VERONA, Italy — Brian Brown made his name fighting against marriage equality in California, and his National Organization for Marriage once had a budget in the millions. But his stock plummeted as the Supreme Court allowed same-sex couples to marry nationwide with the support of the majority of Americans. His annual “March for Marriage” in Washington was so poorly attended that progressives gleefully shared pictures of empty grass around its rallying point on the National Mall.
But now he’s back.
This weekend Brown will be in the spotlight again, as the World Congress of Families (WCF) conference that he organizes heads to the Italian city of Verona. Billed as a gathering to “defend the natural family as the only fundamental and sustainable unit of society,” the event will be held over three days in a 17th-century palazzo. Brown is due to speak on the same program as one of Europe’s most influential — and divisive — politicians, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega party, who has become infamous for anti-immigrant rhetoric and his bullying Facebook persona. Other speakers include a minister of the far-right Hungarian government, a Nigerian anti-LGBT activist, and the Russian-aligned president of Moldova.
Behind all this is an alliance of conservative activists that connects a group of Russians close to Vladimir Putin with far-right Italian politicians and major players of the United States’ religious right. At a time when the fallout from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has some questioning whether concerns about Russian interference in Western politics were overblown, the WCF is a reminder of the many ways Putin has helped turn the politics of the West on its head. A social conservative movement that has lost much of its popular support has looked to Moscow to find new channels to power.
After a few years of meetings in small former communist capitals, the meeting in Verona gives the WCF a chance to return to the West with the backing of a party that is at the forefront of a right-wing European alliance. The location is significant: The small city an hour west of Venice has become ground zero for a new assault on women’s rights under Salvini’s Lega party.
Verona’s local government recently declared the city to be “pro-life” and diverted funding to anti-abortion groups, a measure that has since been introduced by local governments across Northern Italy. The former deputy mayor of Verona, who now serves as Italy’s family minister, wants to undo language in Italy’s constitution guaranteeing the right to an abortion, and is seeking new measures to prevent gay couples from becoming parents. Another local lawmaker has proposed that people be allowed to adopt fetuses as a way to stop women from getting abortions. And a senator from a neighboring region is seeking to overhaul divorce laws to weaken protections for women and abuse victims.
All these initiatives have been made possible by the political earthquake that made the Lega party Italy’s dominant political force in 2018. Salvini is not a committed social conservative — in fact, he’s a divorced former communist. But he was seeking support from the same Moscow circles that were cultivating ties to the Western religious right, and he has since welcomed Catholic fundamentalists into his party as he seeks to unite the Italian right behind him. Italy is the clearest test of whether the same formula that brought the religious right back to influence in the White House can work in Western Europe.
But former members of the Lega party view Salvini’s courting of the religious right as a calculated and cynical move. Flavio Tosi, a former mayor of Verona and one-time rival to lead Salvini’s Lega party, told BuzzFeed News that Salvini recognized that neofascist groups had been “orphaned” by Italy’s major parties, and went after their supporters.
And so, just like immigrants, Salvini finds feminists and other social progressives to be useful political targets.
“He understood he had to find the enemy.”
When it was first launched in the 1990s by a trio of obscure historians and sociologists, the World Congress of Families styled itself as an academic conference focused on reversing declining birth rates in the West. Over the years, its biannual forums featured everyone from early childhood education experts to anti-pornography crusaders to wannabe European royalty.
It also drew a number of major figures from the US religious right as it grew into a hub for anti-abortion and anti-LGBT groups around the world. Its importance grew during the years that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were promoting LGBT and women’s rights around the world. It was especially helpful to Brown — just as he was being defeated in his years-long crusade to stop marriage equality in the US, he began plotting to go international. Brown did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Brown’s organization chose Verona after it passed unprecedented anti-abortion legislation in 2018. Known by the name of its sponsor, Alberto Zelger, the legislation funds what are known in the US as “crisis pregnancy centers” to divert women away from having abortions. While these centers are common in the US, they broke a taboo in Italy. Italians voted overwhelmingly to keep abortion legal in 1981, but now government money was being used to stop women from accessing the procedure.
The Zelger law, which has already been introduced in dozens of other local governments across Northern Italy, is especially alarming to reproductive rights advocates because Italy’s strong legal protections for abortion access are also being undermined by a growing movement among doctors to refuse to perform the procedure on religious grounds. Earlier this month, the leader of an Italian gynecological association warned that the shortage of abortion providers was reaching crisis levels because so many universities were now refusing to even teach the procedure.
Italy’s courts have also recently dealt some shocking blows to women’s rights. Earlier this month, a court reduced a man’s sentence for killing his wife, citing his “anger and desperation” about her relationship with another man. In another, a rape conviction was tossed out in a case where judges had doubted the alleged victim because she appeared “too masculine” to be an attractive target.
On the national level, women’s rights activists are especially alarmed by a revision of the divorce laws proposed by a senator from the Lega party, which a United Nations human rights official has warned could dramatically reverse protections for women and victims of domestic abuse.
“It’s just a way to put women back in their place,” said Giulia Siviero, a journalist from Verona who is also a spokesperson for a feminist coalition called Non Una di Meno that is organizing protests against the WCF meeting.
Siviero sees Italy as a proving ground of what happens to women’s rights when an opportunist nationalist wins power. Salvini was elected in 2018 with a campaign featuring Trumpian anti-immigrant rhetoric, but he gained just over 17% of the vote and was forced to partner with a larger party to take control of government. He is now the most popular politician in Italy with his party supported by 1 in 3 Italians, and his best path to power is to consolidate as many factions on the right as possible.
“It’s common ground in ideology. They come together on immigration issues and on women’s bodies — they fit together ideologically,” Siviero said. “It’s as if Lega created a sort of tank where all these parts could come together in one big pot.”
When asked whether he was trying to defend the “Christian family” during a right-wing forum last summer, Salvini responded, “Not for me — I’m divorced.” But he’s also happy to portray himself as a champion of Catholic fundamentalists. When he was sworn in as deputy prime minister last June, Salvini held a rosary in his hand, a gesture that shocked even some members of his own party for crossing well-established rules in Italian politics about the boundaries between religion and politics.
He is now one of the greatest heroes to the global right and the greatest villains for the left. “Italy is now the center of the universe of politics,” Steve Bannon has said of Salvini’s rise to power.
The unofficial leader of Lega’s religious right is a former deputy mayor of Verona and member of the EU Parliament, Lorenzo Fontana, who asked Salvini to be a witness to his wedding. Fontana’s longtime spiritual mentor is reported to be a priest who believes homosexuality is “a rebellion against God” caused by the devil.
“I know that Salvini doesn’t give a shit about the rosary — I told you he’s cynical,” Flavio Tosi, the former Lega mayor of Verona who was once Fontana’s mentor, told BuzzFeed News. Tosi said that the Lega wasn’t interested in fundamentalist causes until Fontana got close to Salvini.
Salvini’s spokesperson, following questions about allegations that he was backing social conservative causes out of political expediency, said in a WhatsApp message: “Non-existent controversies. We protect Italian families. But divorce, abortion, equal rights between women and men, freedom of choice for all are not in question.” Fontana’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Salvini, whose favorite way to communicate with the public is by livestreaming on Facebook, excels at the kind of chauvinism that excites people who hate feminism. In 2016, he mocked one of Italy’s most senior women politicians by saying a sex doll was her “double.” Italian police are now conducting an investigation of another incident, in which a 22-year-old woman received hundreds of insulting messages after Salvini posted a picture of her online carrying a sign during a protest against Salvini that read “Better a slut than a fascist.”
“What a lovely lady 😂,” he tweeted.
“Is Salvini a convinced fundamentalist Catholic? Absolutely not. He is a sexist,” said Siviero, the feminist coalition spokesperson. “But he goes along with people who represent that other world that he does not completely believe in, and so seals the relationship between the extreme right and Catholicism.”
WCF leaders have been thrilled to embrace Salvini despite his often abusive rhetoric toward women and immigrants. “Proud to be in #rome with Italian Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini,” Brown tweeted after a meeting late last year.
What’s scary, Siviero said, is that these ideas are “contagious.” Whether or not the more radical proposals from Lega to roll back women’s rights become law, they’re “planting a seed” that is giving marginal right-wing factions new life. These include neofascist groups in a country where the ideology has been outlawed since World War II.
But at this conference, unlike the ones held in Eastern Europe, Siviero said the WCF will face a backlash. Non Uno di Meno is holding four days of protests, including an international conference featuring the founder of the Argentinian feminist organization that inspired them. And the leader of Lega’s coalition partner in government has denounced the conference, saying the group has “medieval views on women.”
At the center of the web of alliances that connects the WCF to Italy sits a little-known Russian named Alexey Komov with connections to major powers in Moscow.
Komov first became known to Western religious conservative circles about a decade ago, billing himself as “a Christian family advocate and professional marketing and real estate consultant and entrepreneur.” Komov was “very eager” to play a leading role in the WCF, a former American member of the organizing committee named Austin Ruse told BuzzFeed News, but his first bid to bring the conference to Moscow was rejected because it was half-baked.
The group accepted his bid for the 2014 WCF when he returned with the backing of some powerful Russian oligarchs, including an investment banker named Konstantin Malofeev. They started planning a 2014 summit to be held in the Kremlin, which they promoted as the “‘Olympics’ of the international Pro-Life movement supporting the Natural Family.”
The Moscow summit came at an extraordinary moment. All eyes were on Russia, with the Winter Olympics due to be held in Sochi in January 2014. The lead-up to the Games was upstaged by a global showdown over LGBT rights. Putin, who had been in power since 1999, had begun to cast himself as the defender of Orthodox values against the hedonistic West, namely through a campaign to demonize homosexuality, epitomized in the passage of a law banning so-called gay propaganda. Major players in the US religious right — who came of age with a Cold War mindset that saw Russia as godless enemy — were suddenly wondering if Putin were the counterweight to the Obama administration they’d been waiting for.
Soon, Komov began pushing the limits of even what some American organizers were comfortable with. Ruse said his organization and other prominent WCF sponsors nearly walked out of an October 2013 planning meeting because Komov wanted to include Scott Lively, an anti-gay activist from Massachussets who played a key role in inspiring Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill and the author of a book that suggested gay people were responsible for the Holocaust. Komov also went on a spectacular rant during a press conference in Washington in early February 2014, suggesting hundreds had been murdered to cover up the true story of John F. Kennedy’s assasination and questioning whether al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
When Russia seized Crimea in February 2014, it suddenly seemed like a bad idea to be openly aligned with the Russians. The US government slapped sanctions on Malofeev, who was funding seperatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine at the same time he was backing the WCF. The WCF ultimately took its name off the Moscow conference, but many of its key players attended the meeting, which was hastily rebranded.
A spokesperson for Malofeev declined to comment for this story, writing, “We do not comment on rumors and conjectures distilled from unknown resources to us by journalists.”
Dozens of Komov’s emails about the meeting were leaked in 2014 by a group of hackers, which showed that Komov was involved in another one of Malofeev’s major projects — building relationships with far-right groups throughout Europe. In one note, Komov called one of Italy’s best known neofascist leaders a “friend.”
The leak included an email from Brown, in which he told Komov, “the Forum was amazing and all of this press will work to the greater benefit of the pro-family worldwide movement if we respond properly."
Komov forwarded this email to Malofeev with the note, “The empire strikes back :)”
Brown has denied that the Russians held sway over the WCF, telling BuzzFeed News in the summer of 2018 that he had “absolutely never been asked by [his] Russian associates, friends, or Alexey Komov to do something that would undermine the United States.”
“I think it’s sad there’s an attempt to paint all Russians as somehow anti-American and not united with us on family,” he said. Komov did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Komov had begun courting Lega from the moment Salvini took control of the party. He was invited to address the 2013 convention in which Salvini was selected as party secretary. And he has a leadership role in an organization that was instrumental in brokering a meeting between Salvini and Putin in 2014. Salvini has since proved a key ally to Russia in the EU, working to undo sanctions imposed by the bloc. There are also new allegations from the Italian magazine Espresso that the Russian state oil company was looking for ways to funnel cash to Salvini’s party.
The Verona conference brings these relationships full circle.
Verona is a “perfect match” for the WCF, Brown wrote in a fundraising email last year, shortly after the event was announced. “Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini will welcome us to his wonderful country with arms wide open.”
“We’ve never been more effective than we are right now,” he continued, “and we intend to do even more in the coming year.” ●