Tens of thousands of campaigners descended on the streets of Verona over the weekend to show their opposition to an anti-LGBT+ and anti-abortion conference whose self-avowed goal is to establish the “natural family order”.
The US-founded World Congress of Families (WCF), which has faced criticism for its Russian ties, staged a three-day conference in the ordinarily quiet northern Italian city to discuss “the beauty of marriage” and “growth and demographic decline”.
The 13th international conference of the WCF – which critics have branded “medieval” – was funded by the local authority and is backed by the far right League Party, which is a partner in Italy’s current populist coalition government.
Demonstrators marched to defend abortion and women’s rights and hard-fought same-sex unions in Italy on Saturday – with organisers estimating there were 50,000 there.
Nandini Archer, a human rights activist who specialises in women’s rights, said the protests were “huge” and had a “carnival feel” – noting that many protestors said the city had “never seen anything like this”.
Many of the banners referenced the fact Verona is the place where Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet was set, she said.
Ms Archer, who is a member of feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, said: “Many of them made comments about Romeo and Juliet and the Montagues and Capulets, around how traditional families aren’t always right and how we need to celebrate love not hate – maintaining this city as the ‘city of love’ rather than of far right hate groups.”
She said she met a lot of Italian activists who were worried about the country's “lurch to the right” but was invigorated to see the “international solidarity” on display over the weekend, and said no WCF conference had ever sparked the same level of protest.
The campaigner said they marched through residential areas and gained support from local people.
She described the WCF conference as a gathering of politicians, aristocrats, royals, cardinals and others.
Recent Open Democracy research into the WCF, in which Ms Archer was involved, looked into the last 15 years of gatherings held by the Christian coalition, which found a huge increase in far right politicians attending the meetings, particularly from Europe.
“It has become a space where the far right mix with ultra-conservative Catholics and use the seemingly innocent guise of caring about the ‘family’ to pursue oppressive policies on women,” she added.
“Royals and aristocrats spoke at the event over the weekend, including Princess Gloria and Prince Louis. This shows that these far right and ultra-conservative networks are in fact incredibly elite – often they try to pretend to be ‘for the people’ but in fact, they are elite gatherings trying to repress women’s and LGBT+ rights.”
Princess Gloria, of Germany, and Prince Louis de Bourbon, from France, were both scheduled to speak at the conference.
Ms Archer said she was not aware of any Italian neo-fascist groups – who had been expected to attend – at the main demonstration but she did see them beforehand and the following day.
She said that activists, including herself, had been warned not to walk around in the evening alone.
Ms Archer added: “There were many Facebook posts from fascist ‘swat teams’ beforehand, telling us to stay indoors or we’d be beaten up – which left many of us a bit panicked. But it’s amazing that many still went out and marched."
“I did see the Forza Nuova [an Italian far right political party] press conference outside and this was pretty scary. They are openly fascists and complained Salvini wasn’t far right enough and called on him to hold an abortion referendum.”
Verona, governed by the League for years, has long been a Catholic city resistant towards LGBT+ and women’s rights. In October, it became the first Italian city to declare itself officially “pro-life". City councillors approved a motion, proposed by a League member, to fund anti-abortion groups and the launch of a regional project to encourage pregnant women to give unplanned babies up for adoption.
“We are here today to defend, promote, protect and lift up something so basic, true and beautiful: the family – a man, a woman, a child,” Brian Brown, the WCF president who fought against same-sex marriage in America, said as he opened the conference.
The congress’ controversial list of guests included Theresa Okafor, a Nigerian activist who has compared gay people to the Boko Haram terrorist group, Lucy Akello, a Ugandan politician who helped pass an anti-gay law that sets life imprisonment as the maximum penalty for homosexuality, and Alexey Komov, the Russian representative of WCF who allegedly has close ties to the League.
Marcelle Pirrone, a family lawyer who has been focusing on women in the criminal justice system for 30 years, said: “It was a very peaceful march. It was mainly women but a lot of men too and kids. There were all sorts of ages. It was touching to see really old people marching under the sun. The protest expressed a real fear, anguish and anxiety about what is happening with these medieval views of women, family, identity, and diversity.
“Fascism and populism are getting closer and closer here in Italy. Also, the laws they are proposing on issues involving family and women use absolutely typical language of fascism. It is promoting pure Italian families. They are giving women money to stay at home and have children."
Last autumn, Italy’s far-right government suggested an initiative to entice women into having more children by offering families free farmland if they have a third child.
Parents who have a third child between 2019 and 2021 would be given plots of state-owned farmland to run for 20 years if the scheme is implemented. They would also be offered zero-interest loans of up to £175,000 if they chose to buy their first home next to their new smallholding.
Ms Pirrone added: “Women’s rights are under attack. There is a very strong backlash against women’s rights. Berlusconi made it possible and acceptable to be sexist again. Italy has always been sexist, machismo and patriarchal but with Berlusconi everything was allowed again and men could see in the papers and on TV what they had always been thinking.”
In October, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and the leader of the League, said he was proud Verona was hosting the WCF, adding: “This is the kind of Europe we like.”
Mr Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, addressed the congress on Saturday and attempted to quell consternation from his more moderate supporters by saying critical laws like abortion and divorce would not be reformed.
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