Evangelicals with ties to "The Family" met Mike Johnson and Zelenskyy ahead of Ukraine vote

We're getting nearly a real-time look at The Family's anti-LGBTQ+ religious diplomacy in action

Published April 19, 2024 3:34PM (EDT)

U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) leaves a House Republican conference meeting in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill on October 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) leaves a House Republican conference meeting in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill on October 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on TFN.

If you see evangelical House Republicans softening their opposition to military aid for Ukraine, don’t assume it’s divine intervention.

While most mainstream news hasn’t picked up on it, religious media outlets have started to notice how Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging a war on that most sacred of right-wing cows: Religious freedom.

That message is coming — with elements of truth but also an agenda — from a small but well-connected cadre of Ukrainian and American evangelicals, including prayer-breakfast leaders.

And right-wing Ukrainian evangelicals with strong ties to American counterparts just won an important ask from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right as House Republicans are considering whether to help him.

The dynamics of all this carry echoes of the “perfect” phone call in which then-Pres. Donald Trump threatened to block aid to Ukraine. Except this time it’s played out in public, for evangelical audiences, anyway.

The quiet, religious diplomacy has been bookended by two high-powered meetings, virtually unreported in the U.S., that could change the course of the war and Ukraine’s future.

One meeting involved House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA). That was January, in DC. The other was last week in Ukraine, with Zelenskyy himself.

Evangelical Bookends

It’s not clear how the first meeting came about. And it may have been brief, given that photos of it were taken in a hallway. But it was long enough for the Ukrainians to deliver Johnson a message.

The Ukrainians were in Washington for what used to be known as the National Prayer Breakfast, now called the NPB Gathering but still staged by the Fellowship Foundation (aka The Family). The Ukrainians planned a whole week of events around the annual breakfast.

Their meeting with Johnson was recounted on social media and in Ukrainian media, especially on platforms with a religious bent. And it appears to have been planned beforehand, because the Ukrainian Institute for Religious Freedom reported that Christian Ukrainian leaders almost three weeks beforehand agreed on the language of a joint letter to hand-deliver to Johnson.

Ukrainian media named four of the Ukrainians who met with Johnson, including these three clergymen:

  • Valerii Antoniuk, head of the All-Ukrainian Union of the Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists

  • Anatoliy Kozachok, senior bishop of the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church

  • Stanislav Nosov, president of Ukraine’s Seventh-day Adventist Church

The three clerics represent denominations explicitly evangelical or closely adjacent. They got the meeting with Johnson even though evangelicals make up only two percent of Ukraine’s population. (Last year, Johnson declined to meet with an ecumenical group of Ukrainian religious leaders whose ranks included Jews and Muslims.)

“It was important for brother Mike,” Antoniuk said, “to hear the voice of fellow believers.”

Antoniuk described the discussion in theocratic terms, calling for “friendly fraternal conversation between the two Christian nations, because both America and Ukraine are countries that are based on faith in Jesus Christ.”

The fourth man identified at the meeting was former Member of Parliament Pavlo Unguryan, a layman who may be one of Ukraine’s most influential evangelical Christians. That’s because he’s The Family’s point man in Ukraine.

Unguryan called the discussion with Johnson an “informal [meeting] among brothers in faith.”

Referring to Republicans who oppose aiding Ukraine, Kozachok reportedly said later that Johnson was “really trying to find a way out of the situation… he gives the impression of being quite open and understanding.”

The letter offered Johnson a way out. In addition to the familiar but ineffective appeals for liberty and independence, the letter proposed a new cause for Republicans: “[T]he struggle of the Ukrainian people for … freedom of religion.”

Unguryan painted the conflict for Johnson in starkly religious, almost apocalyptic terms. He said they told Johnson of the horrors brought by “Russia and other forces of darkness.”

And Unguryan gave Johnson an inventory of how these dark forces have assaulted Christianity: “[D]estroying churches, killing and persecuting pastors and priests, kidnapping children and raping babies.”

The religious-freedom rationale in that letter arose again last week, in the second high-level meeting, this time in Ukraine. And that rationale came from some of the same people who offered it to Johnson.

Zelenskyy attended a big sit-down with Protestant and Catholic leaders last Tuesday. According to the Ukrainian press, Kozachok, the Pentecostal bishop, was there. So was Antoniuk.

One Ukrainian report on the meeting said that Antoniuk “highlighted the importance of religious freedom in Ukraine. He stated that his church participates in prayer breakfasts in the United States.”

It’s true. Antoniuk has attended at least one National Prayer Breakfast, according to internal Family records I obtained. One document, about the 2018 breakfast, identifies Antoniuk as “Coordinator of the inter-faith dialogue at the parliament of Ukraine.” (The Family works to create prayer groups in legislative bodies around the world.)

A third Ukrainian from the Johnson hallway discussion was also at last week’s Zelenskyy meeting, but wasn’t named in Ukrainian media accounts. It was Unguryan, The Family’s point man, who can be seen on the far left in a government photo of the participants.

The meeting was held at the Ukrainian Bible Society’s House of the Bible. Zelenskyy said that victory against Russia will be won “thanks to our warriors, our people and your sincere prayers.”

But Zelenskyy and the religious leaders also wanted something from each other. They were meeting just one week prior to Congress’s return to Washington, as Johnson sought to wrangle his caucus into greenlighting aid for Ukraine.

Zelenskyy, who had spoken with Johnson the week before, told the participants that their gathering would send a signal — if the religious leaders would help.

"I would like to ask you to communicate with each other not only here, within our country, but also abroad,” Zelenskyy said. “This dialogue is very important for us now. After all, the church has a great influence on society, on state leaders."

The religious leaders had an agenda, too. They were hungry for religious freedom. And prayer breakfasts.

Paraphrasing Antoniuk, the Institute for Religious Freedom reported that he said the importance of religious freedom was “evidenced, in particular, by the effective partnership with the American community. Among other things, they hold prayer breakfasts, that gives an opportunity to share information about what is happening in Ukraine.”

They wanted Zelenskyy to do an annual prayer breakfast. It was the only ask they made of Zelenskyy in any of the accounts I saw.

As Zelenskyy’s office put it in a press release, “The clergy proposed to Volodymyr Zelenskyy to initiate a nationwide prayer breakfast.” Zelenskyy agreed.

Religious Freedom at Breakfast

The most obvious goal of religious freedom in Ukraine today is ending the Russian persecution, the destruction of churches and persecution of clerics. As well as the invasion itself.

But the people pushing the religious-freedom rationale have historically defined it more broadly. They include reshaping governments to mirror their religious beliefs about LGBTQ+ people and abortion.

And that distorted vision of religious freedom has a history of getting smuggled into law and policy, even in the U.S., sometimes abetted by Democrats. In an example I reported back in 2022, the new Respect for Marriage Act became law only after a toxic interpretation of religious freedom was injected, with some Democrats none the wiser.

Family insiders, too, have a history of interpreting religious freedom as the right to enshrine their religious beliefs into law.

They flew Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) to Uganda for last year’s National Prayer Breakfast there, where he cited his religious beliefs to urge that country to “stand firm” against opposition to Uganda’s new LGBTQ+ death penalty.

(Pressed by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), The Family refused to condemn Walberg’s remarks. Or the death penalty.)

In 2019, at a previous iteration of Ukraine’s prayer breakfast, Walberg credited such events with helping to steel Trump’s opposition to LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. The breakfast was organized by Unguryan.

And Unguryan is well known to his fellow Ukrainians for opposing LGBTQ+ rights. Reportedly, he has called gay people pedophiles and homosexuality “a treatable disease.” Right Wing Watch has chronicled Unguryan’s anti-LGBTQ+ track record, including blocking protections against workplace discrimination.

He’s also been a member of the European Political Christian Movement (ECPM), a theocratic-leaning organization opposed to LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. And both Right Wing Watch and Bellingcat have reported on Unguryan’s extensive ties to a well-financed network of anti-LGBTQ American conservatives. 

That includes Ralph Drollinger’s Capitol Ministries, which seeks to inject Christianity into governments around the world. (It was Drollinger who engineered the appearance of Trump Energy Secretary Rick Perry at Unguryan’s Bible study in the weeks before Trump’s “perfect” Zelenskyy call.)

The Family has helped Unguryan build his network. It’s not just flying members of Congress to Kyiv to lend Unguryan’s events American power and prestige. The Family also gave Unguryan the keys to the kingdom: Letting him choose guests for the National Prayer Breakfast, supercharging his value to Ukrainian power players eager to access U.S. politicians at the event.

According to the documents I obtained, The Family let Unguryan invite 17 guests to the Washington prayer breakfast in 2016 and at least 12 in 2018.

But Unguryan was only a co-submitter of those guest names. His partner on the 2016 invitations and half of his 2018 invitations was Doug Burleigh, a Family leader and Trump supporter. It was Burleigh who gave NPB tickets to Russian operatives Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. And Burleigh who joined Unguryan in submitting Antoniuk’s name for the 2018 breakfast.

Unguryan’s co-submitter on six other 2018 NPB invitations was Walberg. 

Ukrainian Prayer Circles

In a 2021 report, the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights named Ukraine as a country where “prayer breakfasts, while superficially apolitical … include speakers who echo extremist positions.”

The report quotes a document by the far-right ECPM, the group Unguryan joined, 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.” ECPM, the report concluded, “socialised political elites onto regressive positions through prayer breakfasts.”

Unguryan’s 2021 breakfast included Ordo Iuris, a far-right Polish group, and former Rep. Bob McEwen (R-OH), a Family insider who’s now executive director of the far-right, theocratic leaning Council for Foreign Policy. Unguryan’s parliamentary group explicitly described their mission as “organizing the National Prayer Breakfast in Ukraine [and] protection of the institution of family and marriage.”

The European LGBTQ+ advocacy group Forbidden Colours actually distributed an intelligence brief to congressional Democrats, saying that Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) had been “misled” in attending Unguryan’s 2021 breakfast. The brief warned Democrats that participating in prayer breakfasts harms the cause of LGBTQ+ rights.

None of that has stopped some House Democrats, especially Family allies, from helping Unguryan.

For three years now, Ukrainian evangelicals have staged what they call Ukrainian Week in Washington. Not coincidentally, it’s tied to the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast and its satellite events.

Unguryan is Ukrainian Week’s chief organizer, and gets Democrats to show up at his bipartisan news conferences on Capitol Hill. Even mainstream media get invites. 

His most visible Democratic ally is Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus. A spokesperson for Kaptur told me last year that she “has been long involved with the National Prayer Breakfast,” but not with The Family.

Last year, however, the guest she brought to the National Prayer Breakfast was a former co-worker of and donor to longtime Family insider former Rep. Jim Slattery (D-KS).

(Slattery registered as a foreign agent working on Ukraine’s behalf in 2022. His work reportedly has included arranging meetings with members of Congress. In February, a few weeks after Ukrainian Week and the National Prayer Breakfast, Slattery wrote an op-ed urging Congress to resupply Ukraine with ammunition.)

Kaptur held a news conference with Unguryan in January, just as she did last year, in front of the U.S. Capitol. Her caucus co-chairs were there, too: Reps. Andy Harris (R-MD) and Mike Quigley (D-IL). Other Democratic participants included Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), John Garamendi (D-CA), and Jim Costa (D-CA). 

But this year it wasn’t just a news conference. Unguryan’s entire week of events was mounted “with the support” of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus. Kaptur issued a press release, quoting Unguryan.

In it, he spoke of connecting with “US brothers and sisters within the democratic world,” giving the American public a far more anodyne statement than his “brothers in faith” language, for Ukrainian media, about meeting Johnson.

Similarly, while Unguryan’s bipartisan news conference was in front of cameras, his religious meetings happened behind closed doors.

According to the Ukrainian Week website, “most of the events” centered around the Museum of the Bible, the US Capitol, and the Washington Hilton. The Hilton is the ancestral home of the U.S. prayer breakfast, while the Museum of the Bible was the project of the Green family, the evangelicals behind Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court ruling that let companies drop contraception from employee health plans on religious grounds.

Also on the Ukrainian Week agenda was the Heritage Foundation, the far-right organization spearheading Project 2025, the plan to fill the executive branch with Trump loyalists and substitute autocratic and theocratic elements for existing checks and balances of democracy and divided government.

The week’s events also included a Ukrainian prayer breakfast. According to the Ukrainian embassy, there were three organizers, including Unguryan. Another was Michael Zhovnir, who I’ve previously reported is another Family insider, a Washington state businessman with ties to Ukraine.

In 2016, Zhovnir and Burleigh invited to the National Prayer Breakfast the founder of a Ukrainian group called Love Against Homosexuality, who had teamed up with Unguryan on a bill to imprison people who publicly depicted homosexuality in a positive light.

That guest, Ruslan Kukharchuk, has right-wing ties that have been chronicled by Bellingcat. He has been quoted as saying, “Homosexuality is a parasite of the society,” and that healthy societies should “defeat the virus of homo-dictatorship.”

The prayer breakfast that Zhovnir and Unguryan organized in Washington for this year’s Ukrainian Week apparently had the imprimatur of Zelenskyy’s government. The embassy posted pictures of the event online. Several Family insiders are seen in the photos or named, including Walberg, Slattery, and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL).

And Unguryan didn’t stop with Washington. On Feb. 5, he and Antoniuk were in Plano, TX, still crusading.

Antoniuk reportedly said at an event in Plano, “We are looking for ideas, projects and partnerships with our fellow Christians in the United States, because together we can stop this evil project,” referring to the Russian invasion. “Our Lord Jesus Christ will prevail. We are praying for this, and we are looking for partners who will stand with us.”

Unguryan told the crowd, “The Evil One wants to destroy Ukraine.”

Christians who help Ukraine today, Unguryan said, will get to shape Ukraine tomorrow. “If Ukraine can prevail against Russian aggression and protect its freedom,” he said, “Christians will have both the responsibility and opportunity to rebuild the nation and shape its future direction.”

The Baptist Standard summarized Unguryan’s and Antoniuk’s message this way: “The future of religious freedom in Eastern Europe depends on Ukraine’s ability to engage the support of ‘strategic partners’ in the West — both in churches and in government.”

The Baptist Standard didn’t say which groups were at the Plano event, but it was held at the Hope Center, which has been represented by the public-relations firm of A. Larry Ross, a Family board member who was instrumental in radicalizing MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

Whether or not it’s due to seeds planted earlier this year, discussions of religious freedom in Ukraine are blooming in the aftermath of Zelenskyy’s meeting last week.

On Thursday, the Kyiv Independent published a major investigation titled “Faith under fire: Russia’s war on religion in Ukraine’s occupied territories.” Business Insider did a story about a Ukrainian POW tortured by Russians for being evangelical.

A top Zelenskyy aide had an op-ed in The Hill on Friday.

As many as a million Ukrainians, Andriy Yermak wrote, attend Protestant churches every Sunday thanks to “America’s commitment to supporting Ukraine’s evangelical population” after Ukraine won its independence.

But in Crimea, since Russia’s 2014 annexation, “Churches have been shuttered, ministers detained and tortured, and religious freedom suppressed.” The 2022 invasion, Yermak said, “brought this assault on Protestantism to newly-seized territories.”

Yermak even took on American right-wing pundits defending Putin. “Despite the false narrative propagated by some American media outlets portraying Putin as a defender of Christianity, reality paints a different picture.”

The reality, Yermak says, is Russia’s “systematic assault on religious freedom and the brutal treatment of evangelical Christians both at home and abroad.”

And if there’s any doubt about the kind of Christian alliance Yermak has in mind, he gives an example of the “long history of evangelical cooperation between Americans and Ukrainians.” In 2007, Yermak notes, “Franklin Graham delivered a sermon to a packed Olympic Stadium in Kyiv of 100,000 people.”

(Graham, of course, is one of the world’s leading anti-LGBTQ+ crusaders and, as I revealed a few years ago, was the sole backer of the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast.)

Appearing on Fox News Sunday night, Johnson proposed new plans for funding Ukraine’s military needs.

And this week, two Baptist leaders, Richard Land and Dan Darling, wrote to Johnson urging him to “consider the plight of Christians.” That was reported just yesterday by the influential, right-wing National Review. The letter was co-signed by Antoniuk.

Today, there is quiet optimism in Washington that Johnson will get Ukrainian aid through the House.

If Republicans in the coming days do back Johnson, and agree to fund Ukraine’s fight, it may be thanks to a campaign to frame it as a battle for religious freedom. And if that’s the case, it may be thanks to a covert diplomatic effort pursued over months by Family evangelicals, with an eye toward shaping Ukraine’s future in their god’s image.

By Jonathan Larsen

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

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Politics The Family Volodymyr Zelenskyy