A massive billboard campaign across Poland has sparked fears that legislation to limit access to divorce could soon come before parliament.
By Claudia Ciobanu
“Love each other, mom and dad”, reads the billboard poster, in handwriting like that of a school-aged child. The billboards are all over Polish cities – on buildings in town centres, on small streets in neighbourhoods, even on buses.
It’s an innocent-looking enough sentence, if read out of context. Yet in Poland, where the Constitutional Tribunal has recently banned most abortions and the government routinely defends what it calls the “natural family”, few have any doubts about what the poster really means: “Stay married, mom and dad”.
Banning divorce might seem like an outlandish idea for a country in the 21st century that is situated in the heart of Europe. But after five years under the right-wing populist government of Law and Justice (PiS), during which moves have been made to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention to combat domestic violence, to create LGBT-free zones and to target women’s groups who disagree with it, most Poles know better.
“I bet that the divorce ban will make it into the Sejm later this year,” feminist scholar Agnieszka Graff, one of the country’s most astute observers of the ultra-conservative movement, wrote in an opinion piece in Gazeta Wyborcza in late February.
Who’s behind the billboards?
Apart from the main slogan, there is only one other bit of information on the billboards: the listing of a website of Sychar, a Catholic organisation focused on venerating and preserving religious marriage.
“The aim of our community is to save sacramental marriages which are in crisis, at every stage of this crisis, even after divorce,” Andrzej Szczepaniak, leader of Sychar, tells BIRN. “In the Catholic Church, sacramental marriage is sacred and indissoluble.”
Essentially, the group does not recognise the fact that civil divorces trump religious marriages. “Our goal is to find ourselves, after death, in Heaven with our spouses,” Szczepaniak says.
In groups centred around nearby churches, in Poland and abroad, Sychar members support one another in a process of self-development, with the stated goal of “learning true love, modelled on God’s own love for man”. For instance, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging in Poland, members of the community have been taking part in daily prayers online, listening to podcasts recorded by priests, or sharing thoughts on internet forums.
According to Szczepaniak, the community believes that learning how to love one’s spouse in a “faithful, patient, unconditional, forgiving, sacrificial and wise way”, will eventually help bring back the loved one.
“We strongly oppose the divorce mentality, filing for divorce, consenting to divorce and assisting with it, because no one can propose or accept the breaking of marriage vows entered into before God and man,” he says. “When love is sick, we are not killing it, we are healing it. In extreme situations, like violence or addiction, the Catholic Church allows for the possibility to ask the court for civil separation – long-distance love – but not divorce.”
Szczepaniak also informs BIRN that the actual organiser of the billboards was another group, the “Foundation Our Children – Education, Health and Faith” (also known as Fundacja Kornice).
“Sychar agreed to have our logo on the billboards because we share the values that Fundacja Kornice has stated: supporting marriage as the natural and most important environment for raising children,” Szczepaniak says. “The purpose of the billboard action is to promote the value of married and family love.”
Representatives of Fundacja Kornice would not agree to speak to BIRN, but some basic facts about the organisation are already available in the Polish media.
The president of Fundacja Kornice is Mariusz Klosek, owner of a large window manufacturer, Eko-Okna, and this year listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 100 richest people in Poland. Klosek’s foundation is also responsible for pro-life billboards that have appeared across the country over the same period. Two Polish activists estimated that the costs of the billboard campaigns – between November, when they started, and February – are as high as 5 million zloty (over 1 million euros). The billboards were still displayed on the streets of Poland at the time of publishing this article.
In the area around Raciborz, in the Silesian region, where both Fundacja Kornice and Eko-Okna are located, the businessman is known for his investments in the community, especially religious ones, though they are not exclusively so. According to local media, he has financed the construction of a local monastery, a chapel, a Christian bookstore/coffee shop and a prayer ceremony to protect people from the novel coronavirus. He also reportedly donated money to the local hospital in Raciborz, while his company has plans to build a kindergarten for the children of employees, as well as a shelter for the homeless and a home for children with disabilities.
In a rare public statement about the billboards, Klosek told Gazeta Wyborcza he was surprised that the first campaign had been understood as “exclusively anti-abortion”, but that “the main goal of this action, as well as of the foundation’s activities, is the affirmation of life in all its aspects.”
However, Agnieszka Graff, the feminist scholar, warns against treating the campaign as something benign. “The billboard campaign is a clever ploy,” she tells BIRN. “It appears to be apolitical, simply a call for family love. It seems to speak on behalf of children – most people don’t see what is wrong with it.”
“But like posters used in Ireland some years ago – “Hello divorce, goodbye daddy”, I think the slogan was – it aims to associate divorce with children’s suffering and then use this as an argument for banning divorce. Of course, this is just a guess, but I have seen enough of such campaigns to make an informed one,” Graff says.
Ordo Iuris has a plan
A further reason why activists in Poland are concerned about the divorce posters is that they have not appeared in a vacuum.
As in previous campaigns to tighten the abortion legislation and withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, grassroots campaigns by various actors are typically accompanied by very specific legislative proposals drawn up by the influential ultra-conservative legal group Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture. In cooperation with former Polish MEP Marek Jurek from the Christian Social Congress, Ordo Iuris drew up a draft law and collected the necessary 150,000 signatures to create a citizens’ initiative to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. Parliament debated this in March and, rather than be rejected as human rights defenders had hoped, it was advanced to specialised commissions for further work on the text.
At the end of 2019, Ordo Iuris made public a package of legal proposals for strengthening marriage and family, which included measures “to combat the high number of divorces”.
The measures, which over the following months were publicised during at least one public event and by media close to the organisation, include: compulsory mediation for couples who are seeking divorce and have children who are minors, a compulsory separation period of several months before any divorce is considered, as well as court hearings and therapy meant to reunite the couple.
No connection has been established so far between the Ordo Iuris proposals and Klosek’s billboards, but as Razem MP Marcelina Zawisza told BIRN in an interview in March, such efforts alter the parameters of public debate and, in time, make it possible for ever more conservative proposals to be adopted.
“Till death do us part” could be making a comeback in Poland.