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.