Poles pray for peace at border; some see anti-Muslim agenda

GDANSK, Poland (AP) — Polish Catholics held rosaries and prayed together at hundreds of locations Saturday along the country’s 3,500-kilometer (2,000-mile) border, appealing to the Virgin Mary and God for salvation for Poland and the world.

The unusual event called “Rosary on the Borders” was organized by lay Catholics but also was endorsed by Polish church authorities, with 320 churches from 22 dioceses taking part. The prayers took place on the Baltic Sea coast in the north to the mountains along Poland’s southern borders with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and all along the other borders of this country of 38 million where more than 90 percent declare themselves Roman Catholics.

Organizers say the event commemorates the centenary of the apparitions of Fatima, when three shepherd children in Portugal said the Virgin Mary appeared to them.

But many people also saw an anti-Islam message in the event, given that it also commemorates the huge 16th-century naval battle of Lepanto, when a Christian alliance defeated Ottoman Empire forces on the Ionian Sea, “thus saving Europe from Islamization,” as organizers put it.

While organizers insisted the prayers Saturday were not directed against any group, some participants cited fears of Islam among their reasons for praying at the border, many coming from afar to do so.

Halina Kotarska, 65, traveled 230 kilometers (145 miles) from her home in Kwiciszewo, central Poland, to express gratitude after her 29-year-old son Slawomir survived a serious car wreck this year. She described it as a miracle performed by St. Mary.

She said she was also praying for the survival of Christianity in Poland and Europe against what she sees as an Islamic threat facing the West today.

“Islam wants to destroy Europe,” she said. “They want to turn us away from Christianity.”

A leading Polish expert on xenophobia and extremism, Rafal Pankowski, said he sees the prayers as a problematic expression of Islamophobia coming at a time of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Poland, a phenomenon occurring even though the country’s Muslim population is tiny.

“The whole concept of doing it on the borders reinforces the ethno-religious, xenophobic model of national identity,” said Pankowski, who heads the Never Again association in Warsaw.

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