Bucharest, Warsaw, Brussels, Zagreb

At Saint Spyridon the New Church, the largest Orthodox church in Bucharest, the priest had an important message for his congregation.

“This is one of those moments in history when true Christians are separated from the chaff,” he told worshipers during a two-hour mass, as children played on the floor in front of the altar. “Those who consider themselves Christians must speak out today.”

It was the Sunday of a weekend-long referendum in October on rewording Romania’s Constitution to redefine marriage as an institution only available to heterosexual couples. Turnout had been low and priests across the country were rallying the faithful.

Outside a polling station in the bustling center of Bucharest, some heeded the call. “I’m sure we’ll succeed,” Damian Joita, a 20-year-old law student, said after voting for the change. “I’ve never been prouder to be Romanian than today.”

Madalin Costache, a 24-year-old father of two, said he was voting to protect his children. “If homosexuals adopt, their children will grow up thinking being gay is normal. But this isn’t right. It’s not how God meant it.”

In the end, turnout was well below the legally required threshold of 30 percent and the October 6-7 referendum was for nothing. The Constitution’s gender-neutral definition of marriage as “between spouses” remains unchanged.

But the campaigning exposed fault lines through Romanian society that had been quietly cracking since 2016, when a little-known group called the Coalition for Family collected 3 million signatures to trigger the referendum.

Although Romania’s civil code forbids gay marriage, the coalition persuaded many that legalization was just around the corner. Once gay couples were legally married, they argued, what would stop them from adopting and “converting” children to homosexuality?

Made up of more than 40 local associations, the coalition depicted itself as a grassroots protector of Romanian traditional values. Its publicity materials made use of folk costumes and the blue, yellow, and red of the Romanian flag.

But far from being a home-grown initiative, the coalition is part of a global ultraconservative movement dedicated to rolling back more than gay marriage, rights groups and academics say.

From civil partnerships and abortion to assisted reproduction and sex education in schools, the movement is pushing to change laws and policies it sees as undermining what it calls “the natural family.”

And it is getting organized. An investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, reveals how a growing network of ultraconservative activists, lawyers, and consultants is sharing strategy and resources across borders.

The movement draws inspiration and expertise from sources far removed from the voting booths and church bulletin boards of the Balkans. These include US evangelical groups close to the Trump White House and Russian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin, according to insider documents and media reports.

Meanwhile, European populist leaders with an increasingly illiberal bent are finding that it pays to jump on the movement’s bandwagon. By imbuing their rhetoric with appeals to the so-called natural family, and crafting policies that seem to support it, they stand to earn votes and cement their power.

The result is an erosion of political and civil liberties in democracies that are edging toward authoritarianism, political analysts say.

Andrea Peto, a historian at the Central European University in Budapest, described the rise of groups like the Coalition for Family as “a nationalist neoconservative response to the crisis of the global neoliberal world order.”

“It’s a fundamentally new phenomenon that was launched for the sake of establishing a new world order, so it should interest anyone who cares about democracy and human rights,” Peto said.

Vlad Viski, president of the Romanian rights group MozaiQ, put it more bluntly: “The homosexual body is now a battleground.”

“Gender Ideology”

In an interview before the referendum, Mihai Gheorghiu, leader of the Coalition for Family, defended his organization’s goals.

“We have the right to defend our values and way of life,” he told BIRN. “The natural family based on marriage between a man and a woman is the anthropological essence of who we are and the fundament for the existence of children.”

Gheorghiu, a 51-year-old philologist, was sitting in the cafeteria of the Bucharest Museum of the Romanian Peasant, where he is deputy director. As he warmed to his topic, a group of hip young Romanians relaxed nearby on traditionally carved wooden chairs.

“We knew the cultural and sexual revolution happening in the West would eventually reach Romania and we had to be ready,” he said.

Gheorghiu has a name for the decadence he is fighting—“gender ideology.” Not to be confused with gender studies or any other mainstream academic discipline, it is a term invented by ultraconservatives to evoke a worldview at war with fundamentalist conceptions of the natural family.

According to this line of thinking, gender ideology took root among elite Western intellectuals in the 1960s before infecting universities, courtrooms, parliaments, and international institutions with what conservatives see as a dangerous moral relativism.

Those in the “anti-gender” camp see the advancement of gay rights and pro-choice policies as symptoms of a kind of neocolonial takeover of God-given social norms. “Romanians have already lived through communism, when a minority thought it held the absolute truth and imposed it on others,” Gheorghiu said. “We cannot allow that to happen again.”

The Coalition for Family is not alone in evoking the specter of gender ideology. Between 2012 and 2015, campaigners triggered referendums in Croatia, Slovenia, and Slovakia to try to constitutionally define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.

They were successful in Croatia. Slovenians rejected gay marriage at the ballot box before politicians later made it legal. And in Slovakia, turnout did not reach the required 50 percent.

In Poland, a petition to tighten the country’s already strict abortion law forced Parliament to take up the issue in 2016, but big protests prompted its rejection. This year, Bulgaria refused to ratify a Council of Europe treaty on tackling domestic violence after a social uproar, with conservatives saying its definition of gender relativized the boundaries between the sexes.

But it was not just an Eastern European phenomenon.

Since 2012, a French group called La Manif Pour Tous (The Protest for Everyone) has rallied supporters against gay marriage and assisted reproduction, inspiring similar movements in Italy, Germany, and Finland. In Spain, HazteOir (Make Yourself Heard) has been militating against abortion, gay marriage, and sex education in schools since 2013.

“Agenda Europe”

Experts say it is no coincidence that such initiatives sprang up at the same time.

Rewind to January 2013, when around 20 leading anti-abortion campaigners and strategic consultants from around Europe and the United States gathered in London’s leafy Belgravia district for a two-day retreat billed as a forum for “developing strategies for the pro-life movement in Europe,” according to a copy of the event’s agenda obtained by BIRN.

Participants also left time for “spiritual reflection” sessions, mass at Westminster Cathedral, and dinner at the exclusive Royal Automobile Club.

Agendas of three subsequent meetings—marked “strictly confidential” and also seen by BIRN—showed that the London retreat morphed into an annual summit known as Agenda Europe. Summits took place in Munich in 2014, Dublin in 2015, and Warsaw in 2016.

“Since its establishment, it [Agenda Europe] has grown to include the key pro-life and pro-family leaders in every European country,” the organizers wrote in notes accompanying the 2015 schedule.

Well-known US anti-abortion activists were listed as star speakers at the summits. None of the attendees contacted by BIRN responded to interview requests.

“The US actors bring know-how,” said Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development (EPF), a network of European parliamentarians promoting reproductive rights. “The US movement has 30 years’ more experience. They tested out all these things. They have policy norms at hand that can be adapted to the local context and outclass Europeans in strategic litigation.”

During the early 1990s, several big US conservative Christian groups—many founded by evangelicals—came to prominence as they fought to roll back what they saw as unwelcome victories by civil-liberties organizations, especially on women’s and LGBT rights.

“Under the Obama administration, the American Christian right felt it was losing the battle at home and expanded its commitment to ‘the culture wars’ overseas,” said Peter Montgomery, a contributor at Right Wing Watch, which monitors the US religious right. “US courts sometimes borrow arguments from Europe. Conservatives used to get upset by the use of progressive international precedents, but now they see winning conservative rulings internationally as an opportunity.”

One of the biggest conservative Christian groups in the United States is the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Over the past three years, ADF’s annual revenue has exceeded $48 million, according to its audited financial reports and tax filings. ADF moved to expand its Christian-lawyers’ network into Europe, creating ADF International in 2010, with offices in Belgium, Austria, France, Britain, and Switzerland. Annual forms filed to US tax authorities and available online show that the organization increased its funding to Europe to $2.5 million in 2015-16 from around $800,000 in 2012-13.

ADF’s fortunes have since improved back home. In a 2017 investigation for The Nation, journalist Sarah Posner showed how close the group is to President Donald Trump. US Solicitor General Noel Francisco, appointed by the White House, was an ADF-affiliated attorney, she revealed. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump ally, consulted with ADF when drafting Department of Justice guidance on religious freedom. And Trump appointed at least four federal judges with ties to the group.

Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, is considered a high-level ally of groups trying to limit LGBT and women’s rights.

“Mike is a solid believer and understands these issues,” ADF head Michael Farris told the Catholic News Agency last year. “I think we’ll have a listening ear in the Justice Department.”

One of the few publicly known funders of ADF is the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who are also major donors to the Republican Party. Most of the remaining individual and charitable donations making up ADF’s revenue are secret.

“American actors might give some money,” said Datta from EPF. “That’s not in itself a bad thing. But the conservatives [right-wing groups in Europe] are decidedly discreet as to where they get their money from. While progressives do list their funders, the conservatives don’t. They engage in obfuscation of their sources.”

Asked about the purpose of ADF’s expansion into Europe, Adina Portaru, a Romanian lawyer on staff at ADF International’s Brussels office, told BIRN: “ADF International protects religious minorities from being persecuted and promotes human rights through their network of allied lawyers throughout the world.”

She added that ADF International co-hosted, together with the Coalition for Family and others, two conferences on family in the Romanian Parliament, in 2017 and 2018.

Another major American group expanding into Europe is the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), founded by evangelical minister Pat Robertson, with an annual revenue of around $20 million. ACLJ set up the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ) in Strasbourg in 1998 and the Slavic Center for Law and Justice in Moscow around the same time. According to ACLJ’s publicly available forms filed to US tax authorities, the organization has spent more than $1 million in Europe each year since 2009.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for ACLJ, is on Trump’s legal counsel team and is in charge of dealing with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US election.

Representatives of both ADF International and ECLJ have been regularly invited to Agenda Europe summits.

Anti-Gender “Manifesto”

Prominent activists from the Balkans and Eastern Europe are also regular invitees to Agenda Europe summits.

Bogdan Stanciu, head of the Pro Vita Bucharest Association, an influential former member of the Coalition for Family, is listed as a speaker. So is Zeljka Markic, founder of In the Name of the Family, which triggered the referendum that constitutionally redefined marriage in Croatia. At the Warsaw summit in 2016, Markic was invited to chair a session on “current proactive marriage initiatives.” Neither Stanciu nor Markic responded to questions or interview requests.

Polish EU Affairs Minister Konrad Szymanski, from the governing Law and Justice party (PiS), was also scheduled to speak at the event that year.

Many of the ideas espoused by the conservative activists echo concepts found in a manifesto of more than 100 pages, titled Restoring the Natural Order: An Agenda for Europe. In an English copy of the manifesto, seen by BIRN, the unknown author describes a “civilisational decline of the Western world” brought about by the moral relativism of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Gender ideology is the main culprit, it says.

“It is thus, for example, perfectly legitimate to strive for legislation that criminalises abortion, euthanasia or sodomy, or that rules out the legal recognition of ‘same-sex marriages’, even if there be some citizens who believe abortion, euthanasia or sodomy to be morally acceptable,” it says.

The document spells out concrete policy goals, including the repeal of all laws allowing for divorce, civil partnership or gay adoption; the introduction of “anti-sodomy laws”; and defunding of “the LGBT lobby.”

The strategies it lays out include petitioning at an EU and national level, encouraging activists to “expose gay marriage to ridicule,” and informing people “about risks associated with sodomy.”

“When speaking about sodomy, consistently use that term,” it advises.

Agenda Europe has no official spokespeople or officers, but the agendaeurope.org website—registered to ADF International’s director of alliance relations, Sophia Kuby—contains a statement disowning the manifesto.

Asked about the manifesto, Kuby reiterated that it had nothing to do with Agenda Europe and said the document had come to light via “illegal hacking” of the Spanish organisation HazteOir. “A criminal procedure is ongoing,” she added.

Meanwhile, the Pro Vita Bucharest Association published in 2016 a Romanian translation of the manifesto, retitled An Agenda for Romania. In an accompanying note, it says it “symbolically took ownership” of the text.

In 2016, the Pro Vita Bucharest Association collected donations on behalf of the Coalition for Family. It has since been removed from the list of members on the coalition’s website.

“Broad Alliances”

Whoever wrote the manifesto, experts say the worldview it expounds has been gaining ground in Europe since before Agenda Europe came into being, helped by a growing chorus of denunciation of gender ideology by the Vatican.

“In Europe, America, Latin America, Africa, and in some countries of Asia, there are genuine forms of ideological colonization taking place,” Pope Francis said in a speech to Polish bishops in 2016.

“And one of these—I will call it clearly by its name—is [the ideology of] ‘gender.’ Today children—children!—are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex.”

In Catholic countries such as Poland or Croatia, journalists and academics have documented the church’s involvement in anti-gender campaigns. And according to EPF’s Datta, intellectuals close to the Vatican were key in setting up Agenda Europe.

Yet analysts say the anti-gender movement is neither exclusively Catholic nor even exclusively religious. In countries that are more secular or where the church’s reputation has been marred by scandals, campaigners often downplay their links to organized religion.

According to Peto from the Central European University, gender ideology is the “symbolic glue” that “helped create broad alliances and united actors that have not cooperated in the past,” including the different Christian churches, mainstream conservatives, far-right parties, and fundamentalist groups.

The key calendar event for anti-gender activists from all over the world is the annual World Congress of Families. This year, the WCF took place in mid-September in Chisinau, hosted by Moldovan President Igor Dodon, who won election in 2016 on a pro-Russian, pro-family agenda.

The event kicked off in Moldova’s Republican Palace, replete with red marble and crystal chandeliers. For much of the opening ceremony, streamed online, dancers dressed in Moldovan folk costumes, or simply in white, carried a remarkably calm baby around the stage.

Dodon then launched into a speech about the “erosion and destruction” of the family amid an “anti-family ideology, which deprives mothers and fathers of their natural roles in the family.”

Declaring 2019 the Year of the Family in Moldova, he said he would push for pro-family measures, including an increase in maternity leave. He added that pro-gay “propaganda” should be “firmly condemned and even outlawed.”

WCF president Brian Brown went on to read a message from Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister. “In an age when we are witnessing destructive and irrational attacks on the founding values of our cultures, the efforts you are undertaking to protect the natural family, as a vital element for the survival and development of human kind, are extremely necessary and worthy of appreciation,” it said.

The Russian Connection

The WCF was founded in 1997 by US anti-abortion campaigner Allan Carlson and two Russian academics from Moscow State University, Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov.

Analysts say the Russian connection makes sense because traditional values chime with “Eurasianism,” an ideology that depicts Russia as a median between Europe and Asia and implies that ex-Soviet territories will eventually return to the fold. For the Kremlin, gender ideology is a feature of the decadent West.

“This is a very interesting geopolitical offer,” Datta said. “Russia can now go to governments in its neighborhood criticized by the West on human-rights grounds and say to them, ‘Don’t worry, you are different.’”

In a 2014 investigation for Mother Jones, Hannah Levintova revealed how US evangelicals, notably actors from the WCF, helped develop anti–gay rights language and arguments for Russian activists and legislators, resulting in the adoption in 2013 of a federal law banning gay “propaganda.”

At the Agenda Europe summit in Munich in 2014, Alexey Komov, the representative of the WCF in Russia, was invited to share lessons from the “success” of the legislation, according to the agenda.

That year, the WCF was set to take place in Moscow, financed by two people considered close to President Vladimir Putin, according to the Mother Jones investigation: Vladimir Yakunin, former president of the Russian railways, and Konstantin Malofeev, an investment banker and Orthodox philanthropist.

Malofeev is also chairman of the board of directors of media group Tsargrad, a platform for Eurasianist ideas espoused by the influential far-right philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

The Moscow WCF did not take place in the end because the oligarchs funding it were put on EU and US sanctions lists after Russia annexed Crimea.

“In Russia, our trend is back to Orthodoxy, tradition, and Christianity,” Malofeev says in a 2018 documentary by the Franco-German ARTE television channel titled Abortion: Backlash in Europe.

“Europe is dying. The West, in [US President Ronald] Reagan[’s] time…helped for this communism smoke to get out from Russia. Now it’s our turn. We have to pray [for] the liberal smoke to get out from Europe and America.”

“The Future of Europe”

Beyond Russia, illiberal leaders have declared war on gender ideology.

Last year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán hosted the WCF in Budapest and welcomed participants with a speech about “Europe, our common homeland, losing out in the population competition between great civilizations.”

“In the struggle for the future of Europe, stopping illegal migration is imperative,” he said. “This struggle…is only worthwhile if we are able to combine it with a family policy that restores natural reproduction on the continent.”

In October, in a move puzzling to many, Hungary banned gender-studies degrees, calling the discipline “an ideology not a science.” The Trump administration is also pushing to remove “gender” from UN human-rights documents.

Italy’s Salvini is proposing a similar mix of nationalistic, anti-immigration, and pro-family policies. “We will defend the natural family founded on the union between a man and a woman. I will exert all the power possible,” Salvini told Italian media in August.

Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany entered parliament in 2017 with a manifesto promising a “commitment to the traditional family,” opposing “gender mainstreaming” and pledging to counteract a shrinking population with “large families instead of mass immigration.”

In Poland, PiS came to power with a potent mix of nationalistic and pro-family measures. Its signature policy is known as “500+”: payments of more than 100 euros per child to families with more than one child.

“The anti-gender groups active in Poland have been instrumental for the right-wing populists to win elections,” Elzbieta Korolczuk, a sociologist at Warsaw University, told BIRN. “They mobilized people on the ground, in the parishes. They helped depict the liberal party [their archrivals, the Civic Platform] as elitist and insensitive to people’s needs.”

Korolczuk continued: “The new illiberal forces conflate liberal cultural and economic elites, so there’s a sense that not only do those liberal elites want to take away your livelihood in economic terms but they also want to change your private life and turn your boy into a girl.

“This sense of victimhood, of righteous anger, is a very powerful mobilizing affect.”

In 2018, former Trump political strategist Steve Bannon launched “the Movement” to help far-right and populist forces in next year’s elections for the European Parliament. Salvini has pledged support for the Movement, and Bannon has held talks with Hungary’s Orbán.

Experts say the Movement’s likely participants can be defined by what they are against. They are anti-immigration, anti-EU, anti-globalist, anti-elitist—and anti-gender.

Back in Romania, critics say the fact that the government, which is led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), took up the referendum cause at all is a sign of its growing slide toward illiberalism. PSD has also ushered in sweeping justice-system reforms that opponents say hurt judicial independence and make it harder to stop high-level corruption.

“Romanians refused to legitimize a discourse meant to discriminate against the LGBT community and question fundamental human rights,” MozaiQ’s Viski said. “For the moment, we have managed to stem the conservative tide.”