a statement against what she described as the "exclusion of LGBT people from society” by the church.

“The idea that linking art with the church can be something radical.”

Sexual orientation is not a sin or a crime and the Holy Mother would protect such people from the church and from priests who think it is okay to condemn others,” said Podleśna, who claims to believe in God but is no longer a practicing Catholic after receiving death threats and being detained for displaying the image.

The relationship between art and the Catholic Church in Poland was not always as tense as it is in the present political climate, and according to experts, the two share a joint history rooted in rebellion.

“Today’s relationship between the church and art has its origins in the 1980s and is related to the consequences of martial law, when artists boycotted public institutions and exhibited in church spaces,” said Marta Zboralska, professor of art history at Oxford University.

At this time, artists and intellectuals who were shunned by Polish institutions sought out places of worship in order to display their work, which according to Zboralska, resulted in “the idea that linking art with the church can be something radical.”

However, once the communist government fell in 1989, Zboralska and other art historians said, a more critical approach to the church began emerging. Rather than being a space for rebellion against state power, the Catholic Church at that point “was regarded as a restraint not dissimilar to those imposed hitherto by the totalitarian regime,” said art historian Wojciech Włodarczyk, who teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.

Soroka's sketchbooks.

Soroka's illustrations of his trial.

Katarzyna Maria Skiba

Protesting in churches

These tensions arguably came to a head in 2020, when some protesters began demonstrating in churches, opposing the role it was playing in Polish politics. According to a 2021 survey, 82% of Poles agreed that the church should remain neutral when it comes to politics, compared to 63% just five years prior.

In spite of this, growing friction between the church and activist groups caused some in the Polish government to call for stronger blasphemy laws this past April.

“In Poland, there are shocking examples of aggression and profanation of religious symbols,” Poland’s Deputy Justice Minister Marcin Warchol said while announcing his legislation, which would punish “whoever publicly mocks or scorns the church or other religious association” with two years in prison. Those who interrupt religious services or funerals would be sentenced to three years in prison if convicted.

As of Aug. 30, Soroka has been acquitted by the Regional Court of Szczecin. In spite of this, he believes that the prosecution will challenge the ruling and appeal to a higher court, mirroring a similar proceeding that took place a year ago, after he was first acquitted of the crime.

“The district court … will sue me again, just like they did last year,” he said. “Independent courts and prosecutors do not exist in Poland.”

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