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A mob of right-wing Poles has attacked a pride march in the town of Bialystok, one of several areas declaring themselves to be LGBTQ-free. The incident represents the realization of the fears of the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, who worried a conservative Polish newspaper's pledge to distribute anti-gay stickers would stoke violence. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
A wave of hostility towards LGBTQ people in Poland has alarmed officials and led the American ambassador there to denounce conservative Polish newspapers for stoking hatred in its campaign for so-called LGBT-free zones.
Those fears were realized this weekend, as a mob of right-wing Poles attacked a Pride March in the town of Bialystok, one of several districts that have declared themselves to be LGBT-free.
From Bialystok in Eastern Poland, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
"God, honor, motherland," they chanted. Wearing obscene anti-gay T-shirts, some hard-core right-wingers were intent on violence.
Following their lead, thousands of people from Bialystok, including senior citizens, lambasted marchers protesting against the sudden rise of so-called LGBT-free zones.
Among those they tried to intimidate, Malgorzata Mroz.
Malgorzata Mroz (through translator):
It makes me sad that people claim those LGBTQ-free zones in Poland, because me, as a bisexual and also Polish person, I would really love to feel welcome in every single place in this country.
The marchers were vastly outnumbered, and police protection was essential. Gay activists claim they have replaced refugees as Poland's main hate figures.
I am scared a bit. I have tear gas with me. So, yes, as you can see, they basically shout "Get the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) out of here" to me and to other people like me. So I can't feel welcome in my country.
As the hostile mood intensified, the police struggled to defend stragglers separated from the main march. The mob set off in pursuit of one small group of gay pride campaigners seeking safety.
But they spotted police pinning down a hard-liner, and the first skirmish of the afternoon began. Police arrested 30 people. This exemplified the hatred and intolerance that concerns the U.S. ambassador and the openly gay deputy mayor of Warsaw, who compared it to the behavior of the Nazis in the Second World War.
The issue of gay rights has been bubbling beneath the surface in Poland for years. But, recently, it's just exploded and gone to the forefront of the political agenda. And this issue has placed Poland into conflict with mainstream Europe.
When Poland's populist Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015, it declared ambitions to Christianize the European Union. In towns like Bialystok, they abhor what they regard as mainstream Europe's decadent values.
At Parliament in Warsaw, influential law and justice politician Zdzislaw Krasnodebski said Europe favored constitutions, but was hypocritical when it came to Poland.
Our Constitution in the Article 18 states the marriage is only between a man and a woman. For me, it's very interesting that, in this case, there's no interest in what actually our constitution is talking about.
Government critics say such arguments have emboldened protesters, like Lukasz Marcinkiewicz, who is studying medicine in Bialystok.
It makes me sad when I see a situation where we have two people, two men together or two women together, and they declare love for each other.
There is no biological possibility for them to have a child. So I realize that this is not what families should look like. I strongly support the model where there is one woman, one man, and babies.
Kamil Sienicki (through translator):
We think that LGBTQ movements have a very long tradition of profanity towards state symbols. They turned Poland's national red-and-white flag into a white rainbow flag and desecrate Catholic and Christian symbols.
He has in his sights Daniel Rycharski, an artist who wears prayer beads made of the blood of homosexuals and who portrays saints as gay icons.
Daniel Rycharski (through translator):
What is going on around the LGBT community appalls me, the fact that the governing party uses us as electoral fuel, because of the fact that the government works closely with the church, and the church is its authority. The Catholic Church's teaching says it explicitly. You could say it has incited hatred against LGBT people.
The anti-gay sermons of some priests are frequently rabid. Wieslaw Dawidowski, who leads Poland's Order of Saint Augustine is a man of peace. But, on this issue, he says he's neither moderate nor liberal.
Father Wieslaw Dawidowski:
I would quote Pope Francis. And I would say, here, I'm not a judge. And I cannot judge people. If people want to live this way of live, all right, they live this way of life with full consequences.
Thirty miles away from Bialystok is rustic, God-fearing Kulesze Koscielne, where 90 percent voted for the ruling party.
Elzbieta Mierzwinska(through translator):
What's new isn't always good. And Poland always stood firmly on tradition, religion, right?
Kazimierz Trzaska (through translator):
I would find some remote islands. I would take gay men to one island and lesbians to the other. Let them live there.
Still inspired by the conservative vision of the late Polish Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church is engaged in a battle for Europe's identity.
This is a certain pivotal moment in our relationship. I think the old Europe, which is called the old lady, which is a dying Europe, by the way, has to redefine what she really wants. And it's the question of the Brussels elites. It is also the question of the church elites. What is this we want in Europe in the future, the issues that concern human values?
"Freedom, equality and tolerance,' chanted the pride marchers. They yearn for the right to have same-sex marriages.
But given the levels of prejudice in Poland right now, that looks like an impossible dream.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Bialystok.
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Malcolm Brabant is a special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.
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