In a 17th century palazzo in the Italian city of love, an international alliance of far-right politicians, conservative activists and religious leaders have united in hate.
Over the past few years, the World Congress of Families, whose mission is to “defend the natural family,” was held in former Soviet states. This weekend, the conference’s 13th edition found a home in Verona, endorsed by the regional authority and Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant and xenophobic League party.
While Verona might be best known as the setting of the Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the picturesque northern city of just over 250,000 people has a long history connected to fascist and far-right groups. It was home to one of the headquarters of German Intelligence during the Nazi occupation and in the 1970s, a far-right terrorist network.
Today neo-fascist groups such as Casa Pound and Forza Nuova, whose leader held a press conference outside the venue on Saturday, have their headquarters in the city’s center. And most recently, Verona has become a flashpoint of far-right activity and a launching pad for some of the country’s most well-known – and controversial – politicians and ideas.
In October, Verona’s mayor Federico Sboarina declared the city “pro-life” after the town council passed a motion that would use public funds to finance anti-abortion programs, inspiring politicians in a few other cities, including Milan, Rome, Ferrara, Trieste and Sestri Levante to propose similar motions, although they did not pass.
Speaking to CNN from his office just steps away from the conference, Sboarina called Verona an “open city” where “everyone has the right to speak their minds.”
And Salvini, the conference’s keynote speaker, has never shied away from doing just that.
Inside the Gran Guardia Palace on Saturday, Salvini addressed several hundred attendees with a speech that spanned topics from population decline to illegal immigration and a critique of feminism.
“The feminists that speak of women’s rights and are the first to pretend to not see what is the first, only and major, real danger in 2019 for rights, social achievements, freedom to work, study, speak, study, dress as you like – and it’s not the World Family Congress – it’s Islamic extremism, a culture where the woman’s value is less than zero,” he said.
“The woman gets covered with a burka, the woman doesn’t have to leave the house, the woman shouldn’t wear a mini-skirt, and if she dresses too western, thinks too western or becomes too western, (they) beat her up. Not from the dangerous extremists of the Family Congress,” he added.
As he spoke, a sea of some 30,000 protesters, according to police, in fuchsia clothing flooded the city’s cobblestone streets and winding roads, carrying colorful banners and chanting a Romeo and Juliet analogy seen through feminist eyes.
“They kill us in the home, in the streets, in the work place – Verona is a city for feminism so now we say ‘Giuletta, don’t fear because life is too beautiful, don’t wait for a testicolo (a slang word, referring to an idiotic man) on the balcony.’”
As they approached the city gates, they shouted, “together we don’t fear,” a rallying call against the themes and ideas espoused by speakers and attendees inside the congress.
Those speakers included Lorenzo Fontana, Italy’s minister for family and disability, who has said that same-sex marriage, gender fluidity, and mass immigration were helping to “wipe out our community and our traditions.”
Also in attendance was the Russian Orthodox Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, who has said that Muslims will prevail over Christians, “because they don’t want to live in a state ruled by homosexuals,” and Babette Francis, the president of the Australian Endeavour Forum, an organization, which supports gay “conversion therapy,” and perpetuates a debunked theory that abortion is linked to breast cancer.
While the WCF and many of its speakers are no stranger to controversy, whatever public pushback they’ve experienced during the conference (including a petition signed by more than 670 researchers, academics and staff at the University of Verona, a call to boycott the hotels hosting delegates, and a series of counter-demonstrations) has only strengthened the resolve of the group in their defense of the ideas of the “natural family” and the freedom of speech.
On Friday, Italian journalist and WCF speaker Maria Giovanna Maglie railed against the “tyranny of the politically correct approach.”
“Long live liberty,” she said to a swell of applause inside the conference.
Much of the narrative throughout the weekend focused on the “beauty” of the “natural family,” defined by the group as one that exists as a heterosexual marriage bearing children.
“This universal truth of the beauty of the family is what binds us together,” Brian Brown, the conference’s president said in the conference’s opening address. “We are here today to defend, promote, protect and lift up something so basic, true and beautiful – the family – a man, a woman, a child,” he said.
Others made more political overtures under the “pro-family” umbrella.
In a speech applauding financial measures the Hungarian government has taken to drive up the national birth rate, Attila Beneda, Hungary’s Deputy State Secretary for Family and Population Policy, said the government was supporting Hungary’s future by “having children, not by immigration.”
Veteran WCF critics say that the pro-family movement’s language is just a front for divisive, harmful rhetoric that’s making gains in European institutions.
“They frame it as being in favor of family and life and religious freedom, but really what they mean is simply different ways of restricting peoples human rights,” Neil Datta, Secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, told CNN.
“Instead of talking about religious values, they’ve taken the same idea but have put it through a secularizing washing machine so it comes out sounding like modern human rights language,” Datta said. “But it’s the same basic idea.”
The WCF has become a breeding ground for more ambitious changes to human rights protection laws, he explained, noting that themes discussed at past forums have led to attempts by WCF supporters to advance their agenda inside the EU and the UN. They usually don’t make it that far, however, instead allying themselves with countries already entrenched in a pro-family political agenda, such as Hungary, Poland and Russia.
“People get together, then exchange different ideas…then you see these ideas appearing on a national level over the next few years,” Datta said, noting a few examples from recent WCF gatherings.
After a 2013 WCF meeting in Australia, Spain, Macedonia and Poland saw successive waves of attempts to restrict abortion rights, followed by different attempts to restrict LGBTQ rights, demonstrated through the constitutional referendums on the definition of marriage (as between a man as a woman) in Croatia, later followed by Romania. During the most recent congress in Moldova in 2018, conversations focused on supporting homeschooling and gender ideology.
This year’s theme, “The Wind of Change: Europe and the Global Pro-Family Movement” spells out those ambitions to make legal changes inside national and global institutions. Experts say it’s an indication that the pro-family community is strategizing on how it can influence legislation inside the EU after the European parliamentary elections that take place between May 23 and 26.
But inside the Verona mayor’s office, decorated with pictures of Pope Francis, an ultrasound scan of his soon-to-be born daughter, and a wooden cut-out of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sboarina added that that he was frustrated to hear the WCF was being politicized. Sboarina said that the conference has “no political relevance…no electoral relevance” and that “politics should be out of this.”
Human rights defenders however, say you can’t divorce the two.
‘An opportune topic’
Ilaria Ruzza, president of SAT Pink, a transgender group associated with the LGBTQ group, Circollo Pink, told CNN that Verona has “always been the lab of the far right,” and that LGBTQ rights have deteriorated in recent years.
“The hate was already here,” Ruzza said.
“You could smell it, you could feel it. Now you can see and feel it… now they have an authorization,” Ruzza said, adding that the city’s decision to hold the WCF conference – a platform she says gives “ignorant people the right to speak” – is particularly egregious for the taxpayer, as it was organized in one of the greatest palaces in the city, at no rental cost for the organizer. The Mayor’s office confirmed to CNN the venue was “donated” at no cost.
Other regional leaders and members of Salvini’s League party, have been more explicit about the convergence of the congress and politics.
On Friday, WCF Verona chairman Antonio Brandi “extended an invitation to all politicians and all who are present here to make the protection of the natural family their first unique priority.”
“We will win in the next European elections – the pro-family will be the majority in the European parliament,” said League member Claudio D’Amico.
The EU Parliament’s President Antonio Tajani was even listed as a congress speaker until a letter sent by members of the assembly’s intergroup on LGBTI rights asked him not to attend. When his attendance was noted absent at the conference due to the protesting of that group, the audience booed.
Kristina Stöckl, Professor at University of Innsbruck in Austria, has mapped the growth of the WCF. She says it’s clear that politicians are using family themes to drive their own agendas.
Europe’s nationalist and far-right political parties have seen a widespread resurgence on family-driven platforms, with Italy, under Salvini’s far-right League party, finding fertile ground with those initiatives.
In last year’s Italian parliamentary election, the League boosted their seats from 22 to 128. Now, it governs Europe’s fourth largest economy in a coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement party.
Once seen as a fringe party, Salvini’s league now enjoys the support of one in three Italians. Part of Salvini’s success is attributed to the way he’s co-opted the family values rhetoric, which some experts say gives him a softer appearance that appeals to a certain part of the electorate who might find his hardline position on other issues unacceptable.
“The populist right wasn’t interested in family to start with; they have discovered it because it’s an opportune topic, and they’re using it,” Stöckl said.
Similar to the Hungarian government’s take on its country’s own low birth rate, in an interview with the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper last July, Salvini said Italy’s low birth rate is being used as an excuse to “import immigrants.”
“A country which does not create children is destined to die,” he said, adding that Italy’s “tradition, our story, our identity,” was at stake as the left uses the fertility crisis as an “excuse” to “import migrants.”
Salvini, a Eurosceptic, has also used the family topic to “drive a point that is really not about family,” but about legal sovereignty, according to Stöckl.
In October, Verona re-branded itself as a “pro-life” city and announced it would host the WCF, Salvini saying, “This is the Europe that we like.”
“What Salvini – and not only Salvini, but also others – have been skillful in doing is that they basically say ‘the EU is imposing legislation on us that we don’t like, through things like the anti-discrimination directive or the European Courts of Human Rights that protects minorities.” It’s really about that; it’s about legal sovereignty, not wanting interference, Stöckl said.
A global network
But it’s not just European far-right leaders that are forging that agenda.
WCF president Brian Brown’s US-based International Organization for the Family organizes the WCF every year. Brown also heads the National Organization for Marriage, once a powerful force in funding pushes for same-sex marriage bans in the United States.
Interference – or influence – from US Christian right groups and Russian oligarchs have also fueled support for groups like the WCF, which have links to the far-right.
In an exclusive report this week, the UK website openDemocracy revealed that a dozen US-based Christian conservative groups have spent over $50 million in Europe in the last decade, with five of the groups previously listed as partners of the WCF network.
OpenDemocracy found some of the groups “sent teams of lobbyists to Brussels to influence EU officials, challenged laws against discrimination and hate speech in European courts, supported campaigns against LGBT rights in the Czech Republic and Romania, and funded a network of ‘grassroots’ anti-abortion campaigns in Italy and Spain.”
And it’s not just US money that is a part of this equation.
WCF’s roots were first planted in Russia following a meeting between American academic Allan Carlson and Russian intellectuals Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov.
Since then, those WCF and Russian connections have further entangled. Russian WCF representative Alexey Komov brings Russian Orthodox Oligarchs, including members of billionaire Konstantin Malofeev’s charity St. Basil the Great, to the conference annually.
Malofeev, the head of Russia’s biggest Orthodox charity, St. Basil the Great, was slapped with sanctions by the EU and the US for his alleged involvement in funding separatists in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In July 2014, after Ukraine opened an investigation into Malofeev’s financing of “illegal armed groups” and called him a “sponsor of terrorists,” he dismissed the investigation as “ridiculous,” according to the FT.
Those sanctions have stopped Malofeev’s physical presence at the WCF, but representatives from his charity were a visible presence throughout, speaking on “healthy families.” The themes in those workshops could find a home in parties contesting May’s European elections.
Still, a consortium of feminists, abortion rights activists and LGBTQ groups are pushing back. It’s the first time there’s been such a visible and organized opposition to the group.
“We want to make people aware of what is happening and to outline the threat that everybody is facing – it’s not just a feminist thing,” said Alessandra Celati, a historian and member of the “Non una di meno” group, who had organized the weekend of counter-protests in Verona.
“We want to create a bridge between our organization and others who want to contribute in the resistance to the medieval policies these people are pulling forward.”