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The European Congress of Families and The International Organization for the Family

Karam Bales delves into a conference with ties to a Russian backed anti-gender network

Miriam Cates MP speaking at the Northern Research Group conference in Doncaster in 2023. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Images/Alamy

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Conservative MPs Miriam Cates and Ranil Jayawardena attended the European Congress of Families conference (ECF) which ran from 15-17 September 2023 in Croatia, as speakers in a programme that included members of far-right parties, organisations designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as hate groups, and several of those named in a European Parliament report into the funding of religious extremism with dark money from the US radical right and Russia.

Both Cates and Jayawardena were outliers at the ECF for not having publicly called for a rolling back of sexuality and reproductive rights, and they have distanced themselves from the more strident positions of the recently rebranded and Russian-funded World Congress of Families.

However, Cates’ speeches at other conferences and the manifesto of her New Social Covenant initiative include some of the same motifs used by the anti-gender movement.

In the Background: a Hundred Million Dollar Network

Tip Of The Iceberg (TOTI), a report published in 2021 by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, assembled financial data between 2009 to 2018 to detail how more than $707million was funnelled into a network of more than 50 anti-gender actors operating in Europe with the intention of rolling back human rights in sexuality and reproduction under the guise of supporting the traditional family.          

A key organisation in this network bridging the US and Russia is the World Congress of Families (WCF) which rebranded in 2016 with its umbrella organisation the International Organization for the Family (IOF). One of ECF’s headline speakers was the IOF’s chairman Brian Brown, other speakers included IOF members Keith Mason and Allan C Carlson, WCF founder and International Secretary.

Brian Brown, who is also on the board of another key organisation, CitizenGO, is on TOTI’s list of the thirteen most influential individuals in the anti-gender network. TOTI’s section on Russian “laundromats” covers Brown’s involvement with WCF board member Alexey Komov.

Komov serves as the External Relations Representative of the Russian Orthodox Church , is a board member of CitizenGO and is the focal point for international projects at the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation, since its founder, the oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, was banned from Europe and much of the West due to sanctions after the annexation of Crimea. US intelligence services considered Malofeev to be “Putin’s right arm for operations of political interference in Europe”.

In total the report identifies $186,400,000 of Russian funding for anti-gender activities with $77,300,000 from the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation.

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Demonstrating its close ties to Putin’s regime, in 2014 the WCF was due to gather in Moscow, inside the Kremlin Palace, but because of international sanctions, the WCF rebranded the event as the “Large Families and the Future of Humanity Forum”, while keeping the same location, date, speakers and participants.

The largest European funder of anti-gender activities is the Jerome Lejeune Foundation (JLF) which spent $120,167,509 in the time period covered by the report. David G Lejeune who established the foundation’s US chapter, and was its President from March 2017 to February 2023, was a speaker at the ECF conference.

Another ECF speaker, David Ibáñez, represented Political Network for Values (PNfV), an ultra-conservative platform that connects far-right politicians and activists from Europe, Latin America, US and Africa, and is yet another influential organisation named in TOTI, receiving funding from the JLF.

PNfV has hosted events sponsored by organisations designated as anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups by the SPLC, according to an analysis by Ipas, an international organisation working to advance sexual and reproductive rights. Among the groups are Family Watch International, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), The Center for Family and Human Rights and the IOF. ADF provided $23,300,000 in funding to the network identified by TOTI.

Sharon Slater, the head of Family Watch International and a PNfV board member, was revealed by openDemocracy to have been deeply involved in the political organising behind the infamous Uganda law that criminalises LGBTQ+ people.

PNfV has close links to Hungarian politics, having previously been chaired by a former minister and member of the country’s parliament, Katalin Novák, who left her position with the organisation in 2022 to be sworn in as Hungary’s President. In 2020 the Hungarian Government provided $140,000 to PNfV and the next PNfV Trans-Atlantic Summit in November 2021 was held in the Hungarian Parliament.

Another speaker, Nicola Speranza, is Secretary General of the Federation of Catholic Family Associations, which is listed by TOTI as an anti-gender organisation and has produced joint reports with the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM). The ECPM has hosted events against abortion, surrogacy and in support of “reintegrative therapy”, a rebranded version of gay conversion therapy.

Diego von Stauffenberg, founding member of Crossroads Pro-Life, was at the ECF conference representing Rivada Networks, a US-based communications technology business financially backed by Peter Thiel.


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Right Wing Connections

The ECF conference featured numerous European politicians from the hard and far-right: Margarita De La Pisa Carrión, Victor González Coello de Portugal and Hermann Tertsch are all members of the Spanish far-right Vox Party which is named by TOTI as a beneficiary of anti-gender funding and is described as the “political expression” of CitizenGO and HazteOir, “one of the most important organisations on the far-right political spectrum” due to its extensive social media activity.

Three members of Georgio Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party, Eugenia Maria Roccella Minister for Family, Natality and Equal Opportunities, Nicola Procaccini MEP, and Cinzia Pellegrino of the Italian Senate also spoke at the event. 

Croatian MP Ladislav Ilčić, whose party openly advocates for a ban on abortion and artificial reproduction, was also a speaker at the conference. He has claimed “health education in schools is used to introduce homosexual propaganda” because “It teaches the children that homosexual acts are equally valuable and natural as heterosexual”, continuing “The Church condemns behaviour of homosexuals as evil and it has the right to say it.”

Also speaking was another Croatian MP, Vesna Vučemilović from the Homeland Movement, a coalition of minor right-wing and far-right parties which opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.

Jayawardena and Cates were approached for comment and asked what the values of the IOF are, as they understand them.

Jayawardena’s office replied, “Ranil was present for a short part of the conference – to set out his own views – and our records do not indicate that he shared a platform with anyone representing the International Organisation of the Family.”

Cates’ office was also keen to stress that speaking at the conference didn’t constitute sharing a platform with other speakers. “She spoke on a panel.  Nobody from that organisation was on the panel.  They were all MPs or MEPs.”

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