Why did prominent Democrats invite anti-LGBTQ Ukrainians to National Prayer Breakfast?

Officially, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand invited a bunch of homophobes to breakfast. How did that happen?

Published October 5, 2021 5:30AM (EDT)

Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared at The Young Turks. Used by permission.

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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.

Why would congressional Democrats invite two dozen anti-LGBTQ politicians and civic leaders from Ukraine to attend America's National Prayer Breakfast?

The answer is complicated. For one thing, the 12 Democrats — and one independent senator who caucuses with them — didn't actually invite the Ukrainians. Spokespeople for two of them told TYT they didn't even know who was invited in their names.

They did, however, let their names be used to give the event their imprimatur, which was then used to convene at least 25 foes of LGBTQ rights from Ukraine alone at the 2016 breakfast. (Future reports will look at other countries.)

The people who actually chose the 63 guests from Ukraine were Family insiders and allies, a mix of American Republicans and Europeans building conservative movements at home. Their Ukrainian guests who came to network with like-minded Family allies had a range of anti-LGBTQ records:

  • Calling homosexuality "a mental deviation" and "a treatable disease,"
  • Opposing "so-called LGBTQ rights" and
  • Declaring that "Homosexuality is a parasite of the society."

Twenty-one of the Ukraine attendees were listed on internal Family documents with the same contact email address as that of a far-right website with ties to anti-LGBTQ American conservatives.

The letter sent to these Ukrainians said, "On behalf of the Congressional Host Committee, we are pleased to have you join us." It was signed by Reps. Bob Aderholt, R-Ala., and Juan Vargas, D-Calif., the 2016 breakfast co-chairs. The letterhead bore the Great Seal of the United States, as if it were an official document, and listed the congressional host committee.

The committee that year included seven Democratic senators (counting Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with them) and four Democratic House members. The other senators were Chris Coons of Delaware, Al Franken of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bill Nelson of Florida. The House members were Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, Janice Hahn and Ted Lieu of California, Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona and Grace Meng of New York. 

Republicans on the host committee included Family allies and known opponents of LGBTQ and reproductive rights. For example, Vargas' co-chair, Rep. Aderholt, has actively worked to roll back abortion access and LGBTQ rights.

In a travel disclosure form earlier this year, a representative of the Family's legal entity, the Fellowship Foundation, wrote that Aderholt and Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich., had worked together "for the last several years in giving direction to the National Prayer Breakfast … [and] are tremendous representatives of what is good and attractive about America and American leaders!"

(Like other Family insiders, Aderholt figured into the Trump-era Ukrainian lobbying scandals. His political backers include former Family board member Ron Cameron, a multi-million-dollar GOP donor and Trump supporter.)

Democrats on the 2016 host committee included ostensible LGBTQ allies. But even after consulting with Ukrainian human rights advocates, TYT was able to identify only two Ukrainian invitees that year with records of supporting LGBTQ rights. Leading LGBTQ advocates and actual LGBTQ Ukrainians themselves appear to have been excluded entirely. (TYT previously reported that the 2016 invitation list largely excluded LGBTQ and reproductive rights advocates, as well as Christian religious leaders on the left. An overwhelming majority of the top Family insiders who choose the guest list are Republicans.)

Nelson, the former Democratic senator from Florida who now heads NASA, is married to Grace Nelson, one of the few Democrats still active with The Family and a former Fellowship Foundation board member. NASA, like all but two members of the host committee, did not respond to TYT's request for comment.

Of the host committee Democrats still in office, Lieu, Meng and Vargas all belong to the House LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. Lieu distanced himself from the breakfast after Russian operatives used the event to network with American conservatives. Meng let her name be used most recently in 2019.

Vargas, as TYT recently reported, was a featured participant at last month's Ukrainian National Prayer Breakfast in Kyiv, which The Family helped launch and which has multiple ties to anti-LGBTQ individuals and organizations. The EU LGBTQ group Forbidden Colours issued an intelligence brief in response, saying that Vargas was "misled" and warning Democrats to do their due diligence before getting involved with prayer breakfasts and similar events.

A source close to The Family said that most members of Congress who lend their names to the breakfast have virtually nothing to do with it. "The Fellowship insiders that are … inviting people in the name of Congress … have very little to no connection to the [weekly congressional prayer] breakfast groups or Congress," the source said.

That account gibes with what two congressional spokespersons told TYT.

Asked about the 2016 breakfast, Kirkpatrick's chief of staff, Abigail O'Brien, said in a statement that "Rep. Kirkpatrick did not know the background information of the invitees. Had she [known] of anti-LGBTQ leaders being invited, she would have not allowed her name to be on the host committee." Neither Kirkpatrick nor her staff could remember the event, O'Brien said.  

Liz Odendahl, communications director for Hahn, who is now a Los Angeles County supervisor, called the host committee position "ceremonial" and said Hahn "was not at all involved in determining the guest list in 2016."

Two years before that, however, Hahn had served as co-chair. Even in that position, Odendahl said, Hahn "was not involved in determining the guest list." (That same year, Hahn walked out of the National Day of Prayer after Focus on the Family's James Dobson attacked then-President Barack Obama over his support for abortion rights.)

Together, the statements support longstanding accusations that the primary role congressional Democrats play in the breakfast is to help The Family create the impression that the event is both bipartisan and semi-official. The identities of the actual inviters, whose names are never publicly disclosed, tell another story.

Who's really inviting guests to the National Prayer Breakfast?

An internal Family list specifies exactly who submitted each name for the guest list. The 63 guests from Ukraine in 2016 were submitted by just nine people, none of them members of Congress. At least three of the inviters were not Americans, and only one was a Democrat:

  • Former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, a Republican and Family insider appointed by Donald Trump to run the UN World Food Programme
  • Barry Blufer, a consultant
  • Doug Burleigh, the Family's lead liaison in Russia, a Trump supporter and Big Lie donor
  • Doug Coe, a now-deceased Family leader
  • Vladimir Gusinsky, a Russian media magnate and longtime Family insider
  • Grace Nelson, the wife of former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and a Family insider
  • Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Ukrainian prime minister whose lobbyist, Jim Slattery, was a Family insider
  • Pavlo Unguryan, a Family insider and one of Ukraine's leading anti-LGBTQ activists
  • Michael Zhovnir, a Family insider and Washington state businessman with ties to Ukraine

Unguryan was a member of the Rada, Ukraine's parliament, at the time. The previous year, The Family had allowed him to invite 17 people to the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast, Unguryan has called homosexuality "a treatable disease."

As Right Wing Watch has noted, Unguryan that same year fought against banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace. Both Right Wing Watch and Bellingcat have reported on Unguryan's extensive ties to a well-financed network of anti-LGBTQ American conservatives. He submitted his guest names jointly with Burleigh, the Family's Russia liaison, who also acquired invitations that same year for Russian operatives who used the event to build their political network.

Meet the guest list

TYT was able to identify two Ukrainian guests with public positions in support of LGBTQ rights. Grygoryi Nemyrya was a human rights commissioner invited by Tymoshenko, the former prime minister. Grace Nelson's one Ukrainian guest that year was Hanna Herman, a member of parliament who reportedly once urged awareness of and respect for LGBTQ people.

Pavlo Unguryan, the anti-LGBTQ activist who runs Ukraine's National Prayer Breakfast, invited 17 people to the U.S. breakfast in 2016. His guests included Ukrainian politicians Dmytro Yarosh — who in 2015 railed against "the West" imposing a "pervert ideology" on Ukraine — and Yurii Miroshnychenko, who has called for state policy to preserve "the values of the family."

Then there's Ruslan Kukharchuk, whose ties to the American right wing and Unguryan have also been chronicled by Bellingcat. Kukharchuk has written that "Homosexuality is a parasite of the society," and that "Any healthy society should stand tall, united, in order to defeat the virus of homo-dictatorship."

Kukharchuk was invited to the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast more than a decade after starting the group Love Against Homosexuality and four years after he and Unguryan had backed a bill to impose prison time for publicly depicting homosexuality in a positive light. (Several years earlier, journalist Jeff Sharlet revealed the pivotal role some Family leaders played in Uganda's infamous LGBTQ capital punishment bill.)

The men who invited Kukharchuk to the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast weren't members of Congress. It was Burleigh, the Family's point man in former Soviet countries, and Zhovnir, the Washington state businessman. Zhovnir has been referenced occasionally by Ukraine media for his involvement in the breakfast. More notably, his company, Alpha Tech, figured in the Ukrainian lobbying scandals of the Trump presidency, as did other Family insiders.

Ukraine's minister for sports and youth, Igor Zhdanov, was invited to the 2016 breakfast by Vladimir Gusinsky, a fugitive Russian media mogul who reportedly is a friend of Rupert Murdoch. Zhdanov has taken a public stand against "so-called LGBTQ rights" and praised nationalist Ukrainian youth camps where instructors reject LGBTQ "perversions."

Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, was also invited in 2016. Although he was only in office for a few years, Kravchuk oversaw a national giveaway on a scale history seldom sees. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kravchuk privatized some 12,000 Ukrainian companies, handing them out to political insiders and cementing the foundation for decades of oligarchy and corruption.

Kravchuk is also a homophobe. Here's an excerpt from a 1999 interview he gave to a Ukrainian publication:

For all my respect for human rights, I consider that it [homosexuality] is a mental deviation. I have lived my life already, but I still cannot accept it as something normal. It is either an illness or some sort of mental pathology. … Or maybe the outcome of education by foreign movies. … It's disgusting even to speak about it.

Kravchuk's invitation came from Burleigh and Barry Blufer, who has been a member of the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council and calls himself a consultant. His background is slightly more interesting than that.

According to a book by former Rep. Don Bonker, D-Wash., Blufer used to be a CIA agent. Bonker, whose state is something of a hub for The Family, was publicly linked to The Family as early as the 1980s. It was Bonker who brought Gusinsky to The Family. (By that time Bonker was in public relations, with Gusinsky as a client; Bonker wrote that Gusinsky would pick up the tab for international delegations to attend the breakfast.)

In his book, Bonker says he brought Ukrainian oligarch Hryhoriy Surkis to attend the 2002 breakfast. Bonker identifies Surkis' assistant at the time as "Barry Blufer, a former CIA agent." Surkis and his brother were two of Blufer's invitees for the 2016 NPB.

All together, Burleigh, Unguryan and Zhovnir invited 21 other Ukrainians who were all listed with the same contact email address, one also used by Unguryan's anti-LGBTQ organizations. Unguryan's parliamentary prayer breakfast group used that email address in a congressional disclosure form when sponsoring travel by Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., to Ukraine's 2019 prayer breakfast.

The parliamentary group's website says its main activities include "organizing the [Ukraine] National Prayer Breakfast [and] protection of the institution of family and marriage as the basis of society."

In the travel disclosure form, Unguryan says explicitly that Walberg was invited because of "his stance on sanctity of life, marriage, freedom and prayer." Video unearthed by the Take Care, Tim blog shows Walberg using the occasion to praise Christian influence for steeling then-President Trump against abortion and same-sex marriage, praising prayer breakfasts for their potential to do the same.

The Ukrainian breakfast, Walberg's disclosure form says, "has been copied from the U.S. NPB." And it has worked. Ukraine's prayer breakfast is now said to be the largest of a growing number in Europe. In a report this year, the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights included Ukraine on a list of countries where "parliamentary prayer breakfasts, while superficially apolitical and multi-confessional, include speakers who echo extremist positions."

The report quotes a document by the far-right European Christian Political Movement (ECPM), discussing its strategy of "co-hosting Prayer Breakfasts throughout Europe with the aim to improve relations between Christian MPs and to form cross-party alliances on Christian values." Unguryan, the Family insider and head of Ukraine's breakfast, is a member of ECPM. (Ordo Iuris, a Polish far-right group, was also represented at Ukraine's 2021 breakfast.)

Unguryan is connected with another group, Hope Ukraine, which also uses the same email address that Unguryan used for his parliamentary group. Despite its name, however, Hope Ukraine has its roots in the U.S.

While Unguryan is listed as a project director, the director of Hope Ukraine is actually Nick Logan, an American. And the address listed on Hope Ukraine's tax filing is in Tustin, California, the same address as another company, Cornerstone Payment Systems, where Logan serves as president.

Cornerstone Payment Systems is the donation-processing company of choice not only for Hope Ukraine but for far-right American evangelicals like James Dobson. Cornerstone's public relations firm is run by A. Larry Ross, the Family leader who helped radicalize Mike Lindell, the Big Lie-promoting founder of MyPillow.

One of the websites for Hope Ukraine includes a page for volunteers. A photo there of Hope Ukraine volunteers appears either to originate from the stock photo company iPhoto, or the young, diverse Ukrainian volunteers it depicts are also satisfied patrons of Midtown Dental in Logan, Utah.

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As journalist Jeff Sharlet has reported, The Family has a history of portraying the prayer breakfast as a semi-official event, while simultaneously obfuscating its role in building right-wing networks. Hope Ukraine's own website hints at similar ambivalence about revealing the full extent of its ties.

The hint comes in a parenthetical comment that suggests the author wasn't sure whether to include it. The passage refers to "the remarkable cooperation of Evangelical churches in Ukraine (and the United States?) …"

With additional research by TYT News Assistant Zoltan Lucas and TYT Investigates Intern Jamia Zarzuela.

By Jonathan Larsen

Jonathan Larsen is the creator of The F**king News.

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