Warsaw (AFP) - When gay and lesbian Catholics launched a campaign this month to ask for acceptance in the Polish church, the backlash was swift and uncompromising.
Adopting the gesture of a handshake that worshippers make during mass, the "Sign of Peace" poster campaign shows one hand with a rainbow bracelet representing the fight for gay rights and the other with a rosary for prayers.
Affronted bishops issued a statement on September 14 instructing the faithful "not to participate in the campaign... because it waters down the explicit demands of the Gospel."
The handshake sign of peace, they warned, was an "expression of acceptance for a person, but not of their sins, whatever they may be."
Others have gone further, crudely labelling the campaigners "homo heretics."
An editorial published in the widely-read conservative Gosc Niedzielny (Sunday Guest) Catholic weekly conflated the fight for equality with efforts to promote masturbation.
But campaigners vow they will not be deterred by hostile attitudes towards homosexuality in the conservative country, a bastion of Catholicism in an increasingly secular Europe.
"After a programme on a public TV channel, we received hundreds of emails, with some from the parents of LGBT children who said that up until now, they hadn't dared to broach the subject with them," activist Pawel Dobrowolski told AFP.
"Lay people, priests wrote to tell us that they were praying for us and I was warmly received at the church I attend."
Dobrowolski also underlined the fact that Polish bishops have called on parishioners to treat LGBT people with "respect, openness and carry on dialogue in good faith."
But opinion polls suggest deeper acceptance of homosexual couples will take time.
Seventy percent of Poles thought homosexual relations were unacceptable, the independent Warsaw-based CBOS institute found in a 2014 opinion poll, the most recent survey on the topic.
- 'Invisible' -
A year earlier, CBOS found that 77 percent of Poles opposed giving gay partnerships legal status and 87 percent said gay couples should not be able to adopt children.
Two-thirds of Poland's 38 million citizens still identify themselves as practising Catholics and the institution continues to play a key social role in shaping attitudes.
The church hierarchy is currently trying to use its influence to introduce a near-total abortion ban, triggering widespread public opposition.
Four Polish Catholic publications appealing to the relatively small, progressive wing of the church, have officially backed the "Sign of Peace" campaign.
They including the Tygodnik Powszechny weekly, the Znak and Wiez monthlies and the Kontakt quarterly.
"The LGBT community wants to be accepted in the Church and even though it is excluded and invisible, it is looking for its place," Misza Tomaszewski, a journalist with the Catholic Kontakt magazine that is among the campaign sponsors, told AFP.
Funding comes from billionaire philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Institute.
On the znakpokoju.com campaign website, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics speak in videos about their need for acceptance in the church.
Anna Strzalkowska, a lesbian and a devout Catholic, recalls a painful time when a priest to whom she confessed her love for woman told her she would do well to gouge out the eye or to cut off the hand causing her to sin.
Now raising a son with her wife Marta, who she married in Britain, Strzalkowska is confident the Catholic church will change its views.
"I'm certain that my love for my for my son isn't sinful, I'm certain that my love for Marta isn't sinful," she said.
"I also really believe that soon the church will change its theology about our place in it."