On Saturday in Verona, Italy, an estimated 20,000 protesters gathered outside a conference of US-based far-right Christian coalition the World Congress of Families (WCF).
The WCF has been labelled a hate group by US legal advocacy organisation the Southern Poverty Law Center. It promotes anti-LGBT+ and anti-feminist legislation abroad, including in Russia and several African countries. Its policy positions include support for ‘conversion therapy’, laws against sodomy and religious freedom amendments allowing Christians to discriminate against the LGBT+ community.
About 70 civil rights organisations from across Italy came together to organise the protest. Protesters sang ‘Bella Ciao,’ an anthem of the Italian resistance during the Second World War, and carried banners with slogans including “Our bodies and our desires, it’s we who decide.”
“The only positive thing to come out of this event is that all these groups have come together and Italy is uniting,” said Luisa Rizzitelli, a spokesperson for Rebel Network, a women’s group. She added “This is a battle to protect the rights and freedom for all, not just one group. We’re all under threat. This congress is not about religion but political power, and we don’t accept this dangerous regression.”
Yuri Guaiana, campaign manager for gay rights organisation All Out, said of those involved in WCF “They’ve said terrible things about homosexuality, divorce and contraception, and yet they played the victims, saying we were attacking them simply for defending the family.” It was crucial that protesters come together, he said, “to show that Italy is not going to surrender to hate.”
WCF conference aimed “to restore the natural order”
The self-declared goal of the WCF is to “restore the natural order,” as represented by the traditional family of man, woman and child. Speakers at last weekend’s conference, as well as those of previous years, have rallied against the “evils” of same-sex relationships, “radical feminists” and abortion.
On Friday, at the beginning of this year’s event, rubber foetuses were distributed to delegates along with a card that read “Abortion stops a beating heart.” One woman, among a crowd of WCF supporters, gathered outside the event, told Italian newspaper La Repubblica that gay people “need conversion therapy” to escape “going to hell.”
Speakers at WCF conferences have included Theresa Okafor, a Nigerian activist who compared gay people to terrorist group Boko Haram, and Lucy Akello, a Ugandan politician who helped pass a law setting life imprisonment as the maximum penalty for homosexuality in her country.
In recent years, the WCF conference has usually been held in former Soviet states. It’s hosting in Italy has raised particular alarm, as it is supported by the far-right League, a partner in the country’s coalition government.
Matteo Salvini, the party’s leader and Italy’s deputy prime minister, spoke at the conference. He said he was there “to support a festive day with a smile: the right to be a mother, a father and a grandparent.”
He claimed he would not change the 1978 law that legalised abortion in some circumstances, but nonetheless called on the Italian public to increase the country’s population. “Italians need to start bringing children into the world,” he said. “A country that doesn’t make babies is a country that dies.”
The League’s coalition partner, the Five Star Movement (M5S), ordered its representatives not to participate in the conference. Nonetheless, one of its senators, Tiziana Drago, defied this order and spoke at the event on Friday.
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