Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on March 28, 2019, at 6:00 a.m. ET
VERONA, Italy — Brian Brown made his name fighting against marriage equality in California, and his National Organization for Marriage once had a budget in the millions. But his stock plummeted as the Supreme Court allowed same-sex couples to marry nationwide with the support of the majority of Americans. His annual “March for Marriage” in Washington was so poorly attended that progressives gleefully shared pictures of empty grass around its rallying point on the National Mall.
But now he’s back.
This weekend Brown will be in the spotlight again, as the World Congress of Families (WCF) conference that he organizes heads to the Italian city of Verona. Billed as a gathering to “defend the natural family as the only fundamental and sustainable unit of society,” the event will be held over three days in a 17th-century palazzo. Brown is due to speak on the same program as one of Europe’s most influential — and divisive — politicians, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega party, who has become infamous for anti-immigrant rhetoric and his bullying Facebook persona. Other speakers include a minister of the far-right Hungarian government, a Nigerian anti-LGBT activist, and the Russian-aligned president of Moldova.
Behind all this is an alliance of conservative activists that connects a group of Russians close to Vladimir Putin with far-right Italian politicians and major players of the United States’ religious right. At a time when the fallout from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has some questioning whether concerns about Russian interference in Western politics were overblown, the WCF is a reminder of the many ways Putin has helped turn the politics of the West on its head. A social conservative movement that has lost much of its popular support has looked to Moscow to find new channels to power.
After a few years of meetings in small former communist capitals, the meeting in Verona gives the WCF a chance to return to the West with the backing of a party that is at the forefront of a right-wing European alliance. The location is significant: The small city an hour west of Venice has become ground zero for a new assault on women’s rights under Salvini’s Lega party.
Verona’s local government recently declared the city to be “pro-life” and diverted funding to anti-abortion groups, a measure that has since been introduced by local governments across Northern Italy. The former deputy mayor of Verona, who now serves as Italy’s family minister, wants to undo language in Italy’s constitution guaranteeing the right to an abortion, and is seeking new measures to prevent gay couples from becoming parents. Another local lawmaker has proposed that people be allowed to adopt fetuses as a way to stop women from getting abortions. And a senator from a neighboring region is seeking to overhaul divorce laws to weaken protections for women and abuse victims.
All these initiatives have been made possible by the political earthquake that made the Lega party Italy’s dominant political force in 2018. Salvini is not a committed social conservative — in fact, he’s a divorced former communist. But he was seeking support from the same Moscow circles that were cultivating ties to the Western religious right, and he has since welcomed Catholic fundamentalists into his party as he seeks to unite the Italian right behind him. Italy is the clearest test of whether the same formula that brought the religious right back to influence in the White House can work in Western Europe.
But former members of the Lega party view Salvini’s courting of the religious right as a calculated and cynical move. Flavio Tosi, a former mayor of Verona and one-time rival to lead Salvini’s Lega party, told BuzzFeed News that Salvini recognized that neofascist groups had been “orphaned” by Italy’s major parties, and went after their supporters.
And so, just like immigrants, Salvini finds feminists and other social progressives to be useful political targets.
“He understood he had to find the enemy.”
When it was first launched in the 1990s by a trio of obscure historians and sociologists, the World Congress of Families styled itself as an academic conference focused on reversing declining birth rates in the West. Over the years, its biannual forums featured everyone from early childhood education experts to anti-pornography crusaders to wannabe European royalty.
It also drew a number of major figures from the US religious right as it grew into a hub for anti-abortion and anti-LGBT groups around the world. Its importance grew during the years that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were promoting LGBT and women’s rights around the world. It was especially helpful to Brown — just as he was being defeated in his years-long crusade to stop marriage equality in the US, he began plotting to go international. Brown did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Brown’s organization chose Verona after it passed unprecedented anti-abortion legislation in 2018. Known by the name of its sponsor, Alberto Zelger, the legislation funds what are known in the US as “crisis pregnancy centers” to divert women away from having abortions. While these centers are common in the US, they broke a taboo in Italy. Italians voted overwhelmingly to keep abortion legal in 1981, but now government money was being used to stop women from accessing the procedure.
The Zelger law, which has already been introduced in dozens of other local governments across Northern Italy, is especially alarming to reproductive rights advocates because Italy’s strong legal protections for abortion access are also being undermined by a growing movement among doctors to refuse to perform the procedure on religious grounds. Earlier this month, the leader of an Italian gynecological association warned that the shortage of abortion providers was reaching crisis levels because so many universities were now refusing to even teach the procedure.
Italy’s courts have also recently dealt some shocking blows to women’s rights. Earlier this month, a court reduced a man’s sentence for killing his wife, citing his “anger and desperation” about her relationship with another man. In another, a rape conviction was tossed out in a case where judges had doubted the alleged victim because she appeared “too masculine” to be an attractive target.
On the national level, women’s rights activists are especially alarmed by a revision of the divorce laws proposed by a senator from the Lega party, which a United Nations human rights official has warned could dramatically reverse protections for women and victims of domestic abuse.
“It’s just a way to put women back in their place,” said Giulia Siviero, a journalist from Verona who is also a spokesperson for a feminist coalition called Non Una di Meno that is organizing protests against the WCF meeting.
Siviero sees Italy as a proving ground of what happens to women’s rights when an opportunist nationalist wins power. Salvini was elected in 2018 with a campaign featuring Trumpian anti-immigrant rhetoric, but he gained just over 17% of the vote and was forced to partner with a larger party to take control of government. He is now the most popular politician in Italy with his party supported by 1 in 3 Italians, and his best path to power is to consolidate as many factions on the right as possible.
“It’s common ground in ideology. They come together on immigration issues and on women’s bodies — they fit together ideologically,” Siviero said. “It’s as if Lega created a sort of tank where all these parts could come together in one big pot.”
When asked whether he was trying to defend the “Christian family” during a right-wing forum last summer, Salvini responded, “Not for me — I’m divorced.” But he’s also happy to portray himself as a champion of Catholic fundamentalists. When he was sworn in as deputy prime minister last June, Salvini held a rosary in his hand, a gesture that shocked even some members of his own party for crossing well-established rules in Italian politics about the boundaries between religion and politics.
He is now one of the greatest heroes to the global right and the greatest villains for the left. “Italy is now the center of the universe of politics,” Steve Bannon has said of Salvini’s rise to power.
The unofficial leader of Lega’s religious right is a former deputy mayor of Verona and member of the EU Parliament, Lorenzo Fontana, who asked Salvini to be a witness to his wedding. Fontana’s longtime spiritual mentor is reported to be a priest who believes homosexuality is “a rebellion against God” caused by the devil.
“I know that Salvini doesn’t give a shit about the rosary — I told you he’s cynical,” Flavio Tosi, the former Lega mayor of Verona who was once Fontana’s mentor, told BuzzFeed News. Tosi said that the Lega wasn’t interested in fundamentalist causes until Fontana got close to Salvini.
Salvini’s spokesperson, following questions about allegations that he was backing social conservative causes out of political expediency, said in a WhatsApp message: “Non-existent controversies. We protect Italian families. But divorce, abortion, equal rights between women and men, freedom of choice for all are not in question.” Fontana’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Salvini, whose favorite way to communicate with the public is by livestreaming on Facebook, excels at the kind of chauvinism that excites people who hate feminism. In 2016, he mocked one of Italy’s most senior women politicians by saying a sex doll was her “double.” Italian police are now conducting an investigation of another incident, in which a 22-year-old woman received hundreds of insulting messages after Salvini posted a picture of her online carrying a sign during a protest against Salvini that read “Better a slut than a fascist.”
“What a lovely lady 😂,” he tweeted.
“Is Salvini a convinced fundamentalist Catholic? Absolutely not. He is a sexist,” said Siviero, the feminist coalition spokesperson. “But he goes along with people who represent that other world that he does not completely believe in, and so seals the relationship between the extreme right and Catholicism.”
WCF leaders have been thrilled to embrace Salvini despite his often abusive rhetoric toward women and immigrants. “Proud to be in #rome with Italian Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini,” Brown tweeted after a meeting late last year.
What’s scary, Siviero said, is that these ideas are “contagious.” Whether or not the more radical proposals from Lega to roll back women’s rights become law, they’re “planting a seed” that is giving marginal right-wing factions new life. These include neofascist groups in a country where the ideology has been outlawed since World War II.
But at this conference, unlike the ones held in Eastern Europe, Siviero said the WCF will face a backlash. Non Uno di Meno is holding four days of protests, including an international conference featuring the founder of the Argentinian feminist organization that inspired them. And the leader of Lega’s coalition partner in government has denounced the conference, saying the group has “medieval views on women.”
At the center of the web of alliances that connects the WCF to Italy sits a little-known Russian named Alexey Komov with connections to major powers in Moscow.
Komov first became known to Western religious conservative circles about a decade ago, billing himself as “a Christian family advocate and professional marketing and real estate consultant and entrepreneur.” Komov was “very eager” to play a leading role in the WCF, a former American member of the organizing committee named Austin Ruse told BuzzFeed News, but his first bid to bring the conference to Moscow was rejected because it was half-baked.
The group accepted his bid for the 2014 WCF when he returned with the backing of some powerful Russian oligarchs, including an investment banker named Konstantin Malofeev. They started planning a 2014 summit to be held in the Kremlin, which they promoted as the “‘Olympics’ of the international Pro-Life movement supporting the Natural Family.”
The Moscow summit came at an extraordinary moment. All eyes were on Russia, with the Winter Olympics due to be held in Sochi in January 2014. The lead-up to the Games was upstaged by a global showdown over LGBT rights. Putin, who had been in power since 1999, had begun to cast himself as the defender of Orthodox values against the hedonistic West, namely through a campaign to demonize homosexuality, epitomized in the passage of a law banning so-called gay propaganda. Major players in the US religious right — who came of age with a Cold War mindset that saw Russia as godless enemy — were suddenly wondering if Putin were the counterweight to the Obama administration they’d been waiting for.
Soon, Komov began pushing the limits of even what some American organizers were comfortable with. Ruse said his organization and other prominent WCF sponsors nearly walked out of an October 2013 planning meeting because Komov wanted to include Scott Lively, an anti-gay activist from Massachussets who played a key role in inspiring Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill and the author of a book that suggested gay people were responsible for the Holocaust. Komov also went on a spectacular rant during a press conference in Washington in early February 2014, suggesting hundreds had been murdered to cover up the true story of John F. Kennedy’s assasination and questioning whether al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
When Russia seized Crimea in February 2014, it suddenly seemed like a bad idea to be openly aligned with the Russians. The US government slapped sanctions on Malofeev, who was funding seperatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine at the same time he was backing the WCF. The WCF ultimately took its name off the Moscow conference, but many of its key players attended the meeting, which was hastily rebranded.
A spokesperson for Malofeev declined to comment for this story, writing, “We do not comment on rumors and conjectures distilled from unknown resources to us by journalists.”
Dozens of Komov’s emails about the meeting were leaked in 2014 by a group of hackers, which showed that Komov was involved in another one of Malofeev’s major projects — building relationships with far-right groups throughout Europe. In one note, Komov called one of Italy’s best known neofascist leaders a “friend.”
The leak included an email from Brown, in which he told Komov, “the Forum was amazing and all of this press will work to the greater benefit of the pro-family worldwide movement if we respond properly."
Komov forwarded this email to Malofeev with the note, “The empire strikes back :)”
Brown has denied that the Russians held sway over the WCF, telling BuzzFeed News in the summer of 2018 that he had “absolutely never been asked by [his] Russian associates, friends, or Alexey Komov to do something that would undermine the United States.”
“I think it’s sad there’s an attempt to paint all Russians as somehow anti-American and not united with us on family,” he said. Komov did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Komov had begun courting Lega from the moment Salvini took control of the party. He was invited to address the 2013 convention in which Salvini was selected as party secretary. And he has a leadership role in an organization that was instrumental in brokering a meeting between Salvini and Putin in 2014. Salvini has since proved a key ally to Russia in the EU, working to undo sanctions imposed by the bloc. There are also new allegations from the Italian magazine Espresso that the Russian state oil company was looking for ways to funnel cash to Salvini’s party.
The Verona conference brings these relationships full circle.
Verona is a “perfect match” for the WCF, Brown wrote in a fundraising email last year, shortly after the event was announced. “Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini will welcome us to his wonderful country with arms wide open.”
“We’ve never been more effective than we are right now,” he continued, “and we intend to do even more in the coming year.”
Last updated on November 10, 2018, at 12:21 p.m. ET
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 10, 2018, at 9:32 a.m. ET
RIACE, Italy — Domenico Lucano just wants the world to leave him alone.
Lucano is the mayor of a tiny medieval village, near Italy’s southern tip, that he saved from extinction by welcoming hundreds of refugees. Today he’s in demand from progressives around the world, a symbol of the resistance to the global rise of the far right and anti-immigration sentiment. On Saturday, he was a star speaker at a rally of tens of thousands of people against anti-immigrant legislation in Rome.
But he's not enjoying the attention.
“Enough! Everybody wants my attention — I might as well kill myself at this point!” Lucano shouted through a scratchy apartment building intercom when BuzzFeed News tracked him down one evening last week. “Everyone is using me... Nobody ever cared about the refugees and now, here you are. I am bitter. About everything.”
Lucano’s town, Riace, started welcoming the refugees sailing to Italy more than 20 years ago. But he really grabbed international attention at the height of the refugee crisis in 2016. He was celebrated by Fortune magazine as one of the “World’s Greatest Leaders,” visited by countless reporters, and praised by the pope. More than 300 communities in Italy and beyond now run their own programs to integrate immigrants on what’s become known as the “Riace model.”
“Everyone is using me... Nobody ever cared about the refugees and now, here you are. I am bitter. About everything.”
But his life’s work is about to be erased by the star of Europe’s nationalist movements, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Salvini became Italy’s dominant politician by using social media to turn the country’s politics into a constant shouting match over immigration, and has permanently cut off funding for Riace’s programs. He’s on the verge of passing sweeping anti-immigrant legislation that could gut similar initiatives across Italy and lead to thousands of deportations.
Salvini pounced on Riace in October, just after prosecutors presented charges against Lucano including mishandling town contracts and “facilitating illegal immigration.” Lucano’s allies say the prosecution is politically motivated and a judge tossed out the most serious allegations. But the court barred Lucano from entering Riace, using a provision usually reserved for cases of Mafia corruption or harassment.
“I wonder what … all the do-gooders who want to fill Italy with immigrants are thinking now,” Salvini said when posting the news on Twitter.
Italy’s left was shattered by the last election, and there are no credible politicians on the national stage who can take Salvini on. Many are looking to Lucano to fill that void. But Lucano doesn’t want to be a martyr for the left. And he couldn’t out-shout Salvini if he tried — the minister has more than 3.5 million followers on Facebook, while Lucano has scarcely posted to social media in the past three years.
When he finally sat down for an interview, the calls only stopped coming when his cellphone died. He lost his temper with one caller, who wanted him to attend a rally later this month 300 miles away.
“I am not angry with you — I am angry with myself,” he quickly apologized. “I am just sick of it all… I know everyone is trying to help, I understand who you are.
“I am called elsewhere, but Riace is failing.”
Lucano briefly slept in his car after being sent into exile, and is now staying in a bare-bones apartment in a nearby town.
His office is a kitchen lit by naked lightbulbs and his desk is a dining table covered by a cloth decorated with farm animals that seems to be straight out of the 1950s. The only food in sight when he spoke with BuzzFeed News was a partly eaten tray of cookies and a bottle of greenish-white citrus liqueur, which — ever the good host — he offered even as he vented his frustration in a mix of Italian and the local dialect.
“I am tired... You see how I live — my bedroom is a disgusting mess,” he said. “I am ashamed to show it to you. This is it, what you see. I have no means.”
“I am called elsewhere, but Riace is failing.”
Riace is in even worse shape. A crowdfunding campaign is underway that has raised almost $350,000 for the town, but it needs more than $2 million to avoid bankruptcy. And hundreds of immigrants relying on the program have no money for food or rent. Their children have stopped going to school because there is no gas for the school bus.
Lucano spoke to BuzzFeed News just after returning from a rally in Milan, an event he’d forgotten about until just hours before he had to be at the airport. The rally had left a sour taste in his mouth, even though he seemed moved that it had brought together factions that hadn’t come together for 20 years. He didn’t say what had upset him, but it might have been that Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala of the center-left Democratic Party, hosted Lucano and then immediately posted an interview on the party’s website saying Italians become racist when “immigrants touch our needs and opportunities.”
He was missed while he was gone. One of Italy’s most respected anti-racism activists showed up in Riace after driving six hours from Sicily. He’d come to invite Lucano to the big protest against Salvini’s policies in Rome. A pair of vacationing environmental activists from Germany also wandered into town to offer their support. Even Lucano’s 92-year-old father, Roberto, said he couldn’t get his son on the phone after he abruptly canceled a lunch date when he remembered he had to fly out the day before.
Roberto is proud of his son, saying he’d always had a passion for social justice. As a teenager, Roberto remembered, the boy had turned down a soccer prize because he believed credit should go to his entire team.
When asked about this story, the mayor said that his morality was shaped even then by a feeling that “we were close to a global revolution.” He keenly remembered the US-backed coup that overthrew Chile’s socialist president in 1973, when he was just 15. Lucano said he is still guided by the words of Che Guevara, “We, unfortunately must feel on our own skin any injustice and humiliation that may happen to any other human being.”
He initially hesitated when asked whether he was so tired that he thought he could quit.
“I do not know — I don’t know anything,” he said, slumping over a pile of folders containing reports of the investigations against him. “I involuntarily became the symbol of the Italian left.”
But he soon recovered his energy and his composure, and his thoughts began to come out in long speeches that referenced radical priests, Malcolm X, and the Beatles. He explained that though Guevara’s words had given him his mission, he had always worried he might not be strong enough to bear the burdens of others.
“It was such a beautiful project and in the past two years it’s gone to shit,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
Calabria, the region where Riace lies, has always taught people to treat migrants with empathy, Lucano said, in part due to the long tradition of Calabrians crossing oceans looking for work. The numbers who settled in the US helped popularize a regional dish, spaghetti with meatballs. Calabria is said to have been visited by Homer’s Odysseus and at various times sheltered wandering sailors from Greece, Africa, and the Middle East.
There was no grand plan when he decided to begin working with refugees, he said. “I did whatever came naturally to me.”
One of the newer arrivals now depending on Riace is Evelyn Samuel, a 28-year-old from Nigeria’s Delta State, part of a region that has seen decades of fighting over the region’s oil supplies. She spent six years working in Libya before it became too unstable and she decided to get on a boat for Italy with her months-old baby. She was settled in Riace 10 months ago after being rescued at sea by a boat operated by an NGO.
“I don’t know where to go,” Samuel said tearfully in English, calling Lucano by the Italian word for mayor, sindaco. “Salvini don’t like sindaco. Salvini don’t like black [people]. And sindaco like black [people]… Salvini now is chasing us away. ”
Confusion has spread as the program collapsed, and some of the immigrants believe Lucano is to blame for the funding being shut off. Many direct their anger at his partner, a refugee from Ethiopia, believing she manipulated Lucano into playing favorites among the refugees, putting the whole program in danger.
With Lucano in exile, “It’s kind of a desperate situation — no one can fill that void,” said Bahram Arcar, who arrived with the first group of refugees in Riace 20 years ago. He now works for the collective Lucano created to run refugee programs. But with the program out of money, he too will have to leave since he has no way to support his family.
“It was such a beautiful project and in the past two years it’s gone to shit,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
Arcar arrived in Riace with a group of around 200 refugees in 1998, on a boat that landed on a nearby beach after a dangerous eight-day voyage from the southern coast of Turkey.
They were part of an exodus from Kurdistan, fleeing a civil war between Kurdish factions and efforts by Saddam Hussein to retake a region of northern Iraq that became independent after he was defeated in the Gulf War that ended in 1991. Their arrival in Europe sparked a crisis inside the EU that has many parallels with the one faced by the bloc today, but the players were reversed. Italy, with urging from the Catholic Church, championed the cause of the refugees, while Germany questioned whether a southern European country with such a porous border should be allowed into the EU’s newly created free travel zone.
Lucano, then a teacher in Riace’s school, said the geopolitics were far from his mind when he first heard about the Kurds’ arrival from the local bishop. When the Kurds lost their shelter at a local church, Lucano called his aunt in Argentina and other relatives overseas to ask for permission to put them up in the houses they’d left behind. He’d lined up shelter for 100 people within a few hours, sometimes in houses that had stood empty for 50 years. They sometimes had to break in — keys had disappeared from hiding places on rotted windowsills or crumbling walls — and they scrounged candles for light.
It felt like fate had brought them there, Lucano said. He recalled one of the Kurds telling him, “We are people without a home, and we arrived in a place made of houses without people.”
“We are people without a home, and we arrived in a place made of houses without people.”
Most of the Kurds eventually left to join family in Germany. But Lucano, Arcar, and a few others decided to create a collective, called Future City, to welcome other refugees. They planned to restore buildings, set up apprenticeships with artisans in local workshops, and run small hotels they hoped would draw visitors interested in “ethical tourism.” Soon they got the town involved in a national program called SPRAR focused on vulnerable refugees — like families with children, people with illnesses, and women at risk of being forced into sex work — that specializes in integrating them into communities.
“We wanted this project to become more famous,” Arcar said. “We thought it was important because it would attract tourism, too, because we wanted to make outside money come in. But I thought — and [Lucano] thought too — that it was going to cause problems.”
Images of Afghans, Ethiopians, and Nigerians saving Italy’s ancient heritage seemed to embody all the best of what immigration could be. Projects like Riace were a welcome alternative to Italy’s main refugee system, CARA, in which immigrants are warehoused in isolated camps and often exploited by organized crime.
It seemed to benefit the town’s original residents, too. The school was saved from closure by an influx of new students, historic buildings were restored, and restaurants and grocery stores reopened. Because state money came irregularly, they created a system of IOUs to circulate in town, printing up a town currency with the faces of Nelson Mandela, Guevara, and local activists killed by the Mafia.
Lucano was elected mayor in 2004 on a nonpartisan slate, and he was reelected in 2009 and 2014. Riace first attracted international attention in 2008, when a famous German director made a short film inspired by its immigrants, and in 2010 Lucano was included on a list of the world’s outstanding mayors.
But he became an international symbol at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016, when stories began appearing about him in English. Lucano’s fans always mention his inclusion on Fortune’s 2016 list of the “World’s Greatest Leaders,” where is ranked in between a minister of Africa’s largest country and the philanthropist Melinda Gates.
As Lucano and his allies in the refugee rights community see it, this international publicity painted a target on Riace even before populists took power in Italy in 2018. Inspectors first arrived to audit the program in the summer of 2016, just as the then-ruling center-left Democratic Party was getting spooked by an anti-immigrant backlash. The national government soon moved to tighten restrictions on the NGOs rescuing people from leaky boats trying to reach Italy’s coasts, and it sealed a deal with Libya that it hoped would stop immigrants attempting the crossing.
The audit produced a vaguely worded report implying Lucano may have been playing favorites with government money, though it noted that open bidding was difficult in regions where many contractors are in league with the mob.
A follow-up report found no wrongdoing and praised the program as “a model of hospitality,” but the Interior Ministry kept that report secret while a criminal investigation was underway. It also froze payments to the program in 2016, forcing the town to go into debt to keep the program running.
Lucano told BuzzFeed News they had made mistakes as they expanded the program, allowing new groups to run projects that included “people taking advantage.” But Giovanni Maiolo, head of an alliance of communities modeled on Riace called the Network of Townships of Solidarity, told BuzzFeed News the government’s response was like giving someone who ran a red light a life sentence.
“I would have never imagined we would fall into barbaric racism as such only 80 years after the racial laws of the fascist dictatorship.”
By that time, a prosecutor had also brought sweeping charges against Lucano and 35 others for offenses ranging from corrupt contracting arrangements to “facilitating illegal immigration.” Wiretap recordings of his phone were leaked to the press in which he discussed arranging the equivalent of a green-card marriage for a young Nigerian woman, though full transcripts of the conversation also showed he rejected the idea when the proposed husband demanded she have sex with him.
Requests for comment about the investigation sent to Salvini's office and local investigators were not returned.
All this was hanging over Lucano’s head when Salvini entered office in June this year. Just after he took power of the Interior Ministry, Salvini posted a video saying Lucano is worth “zero.”
Alfonso Di Stefano of the Sicilian Anti-Racism Forum, an organizer of Saturday's protest against Salvini’s anti-immigrant legislation, told BuzzFeed News, “Everything is in danger now.”
Salvini is claiming there is a national emergency to bring the legislation to Parliament under special rules, though new arrivals are way down from their peak in 2016. It would dramatically restrict the grounds on which immigrants would be allowed to petition to stay in Italy, and includes a number of other measures to weaken Italy’s asylum laws. Sounding a lot like Donald Trump, Salvini at one point promised the bill would include a provision to impose a curfew on “ethnic stores,” which he called the “haunt of drug dealers and drunks.” He has also pushed legislation making it easier for Italians to buy guns.
“We [have] never reached such a low point,” Di Stefano said. “I would have never imagined we would fall into barbaric racism as such only 80 years after the racial laws of the fascist dictatorship.”
The legislation passed the Senate last week, and it will likely spell the end of programs like Riace by drastically restricting the number of new immigrants eligible for the SPRAR system. Instead of getting support to integrate into the community, even more refugees would be pushed into isolated holding camps. In southern Italy, Di Stefano said, this would be a gift to mobsters, who have embezzled money from camp administrators and profit by serving as brokers who arrange labor on the region’s commercial farms.
If there’s any silver lining, said the Network of Townships of Solidarity’s Maiolo, it’s that Lucano’s arrest has given civil society someone to rally around at “such a black time for human rights.” Though their efforts have only pulled in a fraction of what Riace needs, $350,000 is an unusually successful crowdfunding campaign by Italian standards. And there are other signs of grassroots support for immigrants in Italy. When Lodi, a small northern city, cut many immigrant children from a school lunch program, an online effort raised tens of thousands to feed them for the rest of the year.
“Their faces were different, but it didn’t matter — they were people,”
Lucano is grateful for the support, even though he hates being cast as a David taking on Salvini’s Goliath. But he recognizes that Riace does provide a counter to the “industry of fear for pure political gain” taking hold across the world.
At one point, Lucano broke into a gap-toothed smile and wondered whether Salvini had ever truly listened to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” “John Lennon was one of our heroes back then,” Lucano said, and reminisced about how easy everything was back when they first turned empty houses into shelters.
“Considering how Italy has become today, I would like to try and go back to that simplicity,” he said.
Back when the Kurds arrived in 1998, Lucano had just helped put on a play that imagined Riace down to its final residents in 2020. The town painted a mural of the sea along a road renamed “Utopia Street,” dreaming that those who’d left would one day sail home again. For Lucano, the Kurds appeared as if they were the long-lost residents of Riace who’d simply returned wearing different skins.
“Their faces were different, but it didn’t matter — they were people."
Donald Trump’s newly named chief strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon laid out his global nationalist vision in unusually in-depth remarks delivered by Skype to a conference held inside the Vatican in the summer of 2014.
Well before victories for Brexit and Trump seemed possible, Bannon declared there was a “global tea party movement” and praised European far-right parties like Great Britain’s UKIP and France’s National Front. Bannon also suggested that a racist element in far-right parties “all gets kind of washed out,” and that the West was facing a “crisis of capitalism” after losing its “Judeo-Christian foundation,” and he blasted “crony capitalists” in Washington for failing to prosecute bank executives over the financial crisis.
The remarks — beamed into a small conference room in a 15th-century marble palace in a secluded corner of the Vatican — were part of a 50-minute Q&A during a conference focused on poverty hosted by the Human Dignity Institute that BuzzFeed News attended as part of its coverage of the rise of Europe's religious right. The group was founded by Benjamin Harnwell, a longtime aide to Conservative member of the European Parliament Nirj Deva, to promote a “Christian voice” in European politics. The group has ties to some of the most conservative factions inside the Catholic Church; Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the most vocal critics of Pope Francis, who was ousted from a senior Vatican position in 2014, is chair of the group’s advisory board.
BuzzFeed News originally posted a transcript beginning 90 seconds into the then–Breitbart News chairman’s remarks because microphone placement made the opening mostly unintelligible, but we have completed the transcript from a video of the talk on YouTube. You can hear the whole recording at the bottom of the post.
Here is what he said, unedited:
Steve Bannon: Thank you very much Benjamin, and I appreciate you guys including us in this. We're speaking from Los Angeles today, right across the street from our headquarters in Los Angeles. Um. I want to talk about wealth creation and what wealth creation really can achieve and maybe take it in a slightly different direction, because I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. And it's really the organizing principle of how we built Breitbart News to really be a platform to bring news and information to people throughout the world. Principally in the West, but we're expanding internationally to let people understand the depths of this crisis, and it is a crisis both of capitalism but really of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West in our beliefs.
It's ironic, I think, that we're talking today at exactly, tomorrow, 100 years ago, at the exact moment we're talking, the assassination took place in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the bloodiest century in mankind's history. Just to put it in perspective, with the assassination that took place 100 years ago tomorrow in Sarajevo, the world was at total peace. There was trade, there was globalization, there was technological transfer, the High Church of England and the Catholic Church and the Christian faith was predominant throughout Europe of practicing Christians. Seven weeks later, I think there were 5 million men in uniform and within 30 days there were over a million casualties.
That war triggered a century of barbaric — unparalleled in mankind’s history — virtually 180 to 200 million people were killed in the 20th century, and I believe that, you know, hundreds of years from now when they look back, we’re children of that: We’re children of that barbarity. This will be looked at almost as a new Dark Age.
But the thing that got us out of it, the organizing principle that met this, was not just the heroism of our people — whether it was French resistance fighters, whether it was the Polish resistance fighters, or it’s the young men from Kansas City or the Midwest who stormed the beaches of Normandy, commandos in England that fought with the Royal Air Force, that fought this great war, really the Judeo-Christian West versus atheists, right? The underlying principle is an enlightened form of capitalism, that capitalism really gave us the wherewithal. It kind of organized and built the materials needed to support, whether it’s the Soviet Union, England, the United States, and eventually to take back continental Europe and to beat back a barbaric empire in the Far East.
That capitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments and created what we really call a Pax Americana. It was many, many years and decades of peace. And I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.
"I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism."
And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.
Now, what I mean by that specifically: I think that you’re seeing three kinds of converging tendencies: One is a form of capitalism that is taken away from the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity and, really, Judeo-Christian belief.
I see that every day. I’m a very practical, pragmatic capitalist. I was trained at Goldman Sachs, I went to Harvard Business School, I was as hard-nosed a capitalist as you get. I specialized in media, in investing in media companies, and it’s a very, very tough environment. And you’ve had a fairly good track record. So I don’t want this to kinda sound namby-pamby, “Let’s all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' around capitalism.”
But there’s a strand of capitalism today — two strands of it, that are very disturbing.
One is state-sponsored capitalism. And that’s the capitalism you see in China and Russia. I believe it’s what Holy Father [Pope Francis] has seen for most of his life in places like Argentina, where you have this kind of crony capitalism of people that are involved with these military powers-that-be in the government, and it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people. And it doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century.
The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. And, look, I’m a big believer in a lot of libertarianism. I have many many friends that’s a very big part of the conservative movement — whether it’s the UKIP movement in England, it’s many of the underpinnings of the populist movement in Europe, and particularly in the United States.
However, that form of capitalism is quite different when you really look at it to what I call the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West. It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as many of the precepts of Marx — and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive. And if they don’t see another alternative, it’s going to be an alternative that they gravitate to under this kind of rubric of “personal freedom."
"Look at what’s happening in ISIS ... look at the sophistication of which they’ve taken the tools of capitalism ... at what they’ve done with Twitter and Facebook."
The other tendency is an immense secularization of the West. And I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration.
Now that call converges with something we have to face, and it’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.
If you look at what’s happening in ISIS, which is the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, that is now currently forming the caliphate that is having a military drive on Baghdad, if you look at the sophistication of which they’ve taken the tools of capitalism. If you look at what they’ve done with Twitter and Facebook and modern ways to fundraise, and to use crowdsourcing to fund, besides all the access to weapons, over the last couple days they have had a radical program of taking kids and trying to turn them into bombers. They have driven 50,000 Christians out of a town near the Kurdish border. We have video that we’re putting up later today on Breitbart where they've took 50 hostages and thrown them off a cliff in Iraq.
That war is expanding and it’s metastasizing to sub-Saharan Africa. We have Boko Haram and other groups that will eventually partner with ISIS in this global war, and it is, unfortunately, something that we’re going to have to face, and we’re going to have to face very quickly.
So I think the discussion of, should we put a cap on wealth creation and distribution? It’s something that should be at the heart of every Christian that is a capitalist — “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us, that divine providence has given us to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”
I think it really behooves all of us to really take a hard look and make sure that we are reinvesting that back into positive things. But also to make sure that we understand that we’re at the very beginning stages of a global conflict, and if we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries that this conflict is only going to metastasize.
They have a Twitter account up today, ISIS does, about turning the United States into a “river of blood” if it comes in and tries to defend the city of Baghdad. And trust me, that is going to come to Europe. That is going to come to Central Europe, it's going to come to Western Europe, it's going to come to the United Kingdom. And so I think we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and on top of that we're now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.
"With all the baggage that those [right-wing] groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially— but we think that will all be worked through with time."
Benjamin Harnwell, Human Dignity Institute: Thank you, Steve. That was a fascinating, fascinating overview. I am particularly struck by your argument, then, that in fact, capitalism would spread around the world based on the Judeo-Christian foundation is, in fact, something that can create peace through peoples rather than antagonism, which is often a point not sufficiently appreciated. Before I turn behind me to take a question —
Bannon: One thing I want to make sure of, if you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians' faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything is that, everything is looked at as a securitization opportunity. People are looked at as commodities. I don’t believe that our forefathers had that same belief.
Harnwell: Over the course of this conference we’ve heard from various points of view regarding alleviation of poverty. We’ve heard from the center-left perspective, we’ve heard from the socialist perspective, we’ve heard from the Christian democrat, if you will, perspective. What particularly interests me about your point of view Steve, to talk specifically about your work, Breitbart is very close to the tea party movement. So I’m just wondering whether you could tell me about if in the current flow of contemporary politics — first tell us a little bit about Breitbart, what the mission is, and then tell me about the reach that you have and then could you say a little bit about the current dynamic of what’s going on at the moment in the States.
Bannon: Outside of Fox News and the Drudge Report, we’re the third-largest conservative news site and, quite frankly, we have a bigger global reach than even Fox. And that’s why we’re expanding so much internationally.
Look, we believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement. We’ve seen that. We were the first group to get in and start reporting on things like UKIP and Front National and other center right. With all the baggage that those groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially — but we think that will all be worked through with time.
The central thing that binds that all together is a center-right populist movement of really the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos. A group of kind of — we're not conspiracy-theory guys, but there's certainly — and I could see this when I worked at Goldman Sachs — there are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado, and they have more of this elite mentality that they're going to dictate to everybody how the world's going to be run.
I will tell you that the working men and women of Europe and Asia and the United States and Latin America don't believe that. They believe they know what's best for how they will comport their lives. They think they know best about how to raise their families and how to educate their families. So I think you're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, DC, or that government is in Brussels. So we are the platform for the voice of that.
"Putin’s ... very, very very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he's playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it's something that we have to be very much on guard of."
Now, with that, we are strong capitalists. And we believe in the benefits of capitalism. And, particularly, the harder-nosed the capitalism, the better. However, like I said, there’s two strands of capitalism that we’re quite concerned about.
One is crony capitalism, or what we call state-controlled capitalism, and that’s the big thing the tea party is fighting in the United States, and really the tea party’s biggest fight is not with the left, because we’re not there yet. The biggest fight the tea party has today is just like UKIP. UKIP’s biggest fight is with the Conservative Party.
The tea party in the United States’ biggest fight is with the the Republican establishment, which is really a collection of crony capitalists that feel that they have a different set of rules of how they’re going to comport themselves and how they’re going to run things. And, quite frankly, it’s the reason that the United States’ financial situation is so dire, particularly our balance sheet. We have virtually a hundred trillion dollars of unfunded liabilities. That is all because you’ve had this kind of crony capitalism in Washington, DC. The rise of Breitbart is directly tied to being the voice of that center-right opposition. And, quite frankly, we’re winning many, many victories.
On the social conservative side, we're the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement, and I can tell you we're winning victory after victory after victory. Things are turning around as people have a voice and have a platform of which they can use.
Harnwell: The third-largest conservative news website is something to be extremely impressed by. Can you tell for the people here who aren’t within the Anglosphere and they might not follow American domestic politics at the moment — there seems to be a substantial sea change going on at the moment in Middle America. And the leader of the majority party, Eric Cantor, was deselected a couple of weeks ago by a tea party candidate. What does that mean for the state of domestic politics in America at the moment?
Bannon: For everybody in your audience, this is one of the most monumental — first off, it’s the biggest election upset in the history of the American republic. Eric Cantor was the House majority leader and raised $10 million. He spent, between himself and outside groups, $8 million to hold a congressional district. He ran against a professor who was an evangelical Christian and a libertarian economist. He ran against a professor who raised in total $175,000. In fact, the bills from Eric Cantor’s campaign at a elite steak house in Washington, DC, was over $200,000. So they spent more than $200,000 over the course of the campaign wining and dining fat cats at a steak house in Washington than the entire opposition had to run.
Now, Eric Cantor, it was a landslide. He lost 57–43, and not one — outside of Breitbart, we covered this for six months, day in and day out — not one news site — not Fox News, not Politico, no sites picked this up. And the reason that this guy won is quite simple: Middle-class people and working-class people are tired of people like Eric Cantor who say they’re conservative selling out their interests every day to crony capitalists.
"That center-right revolt is really a global revolt. I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India."
And you’re seeing that whether that was UKIP and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, whether it’s these groups in the Low Countries in Europe, whether it’s in France, there’s a new tea party in Germany. The theme is all the same. And the theme is middle-class and working-class people — they’re saying, “Hey, I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked. I’m getting less benefits than I’m ever getting through this, I’m incurring less wealth myself, and I’m seeing a system of fat cats who say they’re conservative and say they back capitalist principles, but all they’re doing is binding with corporatists." Right? Corporatists, to garner all the benefits for themselves.
And that center-right revolt is really a global revolt. I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India. Modi's great victory was very much based on these Reaganesque principles, so I think this is a global revolt, and we are very fortunate and proud to be the news site that is reporting that throughout the world.
Harnwell: I think it’s important to understand the distinction that you’re drawing here between what can be understood as authentic, free-market capitalism as a means of promoting wealth that [unintelligible] involves everybody with a form of crony capitalism which simply benefits a certain class. And we’ve watched over the course of our conference, we’ve watched two video segments produced by the Acton Institute about how development aid is spent internationally and how that can be driven away from — it damages people on the ground but it also perpetuates a governing class. And the point that you’re mentioning here, that I think that you’re saying has driven almost a revolution movement in America, is the same phenomenon of what’s going on in the developing world, which is a concept of government which is no longer doing what it is morally bound to do but has become corrupt and self-serving. So it’s effectively the sa—
Bannon: It’s exactly the same. Currently, if you read The Economist, you read the Financial Times this week, you’ll see there’s a relatively obscure agency in the federal government that is engaged in a huge fight that may lead to a government shutdown. It’s called the Export-Import Bank. And for years, it was a bank that helped finance things that other banks wouldn’t do. And what’s happening over time is that it’s metastasized to be a cheap form of financing to General Electric and to Boeing and to other large corporations. You get this financing from other places if they wanted to, but they’re putting this onto the middle-class taxpayers to support this.
"I’m not an expert in this, but it seems that [right-wing parties] have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial ... My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right?"
And the tea party is using this as an example of the cronyism. General Electric and these major corporations that are in bed with the federal government are not what we’d consider free-enterprise capitalists. We’re backers of entrepreneurial capitalists. They’re not. They’re what we call corporatist. They want to have more and more monopolistic power and they’re doing that kind of convergence with big government. And so the fight here — and that’s why the media’s been very late to this party — but the fight you’re seeing is between entrepreneur capitalism, and the Acton Institute is a tremendous supporter of, and the people like the corporatists that are closer to the people like we think in Beijing and Moscow than they are to the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the United States.
Harnwell: Thanks, Steve. I’m going to turn around now, as I’m sure we have some great questions from the floor. Who has the first question then?
Bannon: First of all, Benjamin, I can tell you I could hardly recognize you, you’re so cleaned up you are for the conference.
Questioner: Hello, my name is Deborah Lubov. I’m a Vatican correspondent for Zenit news agency, for their English edition. I have some experience working in New York — I was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers auditing investment banks, one of which was Goldman Sachs. And considering this conference is on poverty, I’m curious — from your point of view especially, your experience in the investment banking world — what concrete measures do you think they should be doing to combat, prevent this phenomenon? We know that various sums of money are used in all sorts of ways and they do have different initiatives, but in order to concretely counter this epidemic now, what are your thoughts?
"For Christians, and particularly for those who believe in the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West, I don’t believe that we should have a [financial] bailout."
Bannon: That’s a great question. The 2008 crisis, I think the financial crisis — which, by the way, I don’t think we’ve come through — is really driven I believe by the greed, much of it driven by the greed of the investment banks. My old firm, Goldman Sachs — traditionally the best banks are leveraged 8:1. When we had the financial crisis in 2008, the investment banks were leveraged 35:1. Those rules had specifically been changed by a guy named Hank Paulson. He was secretary of Treasury. As chairman of Goldman Sachs, he had gone to Washington years before and asked for those changes. That made the banks not really investment banks, but made them hedge funds — and highly susceptible to changes in liquidity. And so the crisis of 2008 was, quite frankly, really never recovered from in the United States. It’s one of the reasons last quarter you saw 2.9% negative growth in a quarter. So the United States economy is in very, very tough shape.
And one of the reasons is that we’ve never really gone and dug down and sorted through the problems of 2008. Particularly the fact — think about it — not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with 2008 crisis. And in fact, it gets worse. No bonuses and none of their equity was taken. So part of the prime drivers of the wealth that they took in the 15 years leading up to the crisis was not hit at all, and I think that’s one of the fuels of this populist revolt that we’re seeing as the tea party. So I think there are many, many measures, particularly about getting the banks on better footing, making them address all the liquid assets they have. I think you need a real clean-up of the banks' balance sheets.
In addition, I think you really need to go back and make banks do what they do: Commercial banks lend money, and investment banks invest in entrepreneurs and to get away from this trading — you know, the hedge fund securitization, which they’ve all become basically trading operations and securitizations and not put capital back and really grow businesses and to grow the economy. So I think it’s a whole area that just — and I will tell you, the underpinning of this populist revolt is the financial crisis of 2008. That revolt, the way that it was dealt with, the way that the people who ran the banks and ran the hedge funds have never really been held accountable for what they did, has fueled much of the anger in the tea party movement in the United States.
Questioner: Thank you.
Bannon: Great question.
Questioner: Hello, Mr. Bannon. I’m Mario Fantini, a Vermonter living in Vienna, Austria. You began describing some of the trends you’re seeing worldwide, very dangerous trends, worry trends. Another movement that I’ve been seeing grow and spread in Europe, unfortunately, is what can only be described as tribalist or neo-nativist movement — they call themselves Identitarians. These are mostly young, working-class, populist groups, and they’re teaching self-defense classes, but also they are arguing against — and quite effectively, I might add — against capitalism and global financial institutions, etc. How do we counteract this stuff? Because they’re appealing to a lot of young people at a very visceral level, especially with the ethnic and racial stuff.
Bannon: I didn’t hear the whole question, about the tribalist?
"One of the committees in Congress said to the Justice Department, 35 [bank] executives, I believe, that they should have criminal indictments against — not one of those has ever been followed up on."
Questioner: Very simply put, there’s a growing movement among young people here in Europe, in France and in Austria and elsewhere, and they’re arguing very effectively against Wall Street institutions and they’re also appealing to people on an ethnic and racial level. And I was just wondering what you would recommend to counteract these movements, which are growing.
Bannon: One of the reasons that you can understand how they’re being fueled is that they’re not seeing the benefits of capitalism. I mean particularly — and I think it’s particularly more advanced in Europe than it is in the United States, but in the United States it’s getting pretty advanced — is that when you have this kind of crony capitalism, you have a different set of rules for the people that make the rules. It’s this partnership of big government and corporatists. I think it starts to fuel, particularly as you start to see negative job creation. If you go back, in fact, and look at the United States’ GDP, you look at a bunch of Europe. If you take out government spending, you know, we’ve had negative growth on a real basis for over a decade.
And that all trickles down to the man in the street. If you look at people’s lives, and particularly millennials, look at people under 30 — people under 30, there’s 50% really underemployment of people in the United States, which is probably the most advanced economy in the West, and it gets worse in Europe.
I think in Spain it’s something like 50 or 60% of the youth under 30 are underemployed. And that means the decade of their twenties, which is where you have to learn a skill, where you have to learn a craft, where you really start to get comfortable in your profession, you’re taking that away from the entire generation. That’s only going to fuel tribalism, that’s only going to fuel [unintelligible]… That’s why to me, it’s incumbent upon freedom-loving people to make sure that we sort out these governments and make sure that we sort out particularly this crony capitalism so that the benefits become more of this entrepreneurial spirit and that can flow back to working-class and middle-class people. Because if not, we’re going to pay a huge price for this. You can already start to see it.
Questioner: I have a question, because you worked on Wall Street. What is the opinion there on whether they think bank bailouts are justified? Is there a Christian-centered [unintelligible] that they think should be bailed out? The crisis starts earlier than 2008. What was the precedent then? What was the feeling on Wall Street when they bailed out the banks? How should Christians feel about advocating or being against that?
Bannon: I think one is about responsibility. For Christians, and particularly for those who believe in the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West, I don’t believe that we should have a bailout. I think the bailouts in 2008 were wrong. And I think, you look in hindsight, it was a lot of misinformation that was presented about the bailouts of the banks in the West.
And look at the [unintelligible] it. Middle-class taxpayers, people that are working-class people, right, people making incomes under $50,000 and $60,000, it was the burden of those taxpayers, right, that bailed out the elites. And let’s think about it for a second. Here’s how capitalism metastasized, is that all the burdens put on the working-class people who get none of the upside. All of the upside goes to the crony capitalists.
The bailouts were absolutely outrageous, and here’s why: It bailed out a group of shareholders and executives who were specifically accountable. The shareholders were accountable for one simple reason: They allowed this to go wrong without changing management. And the management team of this. And we know this now from congressional investigations, we know it from independent investigations, this is not some secret conspiracy. This is kind of in plain sight.
In fact, one of the committees in Congress said to the Justice Department 35 executives, I believe, that they should have criminal indictments against — not one of those has ever been followed up on. Because even with the Democrats, right, in power, there’s a sense between the law firms, and the accounting firms, and the investment banks, and their stooges on Capitol Hill, they looked the other way.
So you can understand why middle-class people having a tough go of it making $50 or $60 thousand a year and see their taxes go up, and they see that their taxes are going to pay for government sponsored bailouts, what you’ve created is really a free option. You say to this investment banking, create a free option for bad behavior. In otherwise all the upside goes to the hedge funds and the investment bank, and to the crony capitalist with stock increases and bonus increases. And their downside is limited, because middle-class people are going to come and bail them out with tax dollars.
And that’s what I think is fueling this populist revolt. Whether that revolt is in the Midlands of England, or whether it’s in Middle America. And I think people are fed up with it.
And I think that’s why you’re seeing — when you read the media says, “tea party is losing, losing elections,” that is all BS. The elections we don’t win, we’re forcing those crony capitalists to come and admit that they’re not going to do this again. The whole narrative in Washington has been changed by this populist revolt that we call the grassroots of the tea party movement.
And it’s specifically because those bailouts were completely and totally unfair. It didn’t make those financial institutions any stronger, and it bailed out a bunch of people — by the way, and these are people that have all gone to Yale, and Harvard, they went to the finest institutions in the West. They should have known better.
And by the way: It’s all the institutions of the accounting firms, the law firms, the investment banks, the consulting firms, the elite of the elite, the educated elite, they understood what they were getting into, forcibly took all the benefits from it and then look to the government, went hat in hand to the government to be bailed out. And they’ve never been held accountable today. Trust me — they are going to be held accountable. You’re seeing this populist movement called the tea party in the United States.
Harnwell: Okay, I think we’ve got time for just one or two more questions for Stephen K. Bannon, chairman of Breitbart Media, third-largest news organization in the States. I know you’re a very, very busy man, so we’re very grateful for the time that you’ve agreed to put aside for this, to close this conference.
"I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals, right?"
Bannon: I’m never too busy to share with a group that can do as much good as you guys can.
Questioner: What do you think is the major threat today, to the Judeo-Christian Civilization? Secularism, or the Muslim world? In my humble opinion, they’re just trying to defend themselves from our cultural invasion. Thank you.
[Question restated by Harnwell]
Bannon: It’s a great question. I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals, right?
If you go back to your home countries and your proponent of the defense of the Judeo-Christian West and its tenets, oftentimes, particularly when you deal with the elites, you’re looked at as someone who is quite odd. So it has kind of sapped the strength.
But I strongly believe that whatever the causes of the current drive to the caliphate was — and we can debate them, and people can try to deconstruct them — we have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act [unintelligible].
"The way that the people who ran the banks and ran the hedge funds have never really been held accountable for what they did has fueled much of the anger in the tea party movement in the United States."
Questioner: Thank you very much. I’m [unintelligible]. I come from Slovakia. This is actually the source of my two very quick questions. Thank you very much for the work that you do to promote the Judeo-Christian values in the world. I really appreciate it, and I also feel that the danger is very high. I have two minor questions, because you have mentioned, in terms of UKIP and Front National [unintelligible]. From the European perspective, listening to the language which has become more and more radical from these two parties, especially before the European Parliament elections, I’m just wondering what are your plans on how to help these partners from Europe to maybe focus on the value issues and not with populist? And also it goes in terms — you have mentioned the involvement of state in capitalism as one of the big dangers. But these two parties you’ve mentioned, they actually have close ties with Putin, who is the promoter of this big danger, so I’d like to know your thoughts about this and how you’re going to deal with it.
Bannon: Could you summarize that for me?
Harnwell: The first question was, you’d reference the Front National and UKIP as having elements that are tinged with the racial aspect amidst their voter profile, and the questioner was asking how you intend to deal with that aspect.
Bannon: I don’t believe I said UKIP in that. I was really talking about the parties on the continent, Front National and other European parties.
I’m not an expert in this, but it seems that they have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial. By the way, even in the tea party, we have a broad movement like this, and we’ve been criticized, and they try to make the tea party as being racist, etc., which it’s not. But there’s always elements who turn up at these things, whether it’s militia guys or whatever. Some that are fringe organizations. My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right? People understand what pulls them together, and the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.
I believe that you’ll see this in the center-right populist movement in continental Europe. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with UKIP, and I can say to you that I’ve never seen anything at all with UKIP that even comes close to that. I think they’ve done a very good job of policing themselves to really make sure that people including the British National Front and others were not included in the party, and I think you’ve seen that also with tea party groups, where some people would show up and were kind of marginal members of the tea party, and the tea party did a great job of policing themselves early on. And I think that’s why when you hear charges of racism against the tea party, it doesn’t stick with the American people, because they really understand.
I think when you look at any kind of revolution — and this is a revolution — you always have some groups that are disparate. I think that will all burn away over time and you’ll see more of a mainstream center-right populist movement.
"Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand."
Question: Obviously, before the European elections the two parties had a clear link to Putin. If one of the representatives of the dangers of capitalism is the state involvement in capitalism, so, I see there, also Marine Le Pen campaigning in Moscow with Putin, and also UKIP strongly defending Russian positions in geopolitical terms.
[Harnwell restates, but unintelligible]
Harnwell: These two parties have both been cultivating President Putin [unintelligible].
Bannon: I think it’s a little bit more complicated. When Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he's got an adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what's called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism. A lot of people that are traditionalists are attracted to that.
One of the reasons is that they believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he's trying to do it in a form of nationalism — and I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see the sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don't believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don't believe in the centralized government in the United States. They'd rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.
"You're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, DC, or that government is in Brussels. So we are the platform for the voice of that."
I'm not justifying Vladimir Putin and the kleptocracy that he represents, because he eventually is the state capitalist of kleptocracy. However, we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he's talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it's what can see us forward.
You know, Putin’s been quite an interesting character. He’s also very, very, very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he's playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it's something that we have to be very much on guard of. Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand. However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you're facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive that is really a situation — I'm not saying we can put it on a back burner — but I think we have to deal with first things first.
Questioner: One of my questions has to do with how the West should be responding to radical Islam. How, specifically, should we as the West respond to jihadism without losing our own soul? Because we can win the war and lose ourselves at the same time. How should the West respond to radical Islam and not lose itself in the process?
Bannon: From a perspective — this may be a little more militant than others. I think definitely you’re going to need an aspect that is [unintelligible]. I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam. And I realize there are other aspects that are not as militant and not as aggressive and that’s fine.
If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places... It bequeathed to use the great institution that is the church of the West.
And I would ask everybody in the audience today, because you really are the movers and drivers and shakers and thought leaders in the Catholic Church today, is to think, when people 500 years from now are going to think about today, think about the actions you've taken — and I believe everyone associated with the church and associated with the Judeo-Christian West that believes in the underpinnings of that and believes in the precepts of that and want to see that bequeathed to other generations down the road as it was bequeathed to us, particularly as you’re in a city like Rome, and in a place like the Vatican, see what’s been bequeathed to us — ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me? What are they going to say about what I did at the beginning stages of this crisis?
Because it is a crisis, and it's not going away. You don’t have to take my word for it. All you have to do is read the news every day, see what’s coming up, see what they’re putting on Twitter, what they’re putting on Facebook, see what’s on CNN, what’s on BBC. See what’s happening, and you will see we’re in a war of immense proportions. It’s very easy to play to our baser instincts, and we can’t do that. But our forefathers didn’t do it either. And they were able to stave this off, and they were able to defeat it, and they were able to bequeath to us a church and a civilization that really is the flower of mankind, so I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do what I call a gut check, to really think about what our role is in this battle that’s before us.
Bannon during his speech referred to Russia as an "imperialist power." A transcription error in a previous version of this story had Bannon referring to Russia as a "perilous" power.
Bannon and Harnwell refer to the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank based in the United States. This was mistakenly transcribed as Aspen Institute, a different think tank, in a previous version of this story.
Bannon says in the recording that the West is in the "very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict." A previous version of this story read "end stages," due to a transcription error.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 17, 2014, at 2:47 p.m. ET
A top cardinal told BuzzFeed News on Friday that the worldwide meeting of church leaders coming to a close in Rome seemed to have been designed to "weaken the church's teaching and practice" with the apparent blessing of Pope Francis.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who heads the Vatican's highest court of canon law, made the remarks in a phone interview from the Vatican, where a two-week Extraordinary Synod on the Family will conclude this weekend. An interim report of the discussions released on Monday, called the Relatio, produced a widespread backlash among conservative bishops who said it suggested a radical change to the church's teaching on questions like divorce and homosexuality, and Burke has been among the most publicly critical of the bishops picked by Pope Francis to lead the discussion.
If Pope Francis had selected certain cardinals to steer the meeting to advance his personal views on matters like divorce and the treatment of LGBT people, Burke said, he would not be observing his mandate as the leader of the Catholic Church.
"According to my understanding of the church's teaching and discipline, no, it wouldn't be correct," Burke said, saying the pope had "done a lot of harm" by not stating "openly what his position is." Burke said the Pope had given the impression that he endorses some of the most controversial parts of the Relatio, especially on questions of divorce, because of a German cardinal who gave an important speech suggesting a path to allowing people who had divorced and remarried to receive communion, Cardinal Walter Kasper, to open the synod's discussion.
"The pope, more than anyone else as the pastor of the universal church, is bound to serve the truth," Burke said. "The pope is not free to change the church's teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts or the insolubility of marriage or any other doctrine of the faith."
Burke has publicly clashed with the pope since Francis took office in 2013, and he has come to represent the sidelining of culture warriors elevated by Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict and as the top doctrinal official under Pope John Paul II. Burke, who caused controversy while bishop of St. Louis by saying Catholics who voted for politicians supportive of abortion rights should not receive communion, went on Catholic television in 2013 to rebut remarks Pope Francis made to an interviewer that the church had become "obsessed" with abortion and sexuality to the exclusion of other issues, saying, "We can never talk enough about that as long as in our society innocent and defenseless human life is being attacked in the most savage way," Burke said. While Francis famously responded to a question about homosexuality in 2013 by asking, "Who am I to judge?" Burke described homosexual "acts" as "always and everywhere wrong [and] evil" during an interview last week.
In the interview with BuzzFeed News, Burke confirmed publicly for the first time the rumors that he had been told Francis intended to demote him from the church's chief guardian of canon law to a minor post as patron to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
"I very much have enjoyed and have been happy to give this service, so it is a disappointment to leave it," Burke said, explaining that he hadn't yet received a formal notice of transfer. "On the other hand, in the church as priests, we always have to be ready to accept whatever assignment we're given. And so I trust, by accepting this assignment, I trust that God will bless me, and that's what's in the end most important."
When the pope first took office, his pivot away from an emphasis on questions of sexuality were more a matter of personal tone rather than changes in church policy or personnel. There were rumors that he was trying to oust the man chosen by Pope Benedict to head the church's office responsible for doctrine, Gerhard Müller, but last winter he instead elevated him from archbishop to cardinal. When word that Burke was on his way out began circulating last month, it signaled that Francis would take major steps to reshape the church. It coincided with the selection of a new archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, whom Catholic progressives celebrated for positions like breaking with the American church hierarchy when it withheld its support for President Obama's health reform law over questions of abortion and contraception.
Internal discontent among conservatives inside church leadership began to simmer over in the weeks leading up to the synod. Just before it began, Burke, Müller, and other senior cardinals published a book in several languages attacking the ideas laid out by Cardinal Walter Kasper on allowing those who had divorced and remarried to receive communion in a speech heartily praised by Pope Francis. It broke into open revolt at the midpoint of the synod, following publication of a document presented as a summary of discussions but that conservatives said misrepresented the debate by including passages on "welcoming homosexual persons" and discussing some of Kasper's proposal on divorce. The backlash appeared to have been especially strong from the English-speaking world, which includes a large number of African and American bishops; in an apparent attempt to mollify anglophone conservatives, the Vatican released a new translation of the report that changed the phrase "welcoming homosexual persons" to "providing for homosexual persons" and made other small changes, while leaving the versions in all other languages unchanged.
The report is now being revised with feedback from small-group discussions held this week, and a final version is scheduled to be voted on on Saturday. Burke said he hoped that the committee writing the new report will produce a "worthy document," but said his "trust is a little bit shaken" by the language in the interim draft he said lacks "a good foundation either in the sacred scriptures or in the church's perennial teachings."
But there seems to be little middle ground between Pope Francis' worldview and Burke's. Francis was president of the Argentinian bishops conference when that country passed a marriage equality bill in 2010 and reportedly tried to convince his colleagues to support a civil union proposal instead. He lost the internal battle and gave voice to the hard-line consensus that the law was "sent by the devil." The fight over the bill left the church appearing out of step with the beliefs of many in Argentina, a country where 76% identify as Catholic but only 38.2% went to church in 2005, per the most recent data available from the Association of Religious Data Archives. While Francis has shown no sign he supports overhauling the church's teachings that homosexuality is sinful, he seems to have taken from this experience a desire to downplay conflicts over sexuality in order to broaden the church's message.
But, Burke said, the church must always call a "person who's involved in sinful acts … to conversion in a loving way, but obviously, like a father or mother in a family, in a firm way for the person's own good." There cannot be "a difference between doctrine and practice" on questions like homosexuality or anything else, Burke said.
"The church doesn't exclude anyone who's of goodwill even if the person is suffering from same-sex attraction or even acting on that attraction," said Burke. "If people don't accept the church's teaching on these matters then they're not thinking with the church and they need to examine themselves on that and correct their thinking or leave the church if they absolutely can't accept. They're certainly not free to change the teaching of the church to suit their own ideas."
At the request of several readers, BuzzFeed News has printed a transcript of the section of the interview wherein Cardinal Burke talks about leaving the Signatura.
BuzzFeed News: I should ask you about the reports that you're being removed from the Signatura. What message is that sending? Do you think you are being removed in part because of how outspoken you have been on these issues?
Cardinal Burke: The difficulty — I know about all the reports, obviously. I've not received an official transfer yet. Obviously, these matters depend on official acts. I mean, I can be told that I'm going to be transferred to a new position but until I have a letter of transfer in my hand it's difficult for me to speak about it. I'm not free to comment on why I think this may be going to happen.
BFN: Have you been told that you will be transferred?
BFN: You're obviously a very well-respected person. That must be disappointing.
CB: Well, I have to say, the area in which I work is an area for which I'm prepared and I've tried to give very good service. I very much have enjoyed and have been happy to give this service, so it is a disappointment to leave it.
On the other hand, in the church as priests, we always have to be ready to accept whatever assignment we're given. And so I trust that by accepting this assignment, I trust that God will bless me, and that's what's in the end most important. And even though I would have liked to have continued to work in the Apostolic Signatura, I'll give myself to whatever is the new work that I'm assigned to...
BFN: And that is as the chancellor to the Order of Malta, is that right?
CB: It's called the patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, that's right.
October 17, 2014, at 6:02 p.m.
Cardinal Raymond Burke is being removed from the position as the chief of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. An earlier version of this post mischaracterized that position in one instance.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 28, 2014, at 10:36 a.m. ET
ROME — On a hot Friday in late June, the walls of a 15th-century marble palace in a secluded corner of the Vatican were lit up with the face of Breitbart News Chairman Steve Bannon.
"We believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement," declared Bannon, who took over the American conservative new media empire after the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart, in 2012. Speaking via Skype to a conference on Catholic responses to poverty, he said, "You're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, D.C., or that government is in Brussels… On the social conservative side, we're the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement."
Events across the Atlantic do look familiar to American eyes: an uprising against long-established parties in Brussels amid economic stagnation. But these elements have been around a long time in European politics. What is new — and what feels so American — is represented by the group Bannon was addressing: Europe is getting its own version of the religious right.
"There is an unprecedented anger because the average citizen [sees] what is being done in their name without their consent," said Benjamin Harnwell, who founded the group that organized the conference, called the Human Dignity Institute. Harnwell is a former aide to a longtime Eurosceptic member of the European Parliament, who founded the organization in 2008 to promote the "Christian voice" in European politics. It is one of many new groups that have sprouted on the continent in recent years with missions they describe as "promoting life," "traditional family," and "religious liberty" in response to the advance of laws to recognize same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Some are technically secular organizations, but their strength, their leaders concede, largely comes from churchgoers.
The analogy with the tea party isn't perfect for these groups, and some bristle at the comparison because they aren't uniformly conservative on other issues. Harnwell prefers "silent majority," but said he draws inspiration from the tea party movement because they also see their battle in part as a fight with a political establishment that has long ignored them.
These groups are still learning to work together, but after years on the political margins in much of Europe, they have suddenly begun flexing political muscles that progressives — and maybe social conservatives themselves — never knew they had. They have made themselves a force to be reckoned with in Brussels by learning key lessons from American conservatives, such as how to organize online and use initiative drives. European progressives, who long thought debates over sexual rights had mostly been settled in their favor, were blindsided.
"A bomb with a long fuse has been lit," said Sylvie Guillaume, a French MEP supportive of abortion rights and LGBT rights, who recently stepped down as vice chair of the largest center-left bloc in the European Union's parliament. "We don't know what's going to happen."
One month before Bannon addressed the Human Dignity Institute, elections for the European Parliament sent a shockwave through the political establishment in Brussels. Far-right parties calling for an end to the European Union doubled their numbers to hold around 20% of seats. Parties like France's National Front and Britain's UKIP won pluralities in their countries.
Some of these parties ran on explicitly anti-LGBT platforms, particularly in Eastern Europe. (Hungary's ultranationalist Jobbik Party, for example, printed posters featuring a blond woman with a Hungarian flag standing opposite drag Eurovision champion Conchita Wurst with an EU flag, along with the caption: "You Choose!") For the most part, though, issues dear to social conservatives were a side issue in elections driven heavily by economic frustration. Some on the far right even support LGBT rights, most notably Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, who has tried to recruit LGBT voters for his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform.
Social conservatives made themselves a force months before the election. In December, the European Parliament took up a resolution known as the Estrela Report that called on member states to provide comprehensive sex education in schools, ensure access to safe abortions, and take other steps that its supporters consider basic to safeguarding sexual health and rights. The resolution would have had no practical impact — the EU's own rules bar it from regulating such issues — and its supporters considered it consistent with previously adopted resolutions. The vote was expected to be perfectly routine.
Then, as if someone had thrown a switch, emails started pouring into MEPs' offices calling for the resolution to be rejected weeks before the final vote on Dec. 10. After an acrimonious floor debate, the center-right bloc helped defeat the Estrela Report by a small margin in favor of a conservative alternative that essentially said the EU has no business talking about these issues. The result stunned progressives, who couldn't recall another time that the parliament had rejected language supportive of reproductive rights.
In a sense, someone had indeed thrown a switch. A few months earlier, a new online petition platform called CitizenGo sent out its first action alert. CitizenGo was conceived of as a kind of MoveOn.org for conservatives. It was based in Spain, but it had aspirations to be a global platform and now has staff working in eight languages, with plans to add Chinese and Arabic. It has an organizer in the U.S., too, named Gregory Mertz, who works out of the Washington offices of the National Organization for Marriage — Mertz actually wrote some of CitizenGo's Esterla Report petitions. In the weeks leading up to the Estrela vote, several petitions appeared on CitizenGo, garnering 40,000 signatures here, 50,000 there.
These kinds of campaigns are so common in the U.S. that they are little more than background noise. But they were new in Brussels, especially in the hands of conservatives. Grassroots mobilization on sexual rights hadn't been common on either side, and progressive advocacy groups had won many important victories relying heavily on an elite lobbying strategy.
MEPs had no idea what hit them and many of them folded, said Neil Datta, of the European Parliamentary Forum for Population and Development, which promotes reproductive rights.
"If you have a big cannon, the first [time] you shoot it, everyone runs away scared," Datta said.
CitizenGo's founder, Ignacio Arsuaga, had spent more than a decade adapting online organizing techniques from U.S. to Spanish politics before launching the group. He had been drawn into internet advocacy while studying at Fordham Law School in New York in the late 1990s. He had been "amazed" by MoveOn.org, he said in a phone interview from Spain, and he began signing petitions by groups such as the Christian Coalition, Americans United for Life, and other organizations that were "defending the rights of religious people — specifically Catholics — to express our faith in the public sphere."
"That's real democracy — that's what I lived in the U.S.," Arsuaga said. "Spanish citizens aren't used to participating. They're used to voting to every four years, and that's it."
To change this, he created an organization called HazteOír (a name that means "make yourself heard") in 2001. It ran some campaigns throughout the early 2000s, often under separately branded sites, but it was the group's mobilization against a 2010 bill to liberalize abortion laws passed by Spain's socialist government that made the group a beacon to conservatives around the world. It helped get hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Madrid and kept up the drumbeat through the 2011 elections when the conservative party Partido Popular won control. Its efforts appear to have paid off. In December 2013, the cabinet approved legislation that opponents say would give Spain the most restrictive abortion laws of any democracy in the world, and it seems to be on track for final approval by the parliament this summer.
Arsuaga has steadily been working to build a broader movement. His group hosted the 2012 World Congress of Families in Madrid, a global summit of social conservative leaders organized by an institute in Rockford, Ill. It bussed supporters across the border to France in 2013 when a new organization, La Manif Pour Tous (Protest for All), organized large protests against a marriage equality law reminiscent of Spain's anti-abortion protests.
The protests organized by these two groups were a turning point for conservatives throughout Europe, said Luca Volontè, a former Italian MP who now runs a social conservative foundation in Rome and sits on CitizenGo's board. They showed that a progressive victory was not inevitable. And, in their aftermath, conservatives have won victories, especially in Eastern Europe — in recent months, Croatia and Slovakia both enacted marriage equality bans in their constitutions.
"So many people in Europe are standing up, because this ideology appears and [is] felt, really, as totalitarian," Volontè said, referring to advances for marriage equality.
La Manif Pour Tous is now following the same path as HazteOír, continuing the fight against marriage equality in France even though it became law in May 2013 and reorganizing itself as a permanent, international organization. The group launched a "Europe for Family" campaign in the lead-up to the EU elections in May, and 230 French candidates signed its pledge opposing marriage equality, trans rights, and sex education.
Twenty-three signatories won won seats in those elections, 11 of them members of the far-right National Front.
The suddenness with which social conservatives became a force in Brussels has many progressives speculating that they are the creations of American social conservatives seeking to "export the culture wars."
"As far as I understand [social conservative groups] have quite some money in them [from] the U.S., similar to all those missionary and evangelical groups that do work in Uganda," said Ulrike Lunacek, an Austrian Green Party MEP who is now vice president of the European Parliament. Lunacek, who co-chaired the Parliament's Intergroup on LGBT Rights in the last session, authored a report on LGBT rights that groups like CitizenGo and La Manif Pour Tous tried unsuccessfully to defeat this winter.
A review of tax disclosures conducted by the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way found that several U.S. groups — many of which boomed in the 1990s — had recently invested in conservative drives across Europe: The American Center for Law and Justice, founded by Pat Robertson, sent $1.1 million to its European branch, the European Center for Law and Justice, in 2012, which is the most recent year for which tax disclosures are available. Another group founded by well-known American social conservatives called the Alliance Defending Freedom spent more than $750,000 on European programs that year. The Federalist Society, which promotes conservative legal philosophy, reported spending nearly $800,000 in "conferences and seminars" in Europe that year. Personhood USA, a small Colorado-based group that has tried to pass ballot measures that would give fetuses the legal status of "persons" — a strategy for rolling back abortion rights that is controversial even among pro-life activists — poured $400,000 into Europe in 2012, just after one of its ballot measures went down in flames in Mississippi. (Personhood USA President Keith Mason declined to answer questions from BuzzFeed about which organizations received the funds or what they were used for.)
But while there are links to the U.S., the movement is very much homegrown. Arsuaga said neither HazteOír nor CitizenGo get funding from U.S. groups — and they don't need it. Arsuaga said 99% of HazteOír's 1.9 million euro ($2.5 million) annual budget comes from donations from Spanish citizens. CitizenGo has been raising 30,000 to 40,000 euros (roughly $40,000 to $55,000) each month from the 1.2 million members it's signed up worldwide since its October launch.
Today, American ties seem much more about a shared vision to build a global conservative movement rather than leaning on stronger and wealthier U.S. partners for support. Arsuaga, Volontè, and La Manif Pour Tous President Ludovine de La Rochère were all in Washington on June 19 to support the National Organization for Marriage's March for Marriage. Their more important business, however, might have been in a closed-door summit the next day, where representatives of around 70 countries met to discuss creation of an International Organization for Marriage, according to Volontè and another participant. A follow-up meeting is planned for next year.
Many LGBT rights supporters mocked the March for Marriage's paltry turnout. So these Europeans appeared as if they were there to encourage a beleaguered movement, not the other way around — they now possess the vigor that has evaporated from the U.S. movement as opposition to marriage equality has collapsed.
European social conservatives contend that they may have a new energy and sophistication, but Europeans have never been pro-abortion rights or pro-marriage equality. Dissenters just weren't given the floor, and they didn't know how to fight back. "[We] didn't know how to arrive here at the European [Union] level and make their voice heard in parliament," said Sophia Kuby, director of a four-year-old organization based in Brussels, European Dignity Watch.
Polling data doesn't appear to bear this out, at least in Western Europe. Support for marriage equality ranges between 52 and 79% in all seven Western European countries included in a June Ipsos poll. Less than a third of respondents from the two Eastern European countries included — Poland and Hungary — support same-sex marriage (and both countries have banned it in their constitutions), but more than 50% support some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples. Opinion seems to range more on abortion, which is available in most countries at least before 12 weeks, though waiting periods and other restrictions are not uncommon. An April Pew study found substantial pluralities in countries including France, Spain, and the Czech Republic say they believe abortion is "morally acceptable," while there are even more lopsided pluralities saying abortion was "morally unacceptable" in places such as Poland and Greece.
But anti-abortion activists effectively used a new mechanism for direct democracy that the EU introduced in 2012 — called the European Citizens Initiative (ECI) — to make a show of popular support. One of the first ECIs ever launched, dubbed "One of Us," was a proposal to cut off EU funding to any activity that destroys a human embryo, which in practical terms would mean ending support for stem cell research and foreign aid to family planning programs that perform abortions. If organizers could get at least 1 million signatures from seven countries, the EU's executive body, the European Commission, would have had to hold a hearing on it.
The signature drive was led by Grégor Puppinck of the European Center for Law and Justice, but the continental campaign itself was funded entirely by Spanish and Italian foundations. It quickly sailed past the 1 million signature hurdle, collecting over 1.8 million signatures from more than 20 countries by the time the hearing was held on April 9. Despite this impressive show of popular support, there was little doubt that the commission would reject the proposal even as the witnesses for One of Us walked into the hearing room — Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn had said as much in a January press conference.
The commission summarily dismissed the proposal in a seven-page statement issued on May 28 — just three days after the European elections, which left some organizers feeling like the commission was deliberately trying to prevent it from affecting the vote.
But that doesn't mean it was a defeat for opponents to abortion rights. Well before the process had come to an end, the One of Us campaign signalled on its website that it had bigger goals than just changing EU funding policy.
The drive "could be a starting point of a new Europe-wide mobilization of the pro-life movement," the site said. "Every experience we collect here can be used for campaigns on other pro-life issues in further course. In that sense, it can be expected that the outcome may be very enduring."
It also taught anti-abortion rights activists that they didn't have to pull their punches.
"For too long a time in Europe, pro-life people did not really say clearly and directly what they believe because [they feared] it was too much" for most Europeans to accept, Puppinck said in an interview in his Strasbourg office. "We are more direct, more open, more clear, we don't really try to negotiate on the truth…. This is why, for us, the most important [thing] is to be able to speak."
And from a political standpoint, the rejection of the One of Us initiative may have been a blessing for social conservatives hoping to build a movement. The U.S. anti-abortion movement was built in response to the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing abortion rights, a ruling that thrust abortion into the center of American politics for the last 40 years. And they can now frame it as a question, not just abortion.
That's exactly how the Parliament's largest bloc, the center-right European People's Party, is already poised to embrace One of Us' cause. The EPP chair, German MEP Manfred Weber, told BuzzFeed he was "disappointed" that the European Commission did not act "when there are so many people standing behind an initiative."
"We have to bring people closer to the European process," Weber said, adding that the EU must not go beyond its mandate. "Europe should not be the political body which is intervening … in this question of family rights, of abortion. Very crucial and very important."
This battle now heads to the courts. On Friday, Puppinck filed a challenge before the EU's judicial arm asking that it take away the European Commission's veto power over initiatives. The suit "is not only about the right to life, but firstly about democracy," Puppinck stated in a press release announcing the suit.
In this fight, Puppinck said, "You can really say it's the opposition between the people and the elite."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 1, 2014, at 9:11 p.m. ET
ROME — After Sergio Lo Giudice's baby was born in May, he appeared before a California judge to ask that his name be removed from his son's birth certificate.
Lo Giudice is a 53-year-old LGBT activist turned politician, who now represents Bologna in the Italian Senate. When he and his husband decided to have a baby via a surrogate mother, they chose to do it in California because it was illegal for them to do so under Italian law. California recorded Lo Giudice and Michele Giarratano as the child's parents, but the two men feared they would have trouble bringing him home and establishing his Italian citizenship because Italy doesn't recognize same-sex parents.
Their country doesn't recognize their marriage either. Italy is the only country in Western Europe that provides no legal recognition of any kind to same-sex couples; almost every large country in the region has enacted full marriage equality. But that may change this fall: Lo Giudice is part of a group in the Senate Justice Commission that reached agreement on a draft bill on partnership legislation last month, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he wants Parliament to begin debating in September.
The fact that Vatican City is just a short walk across the bridge from Parliament goes a long way to explain why Italy has remained so far behind its neighbors on this question. And the battle over this bill pulls at the seams of Italy's twin nature as a cosmopolitan European state with obligations under international accords that increasingly protect LGBT rights and its place as the seat of the Catholic Church. It is also opening fault lines within the Holy See itself, with an old guard committed to the culture wars fought zealously by Pope Benedict set against Pope Francis' efforts to move away from the divisive fights over sexuality that he believes drive many away from the church.
While Francis' vision hasn't changed any church doctrine, his rhetorical disarmament has made it far easier for Italian politicians to back partnership rights. Those working on the bill believe marriage equality is still politically impossible, and their civil union proposal would also prohibit two-parent adoption by same-sex couples. But it would allow stepchild adoption in cases where one spouse is already the legal parent of a child, so Lo Giudice could once again be recognized as his son's father.
But some same-sex couples and local officials aren't waiting for Parliament to act. The mayor of Naples has declared that his city would start transcribing foreign marriages of same-sex couples into its wedding rolls. Naples is the first large city to take this step after a lower court ordered officials in the small Tuscan city of Grosseto to record a foreign marriage in April.
"It seems that in Italy there is a common line of thought in the battle against homophobia: toward equality," said Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris in announcing the move. "But we never succeed in converting that into law."
The registration of foreign marriages by local officials may have an impact that is more symbolic than legal, worry some to LGBT activists, in part because the Supreme Court issued a ruling in mid-June that undercut it.
That decision came over the case of a couple who now are both named Alessandra, but who were legally married when one of them was Alessandro. When Alessandra Bernaroli legally changed her gender designation in 2009, after the couple had been married for nine years, the courts annulled their marriage, despite their objections. In June, the Constitutional Court ruled that their rights had been violated when they were forced to divorce, which initially led some LGBT rights supporters to celebrate the decision. It said, however, that their marriage was still invalid until Parliament passed a law recognizing same-sex unions and ordered Parliament to swiftly enact new legislation.
Back in 2010, the courts had already ordered Parliament to pass such legislation, which lawmakers ignored. (The Italian courts are much weaker than in places like the United States, where Supreme Court rulings translate directly into changes in law.) And the new ruling undercut the old one in a way that had many LGBT advocates feeling like it was more of a setback than a victory. The 2010 ruling left it up to Parliament whether to enact marriage equality or create a new institution to recognize same-sex unions. The June ruling instructed Parliament to create "a different form of registered partnership" that is "not the same as marriage," and included language that suggested the Italian constitution rules out marriage between people of the same sex.
But civil unions are better than nothing, said Ivan Scalfarotto, secretary for parliamentary relations in the Renzi government and Italy's first out gay government minister. Scalfarotto said that he would prefer marriage equality and full adoption rights. But he said as he approaches the age of 50, he doesn't want to wait any longer for basic protections for his relationship.
"I would not like to [wait to] live in the perfect world when I'm 80," Scalfarotto said. "I'd really love to make sure that the person I love has the right to be recognized as my partner, [and] if I pass away — now — I want him to be able to live in our house, and I want everyone to respect that. ... In principle, I would like to have everything, but principles are a luxury … [that] at this moment, unfortunately, in my country we cannot afford."
Despite the presence of the Vatican, public opinion doesn't show any evidence that Italians are much more disapproving of same-sex relationships than nearby countries with marriage equality. Seventy-four percent of Italians who responded to a 2013 Pew survey said they believed "homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society" — about the same as France, which has had civil unions since 1998 and passed marriage equality last year. A 2013 Ipsos poll found that 48% of Italians supported marriage rights for same-sex couples and an additional 31% oppose marriage but support an alternative form of partnership recognition, on par with Great Britain.
The change in tone ushered in by Pope Francis has helped create an environment where this public opinion can be translated into political action.