One of a series about the Fellowship Foundation, the secretive religious group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast and is popularly known as The Family. This series is based on Family documents obtained by TYT, including lists of breakfast guests and who invited them.
Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA), an LGBTQ ally in the United States, was a featured participant at an anti-LGBTQ event in Ukraine last week. The annual event is also a hub for opponents of reproductive rights, and this year included a side discussion on “defending … conservative values.”
A picture of Vargas attending the side panel was posted on Twitter by an analyst at Ordo Iuris, a far-right Polish think tank. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Vargas’s co-chair of the Ukraine caucus in the House, also attended the main event.
After the National Prayer Breakfast we had the opportunity to share our experiences in defending of conservative values on an international discussion panel #Nationalprayerbreakfast #OrdoIuris pic.twitter.com/p8sZvpGYQg
— Weronika Przebierała (@W_Przebierala) September 8, 2021
Vargas, who is pro-choice and has a 100 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign, did not announce the trip publicly. Neither did Fitzpatrick, and their offices did not respond to requests for comment.
The event comes amid mounting concerns about the rise of white, Christian nationalist movements both in the U.S. and overseas, some of which are enabled by political reluctance to scrutinize anything seen as religious. Ukraine’s LGBTQ community has been struggling for official implementation of legally required civil rights, protection against hate crimes, and against legislative attempts to ban “homosexual propaganda.”
The event last week was Ukraine’s annual National Prayer Breakfast. It was organized by Pavlo Unguryan, a former member of parliament with a long history of working with American evangelical organizations, including The Family, to push conservative positions, such as opposition to reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights.
Vargas is one of the few Democrats still involved with The Family. He has been listed as a National Prayer Breakfast host for the past three years and co-chaired it in 2016, when the invitation list discriminated against Catholics, progressive religious leaders, and non-evangelicals, as TYT recently reported.
An American lobbyist who attended last week's event in Ukraine, former Rep. Jim Slattery (D-KS), told TYT, “I did not hear any anti-LGBTQ remarks at this event or at earlier prayer breakfasts I have attended in Kiev.” Slattery also said, however, that he had never heard of two far-right groups with ties to the Ukraine event.
Ukrainian LGBTQ acivists lamented American participation in the prayer breakfast. “It’s bad,” said Bogan Globa, co-founder of QUA - LGBTQ Ukrainians in America. Asked whether congressional participation helps organizers expand their networks, Andrii Kravchuk, an advocacy expert at Ukraine’s Nash Mir LGBT Human Rights Center, told TYT, “[A]bsolutely right - this event is a chain in the ultraconservative religious networking.”
Kravchuk said, “All major Ukrainian churches, as well as [any] religious activist/lobbyist associated with them, are strictly homophobic.”
Journalist Oleksiy Kuzmenko tweeted in advance about the participation of Vargas and Fitzpatrick, calling the prayer breakfast’s organizers “Ukraine’s leading anti-LGBT figures.”
US lawmakers @RepBrianFitz, @RepJuanVargas, conservative heavyweight @BobMcEwen will reportedly attend the Prayer Breakfast in Ukraine on Sept 8th.
READ my exhaustive 2020 @bellingcat report about the event's orgs = Ukraine's leading anti-LGBT figures https://t.co/Q1OV1MH9Hg pic.twitter.com/LRMUnkzsNx
— Oleksiy Kuzmenko (@kooleksiy) September 7, 2021
Although the event is only ten years old, Kuzmenko told TYT, “Prayer Breakfast events have come to be amongst Ukraine's premier political and religious events, and their success appears to illustrate how a prominent portion of Ukraine’s political class tolerates the well-known anti-LGBT agenda of some of the event's organizers and has strong ties to American conservative circles.”
Generally, Kravchuk said, mainstream American attitudes toward LGBTQ rights are a positive influence on Ukraine. “I believe that communication between Ukrainian politician[s] and their mainstream Western counterparts would rather improve attitudes of the [former] to LGBT people,” Kravchuk said.
Slattery, who said he has “never held a formal position in the Fellowship Foundation but [has] many friends who have participated in the National Prayer Breakfast,” told TYT he helped start the Ukraine event. “I encouraged people in Ukraine to start a National Prayer breakfast as a way to help unify the country and bind up the nation’s wounds about 10 years ago,” Slattery said in an email.
“This year all factions of [Ukraine’s parliament] the Rada were on the invitation to the Ukraine Prayer Breakfast and political leaders representing all factions in the Rada were in attendance,” Slattery said. “It was a unifying event. Jewish and Moslem leaders also attended.”
Slattery was unaware, however, of remarks made at Ukraine prayer breakfasts by another Family insider, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI). In video of a 2019 speech surfaced by the political blog Take Care, Tim, Walberg tells Ukrainian prayer breakfast attendees that if he does what God wants, “Regardless of what my constituents think of me, the God who I serve will be pleased.” In the same speech, Walberg praises then-Pres. Trump’s support for “marriage between a man and a woman for life, and … for life from conception to natural death.”
Walberg also believes the prayer breakfasts have an impact -- but not in favor of LGBTQ rights. Crediting Christian influence for Trump’s policies on abortion and LGBTQ issues, Walberg told the Ukrainian gathering, “For that reason, I salute you for prayer breakfasts like this.”
Unguryan, the breakfast chair, is an evangelical Christian whose ties to American right-wing evangelicals have been well documented. Last year, Kuzmenko reported for the journalism collective Bellingcat that Unguryan, a former member of parliament, has been a key figure in American efforts to combat LGBTQ rights in Ukraine.
As Kuzmenko reported, World Congress of Families President Brian Brown counted Unguryan as a “new friend” in 2019. Unguryan’s American ties include The Family, and the US National Prayer Breakfast, where Unguryan has been a fixture for years.
As Unguryan himself put it in a 2019 interview:
"Throughout Western Christian civilization - which includes both America [and] Europe … there is a tradition of cooperation between conservative politicians, a kind of "network." Cooperation of people with Christian values, with the understanding that their country needs to be built based on them. Prayer breakfasts are held in almost a hundred countries around the world and are a point of attraction for like-minded people."
Although America's prayer breakfast is billed publicly as being hosted by Congress, documents obtained by TYT show that The Family not only runs the event, but allows Family insiders from other countries to invite like-minded guests, facilitating international network-building. The documents reveal that The Family let Unguryan invite 17 guests to the Washington, DC, prayer breakfast in 2016 and at least 12 in 2018.
Unguryan, however, was only a co-submitter of guest names. His partner on all of his 2016 invitations and half of his 2018 invitations was Doug Burleigh, a Family leader who is a public supporter of former Pres. Donald Trump. It was Burleigh who gave breakfast tickets to Russian operatives Maria Butina and Alex Torshin.
Unguryan’s co-submitter on six other 2018 NPB invitations was Wallberg, another Family insider. A former pastor, Walberg studied at Wheaton College, a Christian school with strong ties to The Family. In 2015, Walberg appeared at a Ukraine prayer breakfast bearing greetings on Vargas’s behalf.
As TYT previously reported, groups run by Unguryan have disclosed paying for Walberg and other conservatives to travel to Ukraine for prayer breakfasts. In some of those disclosures, Unguryan wrote candidly about the reason for inviting them.
Rep. John Moolenaar (R-MI), for instance, was invited because of his “conservative stance on issues such as marriage, family, and Christian values.” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) was “a strong advocate of freedoms of religion and speech [and] conservative values.”
And the Ukrainian National Prayer Breakfast has been similarly transparent about its purpose in the past. The 2016 event was reportedly part of a conference called, “Protecting Christian Values in Central and Eastern Europe and Beyond.”
That conference, in turn, was organized by the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM), to which Unguryan belongs. In addition to opposing LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights, the ECPM is openly theocratic.
Whether or not Democratic participation is a factor, there’s every reason to think the Ukrainian prayer breakfast is achieving its organizers' goals. “Interest in the event is growing every year,” Unguryan told the Ukrainian National News agency.
And the event is moving the needle. As Gohmert said on the floor of Congress in 2017:
"We had representatives from the Ukraine Government come to our National Prayer Breakfast here, and they started one there and began to grow. Now, for the first time, Ukraine[‘s] legislature has passed a bill recognizing a celebration of Christmas, the day of Jesus’ birth. … Apparently, from what we are told, it emanates from them coming over, being part of our Prayer Breakfast, where the President comes, and then starting one."
And Gohmert’s not alone. LGBTQ advocates also see warning signs in Ukraine.
Bogdan Globa, the co-founder of QUA - LGBTQ Ukrainians in America, warned last year of a possible backslide after years of progress. Globa wrote that the new president’s Servant of the People party “has also begun to change its official ideology in ways that do not bode well for the LGBTQ community and other minorities.”
This year’s Ukrainian prayer breakfast was co-chaired by a member of the Servant of the People party, which is also involved in running a new parliamentary group to defend family values. The parliamentary group lists its main activities as including “organizing the National Prayer Breakfast [and] protection of the institution of family and marriage as the basis of society.”
As Christianity Today reported, evangelicals make up only two percent of Ukraine’s population, but their influence is both disproportionate and growing, with help from like-minded Americans.
A report this summer by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights found that prayer breakfasts are an explicit part of a strategic effort backed by American conservative money to undermine human rights in Europe. The report noted Unguryan’s connections to the ECPM but The Family is not mentioned, perhaps because the group’s penchant for secrecy until now has concealed Unguryan’s involvement.
The report found that, in Ukraine and other countries, “parliamentary prayer breakfasts, while superficially apolitical and multi-confessional, include speakers who echo extremist positions.” The report specifically cites the 2016 Ukrainian prayer breakfast for featuring “anti-gender speakers” incuding Prince Nikolaus of Liechtenstein and a representative of the anti-abortion group Alliance Defending Freedom International. (Internal Family documents indicate that Prince Nikolaus was invited to but did not attend the 2016 NPB in Washington.)
Just as American politicians such as Vargas and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) have defended the U.S. prayer breakfast as an opportunity for political enemies to reconcile, so do their Ukrainian counterparts. It’s not true in either country, however, as political foes of evangelicals are in short supply at these events.
TYT previously reported that even religious leaders of the political left -- let alone secular leaders for abortion or LGBTQ rights -- are virtually unrepresented at the U.S. breakfast. Likewise, Unguryan told the Ukrainian news agency, “It is very important that different political forces, opponents in politics … can unite [and] take a truce on all political battles.” As in America, however, that’s not what happens.
Asked whether LGBTQ advocates are invited to Ukraine’s prayer breakfasts, Kravchuk said in an email that Ukraine’s religious community and its allies “NEVER invite LGBT activists at their meetings. In fact, they rather try to evade any direct discussions or even conversations with representatives of the Ukrainian LGBT movement.”
Slattery, who is pro-choice and supports LGBTQ rights (he told TYT he backs the landmark Obergefell ruling), said he didn’t know whether LGBTQ leaders were invited last week. “I have no input on the invitation list,” Slattery said. “But they should be invited.”
Slattery said he spoke briefly at last week’s breakfast, telling TYT:
“I challenged those in attendance to live by the Golden Rule that Jesus gave us in the Sermon on the Mount as reported in the Gospel of Matthew. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ I reminded all those in attendance that after the Golden Rule, Jesus said, ‘This is the sum of all the law and the prophets.’ I told the audience, which included political leaders from all factions … that they can change their politics and their country by simply living by the Golden Rule.”
Slattery also said he was unaware of discrimination in the invitation process for the American National Prayer Breakfast, which he has been involved with since 1983. He pointed out correctly that everyone in Congress is invited regardless of sexual orientation.
As TYT previously reported, however, The Family controls the vast majority of discretionary invitations, and LGBTQ invitees are rare. One source close to The Family told TYT that Slattery “has been deeply involved with the [US] breakfast for decades [and] the idea that he would not be aware of the political or religious makeup of the attendees is not possible.”
Many thanks to our foreign friends for visiting Ukraine and attending our Prayer Breakfast. We were grateful to once again reiterate our strategic partnership between Ukraine, US, EU and Brazil, which is paramount to Ukraine’s strength and success. pic.twitter.com/V9PJJohPJT
— Anna Purtova (@Purtova_aa) September 8, 2021
(A Tweet by Member of Parliament Anna Purtova, a Servant of the People party member and co-chair of the Ukraine National Prayer Breakfast, shows her flanked by Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) on her immediate right, and former Rep. Jim Slattery (D-KS) on her immediate left.)
Slattery’s description of an uncontroversial breakfast gibes with Ukraine media accounts. But it's typically at ancillary meetings of these events that the religious banalities of public rhetoric give way to the political candor that emerges behind closed doors.
As TYT reported earlier this month, the political and religious radicalization of Big Lie promoter Mike Lindell involved breakout-room discussions at the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast, which was co-chaired by Vargas.
Similarly, at an event in Kiev the day after their prayer breakfast, participants criticized a proposed bill against hate speech, calling it persecution of Christians. Unguryan reportedly told the gathering, including American evangelical cause célèbre Andrew Brunson, “We never oppose people. However, we cannot open the door to hell. … [S]ome bills under the guise of European integration offer anti-people, anti-Christian tendencies."
Like the previous day's prayer breakfast, that event included representatives of Ordo Iuris, the Polish, Catholic think tank that pursues legislative and legal strategies for rolling back reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights. The Tweet revealing Vargas’ participation in the prayer breakfast side panel was posted by Weronika Przebierała, an analyst at the Ordo Iuris Center for Legislative Studies.
Ordo Iuris, or “order of law,” has been tied to a number of conservative, evangelical organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere, by VSquare, a journalism collective active in Poland and other European nations.
According to Politico, Ordo Iuris is “responsible for the proliferation of [Poland’s] ‘LGBT-free zones.’” The group’s work to end abortion includes pushing prison time for women and doctors, convincing Poland’s top court to eliminate most exceptions to its abortion ban, and seeking to block European ratification of the Istanbul Conference against domestic violence.
In a February report about Democrats supporting the National Prayer Breakfast despite its leaders backing the Big Lie, a source who has been involved with the breakfast told TYT, “We used to think we were nonpartisan: Democrats were welcome. … but now that Trump stuff’s here, there’s a lot laid bare that’s typical Christian conservative. It’s a conservative Republican thing.”
Another Family insider at the Ukrainian breakfast last week was lobbyist and former Rep. Bob McEwen (R-OH), a vocal Trump supporter and executive director of the far-right Council for National Policy. He has advocated against LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights, and reportedly covered up sex abuse allegations made against an Ohio state representative.
Now an active promoter of the Big Lie, McEwen appeared last year along with Lindell and other Family friends in a movie suggesting a Joe Biden victory would lead to the “end times.”
Fitzpatrick, Vargas’s Ukraine caucus co-chair in the House of Representatives, worked in Ukraine as an FBI agent before his election. He has publicly refuted Trump’s claims about Ukrainian corruption, but nevertheless voted against impeaching Trump. More recently he has been tied to a key organizer of Jan. 6 protests, advising the organizer to lawyer up rather than cooperate with the FBI.
Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.
TYT wishes to thank Michael Colborne, who reports on the transnational far-right for Bellingcat, for his contributions to this report.
Published with permission of The Young Turks