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American-led ‘pro-family’ summit in Ghana condemned for ‘shocking’ white supremacist, Islamophobic links

The World Congress of Families, hosting an Accra ‘family and development’ event, has European allies who have called African migrants “slaves” and “poison”.

openDemocracy investigations
31 October 2019
Brian Brown, WCF president at its summit in Hungary, 2017, where prime minister Orbán gave an anti-immigrant opening speech.
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Picture: Elekes Andor/Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The US-led network behind an “African family and sustainable development” summit opening in Accra today has numerous links to Islamophobic, far-right and white supremacist movements, openDemocracy can reveal.

The World Congress of Families (WCF) is hosting a two-day “Africa regional gathering” in the Ghanaian capital from Thursday, seeking to meet with parliamentarians and religious leaders from the country.

While the WCF is best-known for publicly opposing LGBT rights and abortion, and its president has emphasised that it “condemns racism”, openDemocracy’s research has uncovered numerous connections between key WCF figures and other controversial movements internationally, including:

Responding to an email from openDemocracy, WCF president Brian Brown, who is set to speak at the event in Ghana, did not comment on specific examples cited in this article but sent a short response accusing openDemocracy of “lies” and “false claims”, adding: “We condemn racism, hatred, and violence. We always have”.

However in Accra, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, director of communications at the global feminist group AWID, described openDemocracy’s findings as “shocking”.

The WCF publicly “positions itself as ‘pro-family’, but is part of an extremist movement that actually divides and destroys families by disparaging diversity and promoting hate”, said Neela Ghoshal, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

A spokesperson for the Coalition for African Family Values of Love, Unity and Tolerance, a Ghanaian civil society group, condemned the WCF’s links to “movements that mistreat our black family in the diaspora”. She contrasted this with Ghana’s international reputation “as a peaceful and tolerant nation”.

Anti-migrant friends in Europe

In the US, WCF President Brian Brown runs the National Organization for Marriage lobby group, whose funders have reportedly included a foundation that also gave millions of dollars to organisations accused of promoting “anti-Muslim hate”.

Brown is also a founder of ActRight, a fundraising site for right-wing US politicians, whose recent Facebook posts have criticised Pope Francis for being a “homosexual supporter” and suggested the Pope is “perhaps a homosexual himself”.

In Europe, he appears to have cultivated close ties to far-right European politicians, who advocate for hardline anti-immigrant policies. In email newsletters, Brown has repeatedly emphasised his relationships with Matteo Salvini, until recently Italy’s interior minister, and Hungary’s prime minister Victor Orbán.

At least 50,000 Ghanaians live in Italy, where Salvini’s far-right Lega party has implemented a range of punitive anti-immigrant policies, including criminalising citizens who offer migrants food or shelter.

Last year, the African Union called for Salvini to retract comments describing African migrants as “slaves”, while dozens of black European politicians criticised Lega officials for comparing a former Italian minister, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to an “orangutan”.

Salvini’s decree to reduce the number of migrants granted humanitarian protection sparked large protests, including in Rome, December 2018. | Photo: Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto/PA Images.

This summer, Brian Brown celebrated – and claimed partial credit for – “a huge victory in the recent European Parliament elections” for Salvini’s Lega party.

He said in a newsletter that he “worked directly” with Salvini’s party on a WCF summit in Italy, in March, suggesting that this raised the party’s profile ahead of the elections and “helped establish a climate” where such “leaders [can] be elected”.

Brown also praised the “leadership” of Orbán in Hungary, who opened a 2017 WCF summit with a speech denouncing the “connection between immigration and terrorism”. Orbán has elsewhere referred to migrants as a “poison”.

Seeking to ‘meet and influence the political elite’

The WCF network has held previous African regional meetings in Kenya in 2018 and 2016, and in Malawi (2017), although Africans have made up just 3% (24) of about 800 speakers listed on the last ten programmes for WCF international summits, according to our analysis of these documents.

The Accra meeting is advertised online as an event for “advocates and believers”, government officials, NGOs and religious groups. Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah at AWID has described how WCF partners have sought to meet and “influence the political elite” ahead of the summit, focusing publicly on issues like LGBT rights.

Last month, a press conference in Accra to announce the WCF summit was reportedly attended by deputy health minister Alex Kodwo Kom Abban.

The WCF’s Ghanaian partners, members of the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family, also reportedly paid “courtesy calls” at the residences of former presidents John Kufuor and John Mahama (who is also a 2020 election candidate), and Sheikh Osmanu Nuhu Sharubutu, to personally invite them to the summit.

Concerns about Islamophobia and white nationalism

However, other Ghanaian civil society activists raised concerns about the WCF’s links to people accused of promoting Islamophobia or white nationalist views.

The WCF’s long-time communications director, Don Feder, once called for “Islam control”, and also criticised a campaign to put African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill, saying “it was white males who ended slavery”.

A previous openDemocracy investigation meanwhile revealed close coordination between the WCF’s partner CitizenGo, listed as a sponsor of the Accra event, and the new far-right Vox party that’s been accused of promoting Islamophobia in Spain.

CitizenGo did not respond to emailed requests for comment for this article.

“If you don’t think Muslims are vetted enough because they blow things up, that’s not racist”.

Feder, a long-term WCF collaborator, is also on the board of a group co-founded by anti-immigrant activist John Taunton, who corresponded with white nationalists including close associates of Klu Klux Klan members.

Meanwhile, speakers at the WCF’s event in Italy this March included a German princess who once blamed Africans for high rates of AIDS, saying “blacks like to copulate”, and an American activist who previously claimed: “If you don’t think Muslims are vetted enough because they blow things up, that’s not racist”.

Other past WCF summit speakers include a controversial US university president who reportedly warned of a coming “war against Christians”.

“Our African traditions encourage us to live peacefully together as family”.

In Ghana, the Coalition for African Family Values of Love, Unity and Tolerance spokesperson said it was “deeply concerned” about the WCF’s network and event in Accra amidst the Year of Return and the government’s outreach to the diaspora.

She also criticised the WCF’s better-known, public opposition to LGBT rights.

“Our African traditions encourage us to live peacefully together as family. Issues of sexuality are accorded privacy within our culture”, she said, condemning “efforts by individuals outside Ghana to come into our country and teach Ghanaians to discriminate against their own family because of their perceived sexuality”.

* This article was amended on 6 November 2019 to clarify that both John Kufuor and John Mahama were reportedly paid 'courtesy calls' by WCF partners. Mahama, not Kufuor, is a 2020 election candidate.

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