GDANSK, Poland (AP) — Polish Catholics held rosaries and prayed together Saturday along the country's 3,500-kilometer (2,000-mile) border, appealing to the Virgin Mary and God for salvation for Poland and the world in a national event that some felt had anti-Muslim overtones.
The unusual "Rosary to the Borders" event was organized by lay Catholics but was also endorsed by Polish church authorities, with 320 churches from 22 dioceses taking part. The prayers took place from the Baltic Sea coast in the north to the mountains along Poland's southern borders with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and all along the border of this country of 38 million where more than 90 percent declare themselves Roman Catholics.
Organizers say the prayers at some 4,000 locations commemorated the centenary of the apparitions of Fatima, when three shepherd children in Portugal said the Virgin Mary appeared to them.
But the event also commemorated the huge 16th-century naval battle of Lepanto, when a Christian alliance acting on the wishes of the pope defeated Ottoman Empire forces on the Ionian Sea, "thus saving Europe from Islamization," as organizers put it.
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo showed her support by tweeting an image of rosary beads with a crucifix and sending greetings to all the participants.
While organizers insisted the prayers Saturday were not directed against any group, some participants cited fears of Islam among their reasons for praying at the border.
Halina Kotarska, 65, traveled 230 kilometers (145 miles) from her home in Kwieciszewo, central Poland, to express gratitude after her 29-year-old son Slawomir survived a serious car wreck this year. She described it as a miracle performed by St. Mary.
She said she was also praying for the survival of Christianity in Poland and Europe against what she sees as an Islamic threat facing the West.
"Islam wants to destroy Europe," she said. "They want to turn us away from Christianity."
Poles also prayed in chapels at airports, seen as gateways to the country, while Polish soldiers stationed in Afghanistan prayed at Bagram Airfield there, the broadcaster TVN reported.
A leading Polish expert on xenophobia and extremism, Rafal Pankowski, saw the prayers Saturday as a problematic expression of Islamophobia coming at a time of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Poland, a phenomenon occurring even though the country's Muslim population is tiny.
"The whole concept of doing it on the borders reinforces the ethno-religious, xenophobic model of national identity," said Pankowski, who heads the Never Again association in Warsaw.
At the Polish-Czech border near the town of Szklarska Poreba, hundreds of pilgrims arrived in buses and cars to pray at the Karkonosze mountain range. The procession, which included young and old and families pushing children in strollers, was made up of pilgrims who held rosaries and prayed to the Virgin Mary, braving the cold and rain.
"It's a really serious thing for us," said Basia Sibinska, who traveled with her daughter Kasia from Kalisz in central Poland. "Rosaries to the border means that we want to pray for our country. That was a main motive for us to come here. We want to pray for peace, we want to pray for our safety. Of course, everyone comes here with a different motivation. But the most important thing is to create something like a circle of a prayer alongside the entire border, intense and passionate."
In the northern city of Gdansk, people prayed on a beach lapped by waves as seagulls flew above. Krzysztof Januszewski, 45, said that he worries Christian Europe is being threatened by Islamic extremists and by a loss of faith in Christian societies.
"In the past, there were raids by sultans and Turks and people of other faiths against us Christians," said Januszewski, a mechanic who traveled 350 kilometers (220 miles) to Gdansk from Czerwinsk nad Wisla.
"Today Islam is flooding us and we are afraid of this too," he added. "We are afraid of terrorist threats and we are afraid of people departing from the faith."
Janicek reported from near the town of Szklarska Poreba at Poland's border with the Czech Republic.
This story corrects the spelling the name of the town of Kwieciszewo.