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US and Russian religious right unite against ‘invasion of radical liberalism’

Anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ rights activists, politicians, and religious leaders met in Moldova this month for the World Congress of Families.

Moldovan President Igor Dodon surrounded by speakers inside the Palace of the Republic.Politicians and religious leaders met with die-hard anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights activists in the Moldovan capital of Chișinău for the World Congress of Families (WCF) this month. Organised by US activists, it was heavily attended by Russian politicians, including members of President Putin’s inner circle.  

The US-based International Organization for the Family (IOF) organised the event. It’s designated an anti-LGBT extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). This was their 12th annual congress, the third consecutive year held in eastern Europe, and the second attended by 50.50.

This year’s theme was “East and West coming together around the beauty of the family.” The event began with a high octane theatrical dance culminating in an incredibly well-behaved baby held in the air and bobbed across the stage.

White dancers in white dresses and bridal veils swayed in rhythm whilst a man and woman performed a duet about “love, your motherland and you,” accompanied by a live orchestra.

Presidential troops guarded the entrance to the World Congress of Families. Moldova’s President Igor Dodon received the most applause of the opening ceremony when he suggested banning “propaganda festivals” that promote “sexual minorities” – how LGBT individuals were described throughout the event, though some speakers also used terms like “transgressions” and “perversions.” These festivals “should be restricted, or even outlawed,” he said.

Moldova is perhaps best-known internationally for its role in a number of post-Soviet money-laundering scandals, and Russian speakers and ideologues crowded the schedule. According to the SPLC, the WCF’s Russian representative Alexey Komov has “long networked with various extreme-right factions in Europe” and has brought the “Russian Orthodox oligarchs he is close to” into the WCF fold in recent years.

One such oligarch, Konstantin Malofeev, is thought to be a key funder of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and is rumoured to have footed some of the cost of this year’s glitzy WCF. He runs Russia’s largest Orthodox charity, St Basil the Great.

Dodon’s wife’s foundation Din Suflet (‘From the Heart’) was the WCF’s official sponsor; its funding is “completely non transparent” according to Mihai Popsoi at the Washington DC-based Jamestown Foundation.

“President Igor Dodon only acknowledged the Turkish and Chinese embassies as WCF sponsors, but Kremlin and Russian affiliated businesses are believed to provide the bulk of the funds,” said Popsoi, noting that Dodon has made more than a dozen official trips to Russia since taking office but only one to an EU country (Hungary, where he attended last year’s WCF in Budapest).

Russian politician and member of Putin’s inner-circle Elena Mizulina was among several WCF delegates sanctioned by the EU and US amidst the Crimea crisis, and there was some head-jerking praise for Putin alongside repeated claims about the ‘natural family’ being the “backbone” of every society.

Mizulina is a bit of a WCF hero for introducing Russia’s anti-LGBT ‘propaganda’ laws that rights activists say led to a doubling of hate crimes against LGBT individuals. She also sponsored a law to decriminalise ‘moderate’ domestic violence, arguing that previous legislation was “interfering with families”.

Georgian businessman Levan Vasadze struck a surreal note at the event when he called for action to defeat the “aggressive invasion of radical liberalism,” including de-urbanisation so that men and women can escape “their tiny apartments, the cages of concrete” that apparently erode their “natural” roles.

“We need to go back to the beauty of our lands in order to repopulate”, Vasadze said. “If we want to save the culture of a place, we need to start wanting more children, and this is not possible in the city.”

He ended his rousing speech on what emerged as a clear theme of the conference: a call for political action. In his case, he advocated for nothing less than “to enshrine the rights of the family in every constitution.”

There was some head-jerking praise for Putin alongside repeated claims about the ‘natural family’ being the backbone of every society.

Organisers claimed there were 2,000 attendees from 50 countries but a count of seats in the opulent Palace of the Republic, where opening and closing ceremonies took place, suggested only hundreds attended. Plenary sessions had even smaller audiences, with several scheduled speakers also absent.

Panel sessions focused on how to roll back women’s reproductive rights; fight efforts for comprehensive sexual education (CSE) for young people; defeat ”gender ideology”; achieve success in political campaigns; and how to use social and online media to recruit and radicalise new audiences who can “stand for the natural family.”

Dimitry Smirnov, a representative of Russian Orthodox Patriarch, addressing delegates.Attendees’ idea of the ‘natural family’ was summed up by Dimitry Smirnov, a representative of Russian Orthodox Patriarch.

“There must be a husband who is intelligent, hardworking, a teacher for his children, a wife that he carries in his arms, which helps him to nurture children,” he told Russian website Zairul de garda, promoting “as many [children] as God will give” and calling LGBT people “demonic” and “enemies of God”.

Sharing a stage with Smirnov was Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state and most senior official after the pope. 

Other speakers this year demonstrated how the event is “slipping ever more to the far right” according to the SPLC, which has followed the WCF for years.

“Ideology is political – it is not cultural. We have to recognise that it's not about culture, it's about power – it's about political power, it’s not about equality and it’s not about freedom, it’s power”, said Stephen Baskerville to delegates at a panel session on 'gender ideology'.

Baskerville is a professor at Patrick Henry College in the US, also previously addressed the white nationalist Mencken Club along with white supremacist and Donald Trump cheerleader Richard Spencer.

Also on this panel was Benjamin Harris-Quinney, president of the UK’s oldest conservative think tank the Bow Group, which made headlines last year for offering discounted tickets to their events to members of Traditional Britain Group – which called for the repatriation of black people to their “natural homelands”.

Ideology is political, it is not cultural. We have to recognise that it's not about culture, it's about political power. It's not about equality and it's not about freedom. It's about power.

During plenary sessions, speakers shared terrifying stories of success in their fights against sexual and reproductive rights.  

Malawian MP Justin Majawa talked about standing “against the new phenomena of the moral decay and new behaviours that we see in the world today” and boasted that his party has “protected” the country against same-sex marriage (which is illegal in Malawi) against pressure from “bilateral [aid] donors”.

Croatian Zeljka Markic discussed successes she has had at the helm of ‘citizen organisation’ In the Name of the Family. These included banning CSE that taught “alternative lifestyles” of ‘sexual minorities’ in schools, in 2012, and organising a referendum to declare marriage as a union between a man and a woman in 2013.

“The state wants to use education to impose ideology”, she told delegates. “They try to impose new ideas through the education system. And I think in former communist eastern European countries, we recognise this problem faster than in some western countries because we had this experience that in school they teach you lies.”

Brian Brown, President of the International Organisation for the Family (IOF), speaking at the World Congress of Families.Mexican politician Rodrigo Ivan Cortez spoke of ordinary people “rising up” against “attacks of degeneracy that try to impose its agenda in a global way”. Political rallies for the family are “a very important new reality that we have to see. Because it’s not only Mexico; it’s Costa Rica, it’s Panama, it’s Paraguay, it’s Colombia,” he said. 

Back in Europe, Slovakian MEP Anna Zaborska, who previously described AIDS as “God’s vengeance for homosexuality” spoke in the closing ceremony on the existential threat “the demographic change” in family life poses to the “basic principles and values that enable the construction of the welfare state.”

Brian Brown, the new president of the IOF, ended the festivities with a call for friendship as much as a call to arms, heaping more gushing praise on the Moldovan president and Russia in particular.

“Over 20 years ago, our founder Dr. Allan Carlson was in Moscow and the whole idea of the World Congress of Families occurred to him and I feel like this conference and other conferences are bringing us back to our roots”, he said.

“Back at the end of the Cold War, I think many folks in the United States would have said: “I don’t think I’m ever going to be traveling to eastern Europe and Russia and making new friends who believe the same thing that I do about family.” But the world has changed,” he said. “In so many ways we’re similar.”

About the author

Lara Whyte is a reporter and award-winning documentary and news producer focusing on issues of youth, extremism and women’s rights. Originally from Belfast in northern Ireland, Lara is based in London. She is 50.50's special projects editor working with our feminist investigative journalism fellows and tracking the backlash against sexual and reproductive rights. Find her on Twitter: @larawhyte.


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