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People protest a ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that imposes a near-total ban on abortion, in Warsaw, on Oct. 26, 2020.

WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Poland’s powerful ruling party leader urged his supporters Tuesday to defend the predominantly Catholic nation’s churches, potentially setting the stage for clashes with demonstrators angry at a court ruling that severely restricts abortions.

The call Tuesday by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a conservative, drew strong condemnation from the main opposition head who accused him of deepening the nation’s divide, inciting hatred and civil war. Poland’s archbishop appealed for calm and respect for churches.

The country’s top court on Thursday ruled that abortions due to fetal congenital defects are unconstitutional, further tightening one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws and triggering protests.

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The ensuing massive demonstrations – in violation of pandemic restrictions – entered their sixth day Tuesday and have included angry gatherings and obscene chants before churches and even disruptions of Masses.

In a Facebook video message Kaczynski insisted that the ruling was in line with the constitution and said the protests were marked by anti-church “nihilism.”

“We must defend Polish churches, we must defend them at every price,” Kaczynski said, in an appeal to members and supporters of his ruling Law and Justice party.

Opposition Civic Coalition leader Borys Budka reacted by saying that words calling for “hatred, inciting civil war and using party forces to attack citizens are a crime.”

He warned that the opposition could seek to bring Kaczynski before a special court for politicians.

In his message, Kaczynski also said the protesters were “committing a serious crime” by breaching the anti-COVID-19 nationwide ban on gatherings larger than five people.

“In the current situation these demonstrations will surely cost the lives of many people,” said Kaczynski whose right-wing party won power in 2015 on a platform that included a promise to tighten the abortion law.

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Kaczynski spoke as people across Poland took strolls in a form of protest that blocked traffic. A general strike that would see all women stay off work is planned Wednesday and a major protest march will be held in the capital city of Warsaw on Friday.

Earlier in the day, the head of Poland’s Catholic Church, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, called for calm and respect for churches.

“It is a moral obligation of every Christian to take steps to de-escalate a conflict, not to intensify it,” Polak wrote in a letter to his diocese of Gniezno.

Tensions involving Kaczynski also erupted in parliament.

Parliament’s speaker called guards to protect Kaczynski, a deputy prime minister, from angry opposition lawmakers. Speaker Ryszard Telecki, a close ally of Kaczynski, caused more anger by likening the red lightning symbol of the protests to the runes of Nazi Germany’s SS forces.

On Monday, thousands of protesters led by women’s rights activists blocked traffic for hours in most cities and also gathered outside churches, chanting obscenities against Poland’s influential Catholic Church leaders, who condemn abortions. They called for the women to have the right of choice.

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Early Tuesday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, whose government backs the tight restrictions, defended the court verdict said that “In order to have the freedom of choice you first must be alive.”

He urged everyone to observe restrictions in an effort to fight a sudden spike in coronavirus cases, which hit a new high of some 16,300 daily confirmed cases Tuesday.

The constitutional Tribunal’s ruling on Thursday tightened what was already one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. When it takes effect, which is expected with its official publication in the coming days or weeks, abortion will be permitted only when a pregnancy threatens the woman’s health or is the result of crime like rape or incest.

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