A former French militia leader who prepared youth for an impending religious war, the son of an Italian fascist, a Bilderberg-going cardinal, an aspiring king and the Italian deputy prime minister … welcome to the strange universe of the World Congress of Families.
The World Congress of Families (WCF) held its twelfth annual gathering in the capital of the small Eastern European country of Moldova from September 14-16, 2018.
A platform for virulent anti-LGBT rhetoric, the WCF unites high-profile conservative politicians and activists hostile to LGBT rights every year. As this year exemplifies, its speakers’ list is slipping ever more to the far-right.
The coalition of far-right allies at the gathering exemplifies how comfortable American Christian right evangelicals are mingling with extreme-right nationalist forces in Europe — and how the WCF is a key networking platform for this backward-looking group, as Hatewatch covered earlier this year.
WCF’s Russian representative, Alexey Komov, who has long networked with various extreme-right factions in Europe like the Italian far-right League (Lega, formerly known as Lega Nord, or Northern League), is key to the WCF’s realignment alongside the European far-right. Komov also serves as an external relations member for the Russian Orthodox Church and has seemingly helped the WCF morph into a soft-power platform for the Russian Orthodox oligarchs he is close to.
The WCF has grown central to a growing traditionalist alliance on the European continent. It helps foment local opposition to the European Union by raising the specter of LGBT rights in host countries, and instead offers Russia as a more traditionalist (read anti-LGBT) partner. This year’s meeting, for instance, was strategically held in Moldova, whose political establishment is currently split between pro-Russian and pro-European Union factions, which has led to a number of democratic setbacks.
Meanwhile, the president of the WCF, Brian Brown, happily cheers on WCF’s collaboration with the anti-LGBT European far-right.
By far the strangest appearance at the opening was Prince Louis de Bourbon, a descendant of the French royal family and a great-grandson of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Bourbon waxed poetic about the monarchy and emphasized its familial nature, despite the fact that philandering monarchs of old are hardly a model for Christian Right fathers and husbands.
He described the “bond which united the French people to each other” as “first and foremost a family tie from the humblest to the king.” France’s prominence during the monarchy, which he called a “miracle,” was due to the fact that it was ruled by “a family, a royal family” and to the “original transmission of power from male to male.” (Democratic France, as it happens, has never had a female president.) Bourbon was treated with deference by other participants. He was referred to as “your Royal Highness” by the chairman of the Georgian WCF, Levan Vasadze.
One of the alleged funders of this year’s WCF, a Russian Orthodox oligarch who reportedly funded the Crimean invasion and Komov’s business partner, Konstantin Malofeev, is a dedicated monarchist. He has even started a school in Moscow to help prepare the Russian youth for a monarchy. As he told The Guardian: “For me it’s very important to restore the traditions that were broken off in 1917.”
In 2014, a meeting to unify the European far-right was organized by Malofeev alongside ultranationalist Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin. It also included an aspiring regent, Prince Sixtus Henry of Bourbon-Parma, the leader of the Catholic-monarchist far-right Carlist movement.
Guillaume de Thieulloy, the editor of the French far-right Catholic website Le Salon Beige, spoke at the event. Also a monarchist, Thieulloy is virulently anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant as well. In 2012, he called for a referendum on immigration, declaring (the below is translated from the French):
It’s not that there is a genetic basis to delinquency, but millions of immigrants without jobs who are “programmed” to hate France, despite the fact that it welcomed them with a generosity unequaled elsewhere in the world, are obviously an important resource for mafias, the bearded ones [i.e. radical Muslims], and all those who spit on France.
Brian Brown, the head of WCF, posted a picture of himself and Thieulloy palling around on his Instagram. In the caption, he called de Thieulloy his “French brother.”
Friendship with fascists continues
The anti-LGBT religious far right in Europe is never far from Christian neo-fascists, who share its opposition to LGBT rights and its affection for families composed exclusively of heterosexual married couples and their children. The spokesman of the anti-abortion group Pro Vita, Alessandro Fiore, who sat on a panel on “human life,” is no less than the son of Roberto Fiore, the self-identified fascist who heads the neo-fascist and violent Italian far-right party Forza Nuova. As a Corriere della Serra investigation revealed, Pro Vita has a remarkable number of ties to Roberto Fiore’s neo-fascist party. The two groups even share a mailing address.
As covered by Hatewatch, Roberto Fiore exchanged emails with WCF Russian representative Komov in November 2014, asking Komov for help to find lawyers for the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn and introducing him to Golden Dawn’s ally in Cyprus, far-right party ELAM. Komov forwarded his request along and referred to him as “our pro-Russian Italian friend.” His son’s speech at the WCF is therefore no surprise.
Another odd speaker at the WCF was Ben Harris-Quinney, the chairman of the Bow Group, Britain’s oldest conservative think tank. Under his leadership, the Bow Group has slipped closer to the far right by endorsing the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party. More blatantly, it offered discounts for one of its events to the white nationalist and racist Traditional Britain Group, whose head directs the U.K. chapter of the influential white nationalist publishing house Arktos, sparking outrage in the U.K.
Radical Christian militias
Even more underground and violent Christian movements don’t scare the WCF leadership. Fabrice Sorlin, who formerly served as the WCF French representative and who is close to the WCF’s Russian faction, spoke on a panel on “the international networks undermining family and faith.”
Sorlin used to head a group of young Catholic extremists preparing for violence against Muslim and black citizens, Dies Irae (Day of rage). The group trained its members in combat for an impending religious war.
In a 2010 undercover “Les Infiltrés” documentary, “A l'extrême droite du Père” (“At the Extreme Right of the Father”), a member was caught on tape declaring that they were in a “crusade” opposing Muslims and were preparing to “bleed Muslims with our knife.” Another member cited The Turner Diaries, which the FBI has called the “bible of the racist right,” as one of the group’s main inspirations. The Turner Diaries describes racist and antisemitic militia groups taking over the country to establish a white supremacist state, subjecting Jews and black people to all sorts of violence in the process. It was found in Timothy McVeigh’s car after the Oklahoma City bombing, and his attack closely resembled one outlined in the novel.
Despite the outcry that followed the release of the documentary, Sorlin went on to a comfortable career as the French representative of the WCF a few years after its release, starting there in January 2013, according to his LinkedIn account. He even organized the WCF’s first regional conference in France in April 2017, conspicuously focused on representing Eastern European countries as having to choose between traditionalist Russia and a corrupt European Union in the hands of a “gay lobby.”
Though he is no longer ostensibly a staff member, Sorlin is still speaking at the WCF. His continued presence reveals the group’s comfort with violent far-right figures. Sorlin’s staunch dedication to spreading Russian influence to the French far-right through his former pro-Russian think tank Alliance France Europe Russie (AAFER) likely also has something to do with his WCF ties. Sorlin now lives in Russia.
The Italian League
It’s a WCF tradition that a high-ranking political official from the host country address the event — Moldovan president Igor Dodon addressed the Congress last Friday. But this year, even Matteo Salvini, the far-right deputy prime minister of Italy, sent an email to read to Congress participants. The letter, read out loud by a beaming Brian Brown, stated, “In such a time of destructive and irrational aggression towards the founding values of our cultures, your effort to defend the natural family is a vital element for the survival of the humankind.”
Komov has long been close to the far-right League party to which Salvini belongs, and the ties between the WCF and the League are likely to get closer still: At the end of the Congress, Italy was announced as the destination for next year’s gathering.
The Vatican, too, had a representative at the anti-LGBT event. When the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, addressed the crowd, he assured WCF attendees of the “spiritual closeness” of Pope Francis with the WCF. His speech focused on the importance of the family in the face of growing individualism.
Though Parolin is best known for being the first high-ranking Vatican member to attend the Bilderberg conference, which unites high-ranking figures in the government, private sector and the media for secretive meetings, his diplomatic efforts have also included creating closer ties with the Russian Orthodox church.
Anti-LGBT sentiment and legislation
The WCF is known for its virulent anti-LGBT sentiment, and for facilitating anti-LGBT activism and legislation around the world. The most infamous example is the WCF’s crucial role in helping Russian politicians craft a 2013 law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” that led to a doubling of hate crimes against LGBT people in Russia in the five years since the law’s passage.
This year was no exception. Echoing Russia’s anti-“gay propaganda” law, Dodon, the president of Moldova, proposed outlawing “festivals and other events that promote immoral principles.”
The WCF is also not ashamed of this legacy of violence, since Elena Mizulina, the author of the 2013 anti-“propaganda” Russian law who is on a list of U.S. sanctions , also attended the Moldovan meeting. She declared enthusiastically:
We are the Congress that the world is afraid of, but we are a stronghold. ... Don’t be afraid of making propaganda for the family.
Georgian businessman Levan Vasadze, the chairman of WCF X, offered an eyebrow-raising approach to defend the so-called “natural family” (a WCF concept that seeks to exclusively protect families based on a heterosexual married couple and their biological children).
The first step was de-urbanization, since “that cage of concrete” that is the modern apartment leads to a “continuous erosion of differences between a man and a woman.” Inside there is nothing, between going to the fridge or looking at your phone, to distinguish male and female roles. In this context, he pondered, “why shouldn’t men be wearing high heels and skirts and women be wearing men’s clothes?” Furthermore, to have many children, people need the space they would have in the countryside.
If population displacement sounded ambitious, the second objective manages to outshine it. The plan is to rewrite constitutions to remove all individual rights and replace them with family rights, starting with his native Georgia. Vasadze mused: “Every constitution is centered on one piece of nonsense which is called an individual. I am not an individual, I am a part.”
Theresa Okafor, the WCF’s African representative, praised the African continent for not having “sexual perversion as a result of homosexuality” or other symptoms of the decline of the family such as same-sex marriage, divorce or “the enslavement of abortion.” Still, it had to actively resist contraception, she pointed out, or what she called the “condom trap exported to Africa, to stifle life in Africa.” Christine Vollmer, WCF’s Latin American representative, reflected that youth is still seeking out love, despite the “incongruous and infertile” marriages imposed by “separating the genital from the emotional aspect of sexuality” — that is, “marriage without children and gay marriage.”
Other examples of fear-mongering about LGBT rights abounded.
A far-right networking event for East and West
As Brian Brown declared at the event, the WCF is key to “the natural family uniting East and West.”
Though the WCF was long regarded as a platform for American Christian Evangelicals to export anti-LGBT legislation, in the words of expert on the U.S. Christian Right Christopher Stroop, “ We will not be able to grasp Russia’s role in the global culture wars if we persist in treating Russia as essentially a recipient of America’s exported culture wars, and not an independent actor, and even exporter, in its own right.”
Komov later told ThinkProgress, “The World Congress of Families is the platform that definitely can help to bring [people closer] especially in the U.S. and Russia.” Both the American Christian Right and Russian Orthodox benefit from this alliance, and both perceive Russia as the “Christian saviors of the world” for passing anti-LGBT legislation, in the words of late WCF Managing Director Larry Jacobs.
Not all speakers fell in line with the WCF’s pro-Russian vision, with a Georgian archpriest, ThinkProgress notes, attributing the breakdown in families to Russian occupation. Still, this WCF was full of important players in Russian Orthodox networks, from Natalia Yakunina to Patriarch Dmitri Smirnov of the Russian Orthodox Church, despite the noticeable absence of eminent Russian Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
This year’s WCF’s funding was not transparent, as it was funneled through the Moldovan first lady’s foundation, Din Suflet, the funding of which is itself unclear. But headliners of the event included the director of the foundations of the two Russian Orthodox oligarchs who funded the planned WCF Congress in Moscow in 2014 — which WCF ostensibly pulled out of after Russian sanction over the Crimean invasion, only for the event to go ahead almost as planned.
The head of the Sanctity of Motherhood program, Natalia Yakunina, gave an address to welcome participants to the WCF in the name of her foundation, Saint Andrew The First-Called. She heads the foundation with her billionaire husband, the former president of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, who has funded WCF conferences in the past. Yakunin is currently sanctioned by the U.S.
The director of the multimillion-dollar Russian Orthodox St. Basil the Great Foundation also gave an address during the opening of the Congress. It was founded by Malofeev, who has also previously funded WCF.
Still, as it opened its doors to journalists and flooded attendees with images and performances centered around babies, children and loving heterosexual couples, the Congress sought to be more careful about its image. Komov complained, “We’re often shown as a strange people, like we’re homophobic fascists or something.”
Then maybe not working with so many homophobic fascists would be a good place to start.
Photo credit Casey Michel/ThinkProgress