Gay rights campaigners from Poland and across Europe marched in Warsaw Saturday in an annual rally galvanized by what activists say is rampant public and official homophobia in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Thousands turned out for the march
Around 4,000 people turned out for the Equality Parade, police said.
Many of the participants carried the rainbow flag, the symbol of homosexual rights, and marched under the slogan "Love Thy Neighbor" -- the use of the biblical commandant an apparent swipe at ultra-Catholic protesters.
There was little sign of the flamboyant dress, including drag, which is a feature of Gay Pride events in other European Union countries where the lot of homosexuals is seen as better than in Poland.
The Warsaw march, which drew only a few score demonstrators when it began in 2001, has a traditionally political edge due to official bans and sometimes violent counter-demonstrations. Only several dozen such protesters were present Saturday, most of them members of a far-right youth group.
"Five members of the group were arrested," Warsaw police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski told AFP.
A heavy police presence kept the march's participants and anti-gay protesters apart
Poland's homosexual community has in the past complained of living in a "climate of fear."
Even high-ranking Polish politicians make openly homophobic statements.
"Homophobia is not the exclusive monopoly of Poland. It exists everywhere," said Sophia in't Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who was attending the march in a show of solidarity.
"But the difference is that here there are prominent government politicians who are creating a climate of hatred and fear against homosexuals," she said, singling out Roman Giertych, of the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR).
Giertych, who is education minister and a deputy premier in the country's coalition government, launched a drive this week to ban classroom discussion of homosexuality. He said the move was vital to protect marriage and the family.
His draft law would require school head teachers to stop "homosexual propaganda" in the same way as they have a duty to tackle classroom violence, hatred and discrimination, or pornography.
The plans have come under fire from the EU's equal opportunities commissioner, who has said Poland would be in breach of European law if it goes ahead.
The Council of Europe also criticized Giertych last year over the sacking of education official Miroslaw Sielatycki allegedly because he had overseen publication of a Polish-language version of a Council of Europe manual on human rights education, which contained a section on homosexuality and homophobia.
Activists from abroad join in
Besides in't Veld, around two dozen politicians from other EU countries joined the Warsaw march, organizers said.
The march was less flamboyant than gay rights events normally are
Among them were Sweden's European Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstroem, German Green Party chief Claudia Roth, and her party colleague Volker Beck, who is a leading gay activist.
"To be here today with so many people, and so much strong support from all over Europe, makes clear that progress is possible and that you should not give up," Roth told reporters.
Earlier this month, an opinion poll found that 53 percent of Poles considered homosexuality a sin and 58 percent that gay and lesbians should be denied the right to demonstrate.
The 2004 and 2005 marches were banned by Warsaw's then mayor, Lech Kaczynski, a conservative Catholic who was sworn in as president of Poland in December 2005.
In 2005, Kaczynski said that spreading "homosexual propaganda" fell outside rules protecting freedom of assembly.
Several thousand people nonetheless went ahead and marched in 2005, and earlier this month Poland was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights over that year's ban.
Beck is well-known for his activism for gay rights
The authorities allowed the 2006 march to go ahead, despite repeated calls for a ban from the LPR -- which last year joined Poland's coalition government, along with Kaczynski's Law and Justice (PiS) party.
PiS lost control of Warsaw city hall in municipal elections last November to a liberal, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who organizers said had been "very cooperative."
Beck said his attention was already turning further east to Russia, where a string of Gay Pride events have been banned.
"We should see it as a global struggle. If the civil rights of any minority are in danger, any European democrat has to speak out," he said.