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Christian fundamentalists gathering in Moldova want you to know they’re not extremists

"We're often shown as a strange people, like we're homophobic fascists or something."

Moldovan President Igor Dodon celebrated the end of the World Congress of Families by posing with two dozen young girls. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL
Moldovan President Igor Dodon celebrated the end of the World Congress of Families by posing with two dozen young girls. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

CHISINAU, MOLDOVA — The Russian, American, and European Christian fundamentalists who participated in the weekend’s World Congress of Families (WCF) conference want people to know that they are not, in fact, extremists. They’re just here for the children.

The participants brought together by WCF — a joint Russian-American brainchild, started in the 1990s and a continued source of collaboration between those close to the Kremlin and America’s far-right — insisted they were merely advocating for love, faith, and family.

“We’re often shown as a strange people, like we’re homophobic fascists or something,” Alexey Komov, who runs sanctioned Russian official Konstantin Malofeev’s foundation, said. Or as James Kushiner, a U.S.-based religious publisher, told ThinkProgress, “What really motivates people here is the love of the child.”

And that may be the case for some of the approximately 2,000 individuals who made the trip to Chisinau. Given that the conference’s closing ceremonies featured two dozen young girls singing a Romanian version of “We are the World!” while clips of grinning babies cycled through on the giant screen behind them, there was certainly an overwhelming emphasis on the supposed well-being of children throughout the entire weekend. (Moldovan President Igor Dodon even made sure to get in on the action, posing alongside the girls for all to see.)

Speakers and attendees repeatedly emphasized that the threats facing children are everywhere, expanding every day. Governments are pushing the “promotion of pornography” and “homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle,” as Croatian organizer Zeljka Markic told listeners. Foreign forces across the world are targeting impressionable young ones — including, as Russian activist Elena Agafonova said, USAID, which she claimed is using Russian laws to eliminate so-called “traditional values.” (As Agafonova said, “When one devil is taken out of a body, seven others enter.”)

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And, of course, there’s still Satan, continuing his millennia-long quest to turn children to darkness. “Satan knows that his biggest success is that people don’t believe in him,” one Polish representative said. “Remember that.”

A group photo featuring all of the guests of honor at this weekend's WCF conference. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL
A group photo featuring all of the guests of honor at this weekend's WCF conference. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

Along with the children, activists identified other forces bringing them together in Moldova. For one Serbian activist, the WCF conference was necessary to combat “aggressive feminism” and “gender theory.” For Maxim Obukhov, identified as the “godfather of the pro-life movement in Russia,” activists needed to focus on the “emergence… of homosexual marriage — of perverted marriages.”

In light of these dangerous trends, participants on the final day of the conference exhorted one another to support each other and their mutual movements, and to support the notion that they can win the ongoing social struggles across the world. And while they acknowledged that campaigns across the West continue to be faltering, far-right Christians from Eastern Europe claimed they had found an answer: faith — and the Kremlin.

“The Russian nation carries a very important mission for all nations… to protect truth and the faith,” activist Andrei Zubenko said. “That’s why we’re grateful… [to] Putin.”

Power play

The geopolitics of the conference, the 12th of its kind, were impossible to miss. While WCF decided to pull its sponsorship of a planned 2014 conference for Russia — thanks to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine — this year’s conference featured a number of Russian speakers who were either sanctioned by the U.S. government, or directly connected to those sanctioned by Washington.

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In addition to Komov, Natalia Yakunina — married to sanctioned Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin, an alleged WCF funder — made an appearance as a featured speaker. And Russian Duma official Yelena Mizulina, also sanctioned by the U.S., managed to show up in person.

Sanctioned Russian official Yelena Mizulina made a guest appearance at this weekend's WCF conference. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL
Sanctioned Russian official Yelena Mizulina made a guest appearance at this weekend's WCF conference. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

The standout speaker on the conference’s final day was Georgian Archpriest Alexii Kshutashvili. While others droned about love and faith — including the Vatican secretary of state, who informed listeners of the “spiritual closeness” of Pope Francis — Kshutashvili decided to turn the tables on the conference’s organizers, who had uniformly praised Russian policies.

“The most important thing that threatens the family” in Georgia, according to Kshutashvili, was Russia’s ongoing occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Kshutashvili noted that the Russian invasion forced 400,000 residents to flee, separating hundreds of families along the way.

“Spouses separated, children separated,” Kshutashvili said. “It’s been a catastrophic development, and these people cannot return to their homes.” And the Russian military outposts located near the Georgian border? That’s “another thing that’s not propitious to our country.”

But Kshutashvili’s speech was an outlier in an otherwise pro-Kremlin event, with numerous speakers lauding Moscow and slamming the West’s progressive policies. “We central and Eastern European countries are often blamed for not being progressive,” one Hungarian speaker said. “Progressing towards what? Demographic collapse?”

Dodon, widely viewed as a pro-Russian politico, summed up the sentiments, marrying “traditional values” with broader geopolitical outlook. “Don’t force these [progressive] values on us,” he said, addressing an imaginary Western audience. “We want to be friends with you… but our values will be preserved.”

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The Moldovan president added that those gathered in the audience — the “pro-family” fundamentalists; the people insisting they weren’t extremists — were the last, best hope for families, and for the faithful. If not us, who?”, he asked. “If we succumb, who? We have no other option.”