'World's biggest' far-right march draws thousands in Warsaw

Thousands of Polish nationalists gathered for what is believed to be one of the world's biggest far-right gatherings.
Thousands of Polish nationalists gathered for what is believed to be one of the world's biggest far-right gatherings. Photo credit: Getty

Thousands of nationalists gathered in Poland for what is believed to be one of the world's biggest far-right gatherings. The annual march began in Warsaw on Saturday (local time), coinciding with Poland's Independence Day.

"We expect something like 100,000 people to attend this year," said Al Jazeera's David Chater, reporting from Warsaw. The march's organisers later claimed the number of attendees had exceeded that estimate.

Self-identified nationalists and fascists marched under banners reading "We Want God', a lyric from an old Polish nationalist song that had been quoted by US President Donald Trump during a visit to Warsaw earlier in 2017. It was used as a slogan for this year's event to promote Polish Catholicism and stoke anti-immigrant sentiments. 

Protesters waved Polish flags and carried flares, and some held banners with far-right messages, including one reading "White Europe of brotherly nations", according to The Associated Press. The crowd chanted, "Great national Poland, religion is the basis of the Polish nation, Great Catholic Poland and one nation across the borders". They also chanted abuse directed at refugees, liberals, left-wing media and the United States.

A counter-march organised by the Warsaw branch of anti-fascist movement "Antifa" attracted about 5000 participants. 

The immense popularity of the Independence March demonstrated Poland's increasing political divide. What began as a small gathering in 2009, the rally attracted tens of thousands of supporters from Poland and its neighbouring countries. Many of its attendees were self-proclaimed "nationalists" protesting against Islam and the European Union.

Journalist Agata Szczesniak told Al Jazeera Islamophobia fuelled the march.

"These people are angry. They are frustrated. They are blaming Muslims, which are not present in Poland almost at all. They are also blaming liberal European elites for the failures of the state. They are strongly anti-refugee and anti-immigrant, and strongly nationalist."

In a recent press conference, Robert Bakiewicz, chairman of the Independence March Association, said the rally's purpose was to confront European atheism and the "invasion of immigrants".

"We are recalling the fighting church, which for centuries was the keystone and fundament of Europe," he said. "We want to show Catholicism not as a faith of weakness, but as a faith of strong people."

Poland has refused to take in refugees, and officials have claimed Muslim people posed a security threat to the country. Less than 1 percent of the Polish population was Muslim.

Alexandra, a 30-year-old Warsaw resident, told Al Jazeera she was concerned with the increasing number of young people involved in far-right demonstrations.

"I'm saddened by the fact that in recent years Independence Day has become an occasion for violent clashes and the promotion of far-right views. What is also worrying is that in comparison to previous years, I can see a lot of very young people, who are a fertile ground for the easy solutions offered by the nationalists."