Hundreds of men gather in town squares across Croatia every month to kneel and pray for the modesty of women, the bolstering of patriarchal authority and a ban on abortions. 

The rise of the conservative Catholic men's group leading the vigils, known as "Be Manly", has attracted a small but dedicated following in the Balkan country, where the church carries significant sway and traditional values are widespread. 

But the views of the group - often referred to as "the kneelers" - which include calls for women to dress modestly, protests against premarital sex and demands for an absolute abortion ban, have triggered a backlash.

Video: AFP

The gatherings have been held on the first Saturday of every month throughout Croatia since October.

Around 100 men gathered to pray during a rally in the capital Zagreb in April - with many clutching rosaries, holding posters of the Virgin Mary and waving the Croatian flag. 

"Women should make sure they do not cause men to sin with their behaviour and clothing," Bozidar Nagy, a priest who supports the movement and has led a rally in Zagreb, told a broadcaster earlier this year. 

Nagy went on to cite a 20th-century Croatian theologian, saying that "covering of women in Islam was however a good thing".

Representatives of "Be Manly" did not respond to questions from AFP, saying only that their activities were "exclusively prayerful".

'Fear in my bones'

The group is one of the burgeoning number of pro-male, conservative movements that have formed across the world in recent years, rejecting LGBTQ rights, feminism, and so-called "woke" values. 

Similar groups have also hit the streets in Poland and Serbia, calling for a return to "traditional values", while also taking aim at reproductive rights and other progressive issues. 

Despite the stable numbers at its rallies, the group does not appear to be growing in popularity in Croatia. 

According to a recent survey, 75% of Croatians do not support the "Be Manly" prayer movement, compared with 15% in favour.

The "Be Manly" prayers have sparked small counter-protests, with their critics gathering to denounce what they call an outpouring of intolerance aimed at restricting women's rights. 

"There is no tolerance for the intolerant," Katarina Peovic, an MP of the leftist Workers' Front, told AFP during a recent rally.

"Those who are praying are not the problem but the idea behind it... to limit or ban women's rights," added Dragana Stojic, a 39-year-old nurse. "They put fear in my bones". 

Others defended the kneelers. 

Marica, 66, who did not give her surname, stressed that "praying cannot be bad".

"Everyone has the right to express their opinion, it's democracy," she said, while calling critics of the group "feminists with freakish attitudes".

Two men in their 60s, who refused to give their names, said the prayer demonstrations were simply a "reaction to LGBT people's aggressive behaviour".

'Crisis of manhood'

Ultra-conservative groups still hold some sway in Croatia - where 80% of the population is Catholic - and are known mostly for campaigning against abortion and gay marriage with prayer gatherings and public marches.  

Conservative organisations succeeded in initiating a 2013 referendum that resulted in a ban on gay marriage.

And just six years ago, church-backed groups sought unsuccessfully to outlaw abortion. 

But even as the ban failed, a majority of gynaecologists refuse to perform the procedure, forcing some women to go abroad for terminations. 

Ivica Mastruko - a prominent sociologist specialising in religious studies - said there was no evidence the kneelers had the backing of the Catholic Church or would be able to increase their influence. 

"These fears are not justified when it comes to Croatian society, nor do I believe that they will have an impact on the behaviour of the authorities," said Mastruko. 

The organisers have dismissed criticism, saying the rallies are meant to address an alleged "crisis of manhood" in the country. 

But fears persist the group will tap into simmering hostility to abortion and the LGBTQ community. 

A recent survey, the first of its kind in Croatia, revealed that three-quarters of LGBTQ Croats had faced discrimination while 25 percent had faced assault.

"Normalising such a discourse in public space can lead to the suppression of human rights," said Zvonimir Dobrovic of the rights group Domino.  

"Not only women's rights but LGBT too, like we are already seeing happen in Eastern Europe."

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