The World Congress of Families (WCF), a notorious anti-LGBTQ group that’s reportedly received funding from sanctioned Russian oligarchs, is hosting its annual conference in Verona, Italy next month. And a number of Americans have decided to join them.
Among the Americans slated to speak at the WCF conference are John Eastman, former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and now a professor at Chapman University, and megachurch pastor Jim Garlow. According to the WCF’s roster, they will also be joined by Mike Donnelly, a higher-up at the right-wing Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), and Sean O’Hare, the chairman of one of the most prominent anti-abortion groups aimed at American youth.
Donnelly confirmed to ThinkProgress that he would be speaking at the WCF conference next month. O’Hare, Garlow, Eastman, and Chapman University did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.
There’s nothing illegal about these Americans attending the upcoming conference, which will be hosted at the end of March. But WCF is currently the most prominent group linking the American religious right and sanctioned Russian oligarchs, and just a few months ago, the group hosted a Russian official sanctioned by both the Trump and Obama administrations.
The WCF — which the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group — is a joint Russian-American project dating to the mid-1990s. It has reportedly received funding from sanctioned Russian oligarchs like Konstantin Malofeev and Vladimir Yakunin, the latter of whom is a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Multiple media outlets, and even WCF’s own promotional material, have all linked Yakunin to the group, but a representative for Yakunin denied to ThinkProgress that Yakunin has funded the group.)
Just last year, the WCF, which did not respond to ThinkProgress’s questions, also hosted Yelena Mizulina as a speaker at its annual conference in Moldova. Mizulina is a member of the Russian Duma and has been sanctioned by both the Obama and Trump administrations. She also spoke at a homeschooling conference in Russia last year — an event hosted by Donnelly’s homeschooling organization in partnership with Malofeev’s foundation.
The WCF’s official Russian representative, Alexey Komov, has a history of praising fascists and anti-Semites, according to emails made public by the Russian hacking outfit Shaltai Boltai. In the emails, Komov referred to one Italian neo-fascist as a “friend” and the anti-Semitic “Russia Insider” outlet, run by an American named Charles Bausman, as a “good site.” (Komov has commented on those emails to say that the “information in the attachments does not properly reflect reality.”) Just last month, Bausman returned Komov’s praise, referring to him as a “good friend.” Komov also works directly for Malofeev, an oligarch sanctioned by the U.S. for his role in helping Russia try to break up Ukraine in 2014. WCF President Brian Brown recently said on Twitter that he “love[s]” Komov.
For good measure, the upcoming conference will also feature CitizenGO — an anti-LGBTQ Spanish group that includes Komov as part of its board.
And just last week, a bombshell investigation from Italy’s L’Espresso found that Komov was reportedly a key player in a financial scheme to funnel Russian money to Italian nationalists. Komov has yet to comment on the report.
Next month’s WCF conference will feature speakers from a number of countries outside the U.S. and Russia, including representatives from as far as Malawi and Nigeria. A handful of politicians are expected to speak, including Moldovan President Igor Dodon and Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
However, given the history of the Kremlin’s election meddling in the U.S., the ongoing standoff between Moscow and Washington, and the fact that the U.S. has sanctioned the oligarchs reportedly involved with the WCF, the Americans’ presence is perhaps the most notable.
Eastman, Justice Thomas’ former clerk, has worked closely with WCF head Brian Brown in the past, including at the vociferously anti-LGBTQ National Organization for Marriage, where Eastman works as the chairman.
Garlow, the megachurch pastor scheduled to speak at the WCF conference, is also well-known in religious right circles, especially for his role in promoting California’s anti-LGBTQ Proposition 8 measure a decade ago. He recently stepped down from working at California’s Skyline Church, but apparently hasn’t fully retired from public life. Rather, as Garlow told the Christian Post reported in September, he “recently launched a Bible study within a federal agency” in Washington. Garlow did not reveal which federal agency it was, but said that he was hoping to expand his teaching to at least three federal agencies in total.
Garlow also recently held Bible study sessions at the United Nations, with former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) providing help, according to the Christian Post. He even attended a White House dinner in August, joining some 100 other evangelical figures.
“It’s not surprising to see someone like Garlow, who is not a household name like Franklin Graham but is only one tier or so down in terms of being a serious evangelical influencer,” said Chris Stroop, who received a doctorate from Stanford in Russian history and has studied links between the Kremlin and America’s religious right. “He’s exactly the kind of person that WCF would want to hear from and promote. Garlow may be able to share anything that he’s learned about lobbying for the Christian Right’s agenda, and he may pick up some strategies from other people at this year’s WCF [conference] as well.”
O’Hare is among the WCF’s youngest speaker. He’s the current chair of Students for Life, and describes himself on his website as a “young, dynamic and influential speaker” with “business interests including manufacturing, restaurants and cyber security.”
There are no sanctioned Russian speakers currently slated to attend, despite the WCF’s previous history with Malofeev, Yakunin, and Mizulina. The most notable Russian national appears to be Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, who once compared LGBTQ people to murderers and bank robbers.
At last year’s WCF conference in Moldova, which ThinkProgress attended, Brown pledged that the WCF would continue to act as a bridge between Washington and the Kremlin.
“In the United States right now we have an investigation into the president over connections with Russia — and some want to use this to try and divide us,” Brown said. “Well, I wanted to tell everyone here that we know [that] what we’re doing leads to peace. We know that what we’re doing — in creating friendships of trust — is in the best interest of the family. And we know what we’re doing — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. The attempts to muddy the water are simply attempts to stop us from creating a more powerful, more global, unity around the family…
“The depths of our friendships will make it through.”