11 Mar 2019

International funds power up Christian NGOs

Take a homophobic petition, mix it with a 100-year-old prophecy involving Russia, sprinkle it with conservative family alliance funds from Poland and other like-minded allies and what do you get? Lithuania's Institute of Christian Culture.

Daiva Repeckaite
Daiva Repeckaite NewsMavens, Lithuania
International funds power up Christian NGOs  - NewsMavens
Lithuania Vilnius Baltic Pride March 2016, YouTube.com

This new and increasingly ubiquitous player on the Lithuanian political scene -- the Institute of Christian Culture (Krikščioniškos Kultūros Institutas -- KKI) was founded in 2003, but after being substantially revamped in recent years, it now offers political  analysis and a homophobic agenda. Currently, it is collecting signatures to ban the Baltic Pride from taking place in summer.

Up until 2010, local authorities in Vilnius came up with various excuses not to allow Baltic Pride, which rotates among the three Baltic capitals, to take place in Vilnius. While Riga and Tallinn have hosted the Pride since 2005 and 2004, respectively, it was only 2010 when the event was allowed to happen in Vilnius, and the atmosphere was tense. But when the event returned in 2013, it looked very different, and it was permitted to take place on the main streets in an atmosphere of general acceptance by the general public. Of course, the Pride has never gone unchallenged in the Baltic capital, but last year one inconspicuous non-profit -- usually otherwise occupied with the prophecy of three little shepherds at Fatima -- became a new and well-resourced opponent. Who is behind it, and why do its “experts” suddenly seem to be everywhere?

What do they want?

KKI’s campaigners claim that KKI is a subsidiary of Tradition, Family, Property, (an organization founded in Brazil) and speakers from the latter have been visiting Lithuania since 1990. The title of KKI’s Facebook page reads “LietuvosTFP”, or TFP Lithuania. TFP focuses on the doom-and-gloom prophecy at Fatima, where the apparition of Mary was said to have predicted communism in the USSR. This Russian association made the movement sensitive to the plight of the Soviet colonies, and KKI has never missed an opportunity to point out that TFP petitioned to recognize Lithuania’s independence. KKI has even translated a book about the Fatima prophecy -- available for 4 Euros per piece.

The author is a Brazilian religious scholar Antonio Augusto Borelli Machado. In the author’s words: “In any case, Fatima guarantees final victory in our time for those who uphold Catholic orthodoxy under the mantle of the Virgin Mary.” The Vatican published the prophecy in full in 2000, with a commentary that downplays its predictive capacity. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became pope, said, “"A careful reading of the text will probably prove disappointing or surprising after all the speculation it has stirred.” Yet the Brazilian-founded TFP and their international affiliates disagree.

The only other and the most recent project of the KKI is the aforementioned petition campaign against Baltic Pride. The petition’s logo is an abstract white figure protected from a downward rainbow by a white umbrella. The petition calls to “protect the constitutional concept of a family” and apply the Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effects of Public Information to ban any display of non-heterosexual behavior.

“Do you really want gay couples to be able to adopt and traumatize children?” the petition asks.

The petition can now be signed online, but it started as an array of packages sent to thousands of Lithuanian households in self-addressed envelopes. KKI sends letters of gratitude, diplomas and “gifts” to everyone who signs the petition. As pointed out in the Lithuanian media, the petition includes a clause in small script that by sending the self-addressed return envelope to KKI, the undersigned agrees to receive further promotional materials, publications and advertising.

The Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights, an NGO, came up with an initiative to troll it. In November, KKI reported receiving 699 petitions back, with “several dozens” trolling them, but the rest duly signed. Ultra-conservative presidential candidate Arvydas Juozaitis, who is friends with the AfD party in Germany, has endorsed the petition.

Yet few remember another case when KKI was mentioned, in passing, in relation to another homophobic initiative. In 2017, Loreta Raudytė, a religion teacher in Telšiai, was photographed using materials during her lesson that accused gay people of being child molesters and cannibals. The teacher later explained having used KKI’s materials to prepare for this class. The claim originated from “research” by Paul Cameron of the Family Research Institute. Etaplius, a news website which publishes news from regional newspapers on a single platform, published how KKI’s representative Daiva Lileikienė explained the matter. Lileikienė suggested that the “research” supporting the teacher’s claims was done in the US and “outdated”. She did not know how the teacher had gotten hold of the materials. No mainstream media seems to have contacted the institute or Lileikienė about the scandal involving the religion teacher.

KKI clearly does not intend to stop at anti-LGBT “education” and campaigning. Last year it endorsed a petition against the removal of children from risky households by the Free Society Institute -- another right-wing think tank.

Furthermore, two of KKI’s four employees were seen at a rally against the public broadcaster in the company of other far-right networks. The protesters accused the public broadcaster of bias, lack of support for traditional family, and “liberal Marxism”.

An ambiguous team

Think tanks normally have a website that list their values, projects and/ or sponsors, contact information, and employed or affiliated experts. Individual employees are think tanks’ human face, usually with their unique expertise laid out. Not at the KKI. The institute presents two projects, which could not look more different at the onset -- a book about the secrets of Fatima (an apparition of Mary in the Portuguese town) and the petition to halt the Baltic Pride. KKI runs a very basic website, and its first post on Facebook is from September 3, 2018. The Facebook page started promoting the anti-Pride petition campaign on September 12, 2018, making it probable that the page was set up for the campaign.

There is no information about the institute’s founders, leadership or staff. It is only known that its slogan is “For family, nation, civilization”. As a non-profit, it has a single shareholder -- the Association for the Defense of Christian Culture, headed by Jorge Vicente Saidl. The Association is the officially listed affiliate of TFP in Lithuania. Its blog republishes articles from the far-right portal Pro Patria, and praises the new Brazilian president Bolsonaro. In 2014, Saidl presented a Lithuanian translation of a book by Plinio Correa de Oliveira, the founder of TFP.

Dovilas Petkus, a recent graduate in political science, is often at the forefront of KKI’s actions, and the far-right news and opinion website, Pro Patria, presents him as one of the initiators of the anti-Pride petition, although his role at KKI was only clarified in an investigation by 15min, a news website.

“From the start, we knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially in our own environment -- youth are ‘fed’ the propaganda supporting gay, lesbian and transsexual political demands at schools and universities,” he told Pro Patria. “We feel that the time of silence is over, we must act to defend family and our nation from the perilous [gender] ideology.”

Petkus claims that numerous civil servants are afraid to disclose their anti-LGBT beliefs publicly, fearing the loss of their jobs. “This is nothing but a new kind of totalitarianism, like in Soviet times,” he said. Almost in the same breath, he gave a few examples of how right-wingers took down pro-LGBT initiatives at Vilnius University.

In the interview with Pro Patria, Petkus speaks of “our institute” and close cooperation with TFP, whose “success formula” KKI is trying to replicate locally. The young political observer is a prolific writer for mainstream news websites, where he comments on subjects from Angela Merkel’s policies to de-forestation. He has given numerous statements on television as a “political scientist”, there is no mention of his KKI affiliation. Promoting young, ambitious men as willing and always ready generic commentators is a known and tested strategy of numerous right-wing organisations in Lithuania, and an analysis of these patterns is ongoing.

But before Petkus became the public face of KKI, Lileikienė, mentioned before in relation to the religious teacher controversy, was KKI’s public face. Based in Kelmė like the KKI itself until recently, she travelled with TFP’s network and was seen protesting in Italy at the March for Life (background of anti-abortion activities in Italy). She also represented KKI in 2013, when a delegation from TFP visited a prominent church in Kaunas. KKI did not respond to NewsMavens’ query about its current relationship with Lileikienė, listed as a social worker at the municipality of Kelmė and coordinator of a food bank. In the 2016 elections, she acted as the treasurer of conservative candidate Andrius Tučkus. However, a press release from August 2018 on TFP delegation’s visit referred to Lileikienė as the head of the institute in Kelmė, although official data, seen by the news website 15min, does not list her among the employees of KKI. In both aforementioned cases TFP’s delegation enjoyed the warm welcome of local priests.

So where does KKI actually operate? A corporate directory states that KKI was registered in 2003 in Vilnius. In 2011, it changed its address to Kelmė -- its founding organisation did the same. In June 2018, it officially moved to Vilnius, but to a more central location than before. 118, a yellow pages directory, lists Karolis Stankevičius as the head of the institute. Also, according to registry data, KKI’s income doubled between 2014 and 2015, and further jumped in 2017, enabling the institute to employ four staff members with an average salary of just over 1,700 euros -- nearly double that of the average Lithuanian wage before tax (927 eur).

Where did the money come from? Not from selling books about the Fatima prophecy. As revealed by 15min, a news portal, the bulk of the funding came from the Father Piotr Skarga Association for Christian Culture, affiliated with the Ordo Iuris anti-abortion lobby (more about them here). Ordo Iuris drafts legislative proposals and collect signatures to further its aims -- to further restrict abortion in Poland and do away with sex education.

The Father Piotr Skarga Foundation is known for sponsoring backlash against women’s and LGBT* rights, for example, amplifying the voices of Catholic pressure groups in Croatia, as reported by Novosti and translated by Balkan Insight. The report quotes Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development (EPF), a network of lawmakers from across Europe working to protect the sexual and reproductive health of vulnerable people, who says that the cross-border network seen in Croatia is typical of TFP’s global outreach. The church of Poland has reportedly distanced itself from the organization.

According to the 15min investigation, the Krakow-based Piotr Skarga Association and two similar ones in Austria and Germany are the founders of Association for the Defense of Christian Culture -- the founder of KKI. 15min reports that the Polish foundation has channelled 10 thousand euros to KKI in 2015 and 2016, and tripled the funding in 2017 to 36.3 thousand euros. Vytautas Vyšniauskas, Martynas Katelynas, Karolis Stankevičius ir Dovilas Petkus were hired as the four aforementioned employees at the time of 15min’s investigation -- there was no mention of Daiva Lileikienė.

Who are their friends?

KKI is loosely affiliated with the far-right Pro Patria movement, which runs the Pro Patria website for news and commentary from the far-right perspective. The news outlet has consistently supported KKI’s anti-LGBT petition and displays the petition’s banner being prominently on its website. The outlet’s authors have denounced those Catholics who believe that the state does not need to be explicitly Christian (because “numerous souls will suffer” otherwise), called on their readers to sign the petition unless they agree with “explaining to my children by force at school that everyone can those their gender, and forcing them to play games that inculcate this attitude” and fines for people who “refer to a person using a pronoun that corresponds to their biological sex” -- none of this is a reality in Lithuania or promoted by the Lithuanian LGBT movement.

With Petkus and other young, prolific commentators making themselves available to comment on various policy areas to mainstream and right-wing media, it is likely that KKI will seek to increase its influence while continuing to obscure its network and funding streams under a string of associations, institutes, “movements” and other structures. KKI follows a pattern perfected by other conservative networks: well-networked and well-funded structure poses as a grassroots movement, and its young staffers -- as policy experts. The petition campaign with the small print clause will give KKI a large database of like-minded individuals to mobilize for various campaigns in the future.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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