11/17/2017 12:39 EST | Updated 11/17/2017 13:03 EST

Polish Woman Says She Was Dragged Out Of Church After Unfurling Anti-Racism Banner

Her banner read, "Racism is a sin."

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A couple holds flares as thousands gather for the annual march for Poland's Independence Day. The annual event marks the restoration of the country's sovereignty and is celebrated on Nov. 11.

A Polish woman says she was booted out of a Catholic church service in Warsaw while protesting against racism and far-right nationalist groups.

Gabriela Lazarek disrupted a Mass at St. Barbara’s Church in Warsaw on Nov. 11, the Catholic Herald reports, unfurling a banner quoting former Pope St. John Paul II that read, “Racism is a sin.” 

Many of those in attendance at the Mass were also planning to participate in an annual march for Poland’s Independence Day, according to the Herald. The controversial march has become a magnet for far-right, anti-Semitic and white supremacist groups.

In a Facebook post, Lazarek said she heard the Catholic priest at the service “warmly” welcome and bless nationalist groups. She also spotted people wearing armbands for the National Radical Camp, a far-right group founded before World War II that holds anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant views.

“I saw banners linking religion to nationalism,” she wrote. “The priest talked about the power of the national church. He said to remember the teachings of JP II [Pope John Paul II] and never to deny or be embarrassed by them. That’s when I unfolded my banner.”

The words of her banner are taken from a sermon given in 2001 by John Paul II, who was born in Poland. In full, the banner reads, “Racism is a sin that constitutes a serious offense against God.”

Lazarek claimed that attendees then stood up and tried to take the banner away. 

“They tried to drag me through the church by my clothes, shouting ‘Out! Get out of here!’” she wrote. “I was pushed out of the church and landed brutally on the steps outside the door, and the door was slammed shut behind me.”

“This is the image of today’s Catholic church.”

It’s unclear who escorted Lazarek out of the church, and whether she was removed for protesting against racism or interrupting a holy service. The Warsaw’s Catholic Archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment.

Nevertheless, Lazarek’s activism highlighted ongoing cultural tensions in Poland. 

Agencja Gazeta / Reuters
Protesters carry Polish flags and National Radical Camp flags during a rally organized by far-right, nationalist groups to mark the 99th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw, Poland, on Nov. 11, 2017.

Poland’s Independence Day commemorates the country’s reemergence as a sovereign nation after World War I. Since 2009, Poland’s far-right groups have organized a national march on this day.

This year’s march drew an estimated 60,000 people. While not all of the attendees were aligned with the far-right, some onlookers were disturbed by the presence of white supremacist signs and slogans. Jewish organizations, human rights groups and some European Union leaders expressed concerns.

Some banners at the rally had slogans calling for “Pure blood, clear mind” and saying “Europe will be white or uninhabited,” Reuters reports. 

Leaders from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, a right-wing nationalist party, condemned anti-Semitic and racist banners, but not the march itself.

Poland’s Catholic bishops have also condemned nationalism, racism and xenophobia. Archbishop Józef Kupny of Wrocław told reporters earlier this year that the church believes there is a “clear distinction between noble patriotism and nationalism, which is a form of social egoism.”

Agencja Gazeta / Reuters
Protesters carry Polish flags and banners during the 2017 independence rally.

Roman Kneblewski, the priest who was celebrating the Mass at the service Lazarek attended, is known for his nationalist views, according to Paulina Napierała, an assistant professor in Kraków at Jagiellonian University’s Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora.

Other Polish Catholic priests have also expressed support for nationalists, Napierała said. 

A prime example is Jacek Miedlar, a far-right preacher from Wrocław whose sermons target Muslims and immigration. Miedlar, a former Catholic priest, has been suspended by his local church for his nationalist views.

While the church officially denounces racism, white supremacists in Poland often use their Catholic identity and religious imagery to rally people to their cause. The slogan for Saturday’s independence march was “We want God.”

“Polish bishops condemned nationalism stating that it is at odds with Christianity,” Napierała wrote in an email. “However, nationalist organizations in Poland often use religious language and connect nationalism with Catholicism.”

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