Polish protesters disrupt church services over near-total abortion ban

WARSAW (Reuters) - Thousands of activists disrupted church services across Poland on Sunday, chanting during mass and spraying slogans on walls to protest against a court ruling that amounts to a near-total ban on abortion.

In the first large-scale demonstrations directly targeting churches in the predominately Catholic country, crowds carried posters depicting a crucified pregnant woman and handed out protest cards to priests.

A Constitutional Court decision outlawing abortions due to foetal defects has now triggered four days of demonstrations.

The ruling ended the most common of the few legal grounds left for abortion in Poland and set the country further apart from the European mainstream.

In southern city of Katowice, a 7,000-strong crowd of mostly women gathered in front of the cathedral, chanting “this is war” and “human law, not ecclesiastical law”. State news agency PAP said police used tear gas after officers were attacked.

Three dozen protesters interrupted a mass in the western city of Poznan, chanting “we are sick of this” and holding banners with slogans including “Catholic women also need their right to abortion” in front of the altar.

“Our rage should be directed towards politicians, but also towards senior church figures as they have also added to this women’s hell that the authorities are preparing,” said Mateusz Sulwinski, one of the protest organizers in Poznan.

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The leaders of the protests have accused Poland’s conservative ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), of pressing the court to tighten restrictions to appeal to the party’s base and to please the influential Church. The party denies that.

Church leaders have also denied wielding political power.

“The Church does not constitute the law in our homeland and these are not the bishops who decide on the compliance or non-compliance of laws with the Polish Constitution,” Polish archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki said in a statement.

“However, the Church cannot stop defending life, nor can it abandon the proclamation that every human being must be protected from conception until natural death.”

A spokesman for the government could not be reached for comment.

In Krakow, protesters hung black underwear and clothes on lines between trees - a reference to early protests against tightening of abortion restrictions where people wore black to show their support.

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In Warsaw protesters sprayed “abortion without borders” on one church, according to state news agency PAP. At another church “you have blood on your hands” was daubed on the wall.

Some people give priests cards with a bolt symbol symbolising their protest instead of the traditional donation during mass.

“I’m here today because it annoys me that in a secular country the church decides for me what rights I have, what I can do and what I’m not allowed to do,” said media worker Julia Miotk, 26, protesting in front of a church in Warsaw.

The protests started on Thursday despite bans on gatherings of more than five people imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Activists said they were planning more protests on Monday afternoon.

Reporting by Alicja Ptak, Kuba Stezycki, Gosia Wojtunik and Marcin Goclowski; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens