Surrounding the 2016 election, the Russian government was quite busy in the U.S. One component of their efforts was an effort to infiltrate the Republican party via the National Rifle Association. Alex Torshin and Maria Butina were point people on that effort. Today, the plea agreement with Butina was released by the Department of Justice. Butina has been in custody since her arrest in July.
My interest in Butina’s arrest was due to a minor aspect of the story. Butina also infiltrated the Fellowship Foundation and the National Prayer Breakfast. You can read my posts on Butina’s involvement in the NPB via the links at the end of the post.
The one mention of the NPB in the plea agreement is below:
The NPB is a perfect place to meet people of political influence. Making friends at the NPB is a first step toward making deals of all sorts. Butina hoped to make many friends for her bosses in Russia.
Although Fellowship leader Doug Burleigh joked about “Russian collusion,” it is now clear that the Russians were using the NPB for their aims. After the Butina plea agreement, there shouldn’t be anymore scoffing about the seriousness of the Russia investigation.
In March of this year, one of the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast Doug Burleigh joked about Russian collusion with Jesus prior to delivering a sermon at a church in Tacoma, WA. Then last week, in a federal indictment, it was alleged that Russian national Maria Butina used her connections with the NPB to carry out conspiracy activities. Although the prayer breakfast organizer was not named in the indictment, Mr. Burleigh is the NPB member responsible for coordinating with the Fellowship’s representatives from Russia.
Prior to his sermon, Burleigh told his audience that MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough found out the number of Russians attending the NPB in 2018. However, Burleigh dismissed any concerns about that as “fake news.”
Burleigh told the group that he had 61 Russians and 52 Ukrainians at the event this year. Then at 1:02, he said:
Thursday was the breakfast, the 8th of February, and I started getting texts from all over the country. ‘What’s the deal with the Russian collusion?’ Well, I’m going to personally share with you a little fake news okay that I ran into is the morning guy on MSNBC who hates Trump Joe Scarborough, he goes, ‘I hear that there’s more Russians than have ever come to the prayer breakfast before and that’s true. But what he didn’t know is that a lot of them were young professionals we invited to lift up Jesus and we had six wonderful times with them. He said, ‘there must be collusion, obviously there’s something going on, so I got friends from around the country going what’s the deal with the Russian collusion. And I said, ‘boy there’s big time collusion: it’s the Russians and Jesus, that’s the collusion.
In the July 14 indictment it is alleged that in 2017 two of the Russians who were supposed to be “colluding with Jesus” at the prayer breakfast were Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. In fact, both Butina and Torshin may have been working the religious group on behalf of the Russian government. Because Butina asked, according to the indictment, the NPB organizer offered to give Butina 10 Russian spots for the 2017 event. It is not clear if that happened or if there were any requests for the 2018 event.
His Tacoma speech wasn’t the first time Burleigh expressed a dim view of the U.S. media. At a Russian prayer meeting in May 2017, Burleigh spoke to a group affiliated with the American Fellowship. After the meeting, he spoke to writer Andrei Tyunyaev.
At about 2:25, Tyunyaev asked Burleigh a question:
Tyunyaev – The fact that you are present here after a few years of a going down relationship between Russia and America and growing tension and so just for us it’s a good thing so what’s your impression, what’s your hope for the future?
Burleigh: I’m very hopeful. The reason I’m hopeful is Mr. Trump is a relational person. He’s a negotiator. He’s going to sit down with Putin and they’re going to talk. And I think, we have an expression in America – win-win. I think he wants a win-win situation. I’ll bet Mr. Putin wants a win-win situation. In other words, both sides win. So how’s that going to happen? When they get together and talk. You know in our country, it’s always strange to in divorces, the attorneys tell the husband and wife not to talk to each other. How can you possibly reconcile with somebody you can’t talk to? The real estate agent tells the seller not to talk to the buyer. You know why that is? He’s worried about losing his commission. He doesn’t care about them getting the best deal they can get.
So the reason I’m hopeful is I think our president really wants to talk to your president. I think they’re both intelligent people. Neither of them wants war. I know that. People always tell me Americans want war. No we don’t. And the reason I know you don’t is I’ve been coming here for 52 years. War to an American is going to Vietnam or Afghanistan. War to a Russian is the tanks coming down the streets of your house. You understand war far better than we do. And I tell my American friends that all the time, you don’t want war. So I’m hopeful.
By the way, some of my best friends are Russian. They’re loyal, faithful and loving. So some of my best friends are American, and they are loyal, faithful and loving. So we just gotta get them together.
Tyunyaev: So when we learned after the prayer breakfast that Mr. Trump would become the president of America, we were pretty cheerful and supportive of that fact. We can see the difficulties that he has to overcome to change the structure. We believe in Mr. Trump’s intelligent and smart approach to the issues, walking toward each other and not away from each other.
Burleigh: Yeah, and the problem in our country is press hates Trump, okay? And I think the press is so biased that you don’t get a true story from them. Let me give you an example from last week is the president said he would be honored to meet with the president of North Korea. I thought, ‘that’s the first time anybody’s ever said that.’ All the press could focus on was the word ‘honored.’ He said he be honored to meet with him!?
Tyunyaev: That’s a step of friendship
Burleigh: Of course it is. He went the extra mile to affirm him. What’s wrong with that?
National Prayer Breakfast: Non-Partisan?
Those close to the Fellowship Foundation that I have spoken to insist that the organization is non-partisan. In fact, one recently told me that if the Fellowship and NPB were perceived as pro-Trump (or pro anybody), the “group would self-destruct.”
In contrast, Burleigh portrays a positive stance toward Trump in these and other public statements. His criticisms of the press are startling and parrot the Trump talking points. In fact, the press coverage of Trump’s announcement in May 2017 about meeting Kim Jong-un was straightforward and only reported what Trump said. In reaction to Trump’s words, many pundits and experts criticized Trump which the press also reported. Furthermore, some raised the observation that conservatives criticized Obama when he offered to meet with our enemies without preconditions.
Has the Fellowship taken a pro-Trump, pro-Russia position? While I doubt it given some of the people still involved in it, I wonder what might happen over time now that leader Doug Coe has passed.
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With the indictment of Maria Butina for conspiracy and acting as an agent of the Russian government, public attention has come upon the Fellowship Foundation. Founded by the late Doug Coe, I crossed paths with the FF beginning in 2009 when Ugandan affiliates of that organization promoted the death penalty for GLB people in the Ugandan Parliament via the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I took a strong stand against that bill which eventually led to an invitation to the National Prayer Breakfast, hosted each year by the Fellowship. While there, the American leaders allowed me to interview Doug Coe — one of only four published interviews of the reclusive founder — so that he could tell the public in clear terms that he did not favor criminalizing homosexuality.
Now via the documents describing the indictment of alleged Russian operative Maria Butina, the National Prayer Breakfast is again in public focus. The documents refer to an organizer of the prayer breakfast and various individuals who Butina contacted. While I don’t know for certain in each case who she contacted, a source close to the Fellowship told me that Doug Burleigh, the son-in-law of Doug Coe, is the person at the organization who handles networking with the Russian affiliates.
Burleigh Predicted Trump and Putin Would Have a Breakthrough
Almost exactly a year ago at the Russian version of the prayer breakfast, Doug Burleigh made a prediction. A news article from the Russian Evangelical Alliance tells the story:
On another note, Doug Burleigh from Washington’s National Prayer Breakfast forecast that “a breakthrough in relations between Russia and the USA is about to occur. The greatest possible hope for Russia and the USA is friendship between our nations. I believe that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will yet become friends.” (Reverse translation from the Russian.)
I wonder how Burleigh knew such a breakthrough was about to happen. Prophecy? Or perhaps he was on the inside of efforts to make it so. According to the indictment documents, the National Prayer Breakfast organizers were aware of a desire to bring Vladimir Putin to the event. Butina also promised to keep them apprised of new developments in the effort to improve relations between the two nations and the two presidents.
The refusal of Donald Trump to criticize or hold Vladimir Putin accountable has puzzled numerous observers. Behind the scenes, an effort to craft a friendship between Trump and Putin has been in operation for several years.
Were the Russians using the National Prayer Breakfast as a ploy to advance political goals? Is the talk of faith a means to a darker end? Butina will have her day in court and I hope evangelicals who went along for her ride will watch and listen carefully.
On February 3-4, I attended various meetings associated with the National Prayer Breakfast. By invitation of Bob Hunter and the various hosts, I was able to attend the African Prayer Breakfast, the International Luncheon and a dinner hosted by a group of people who put on prayer breakfast meetings in the western US. On the day of the prayer breakfast, I was allowed to watch the proceedings in the African Suite. One of the highlights of my visit was the opportunity to meet and interview Doug Coe which was published yesterday by Christianity Today.
The 2010 National Prayer Breakfast African Breakfast was held at 8:00am on Wednesday, February 3. The formal invitation was extended by Rep. John Boozman (R-AK). Andrew Marin also attended the meeting along about 300 invited guests, mostly from Africa, or the African diplomatic corps in Washington DC. The purpose of the breakfast was printed on a card at each table.
Purpose of this Breakfast:
To provide a unique gathering to advance three principles:
To communicate the power of small groups that meet regularly around the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
To create an environment of dialog in order to help create lasting relationships.
To follow the Acts 2:42 model to hear the disciples’ teachings and fellowship, to eat together, and to pray.
The value of a small group:
With the Spirit of Jesus at the center, this ancient idea of gathering together meets a long-felt spiritual need of men and women at all levels of society in our modern world. People find acceptance, understanding, confidence, and hope for the future through a deepening relationship with God and in discovering the secret of true brotherhood with their fellow men and women. The primary goal of a small group is to build trust, fellowship, and closer bonds of friendship through the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20
The African Breakfast featured an array of religious and political figures from around the continent. Rep. John Boozman opened by welcoming the crowd on behalf of the Congress. I will have more to say about various presentations in another post. For now I want to list each event and the speakers.
African Breakfast – This event featured Rwanda’s Minister of Education, Charles Murigande, as the keynote speaker. He told his story of moving from a Howard University professor back to his homeland of Rwanda as the holocaust was taking place. Andrew Marin provided his thoughts about the presentation on his blog. The opening prayer was delivered Sophie Boyoya (Burundi), with an Old Testament reading delivered by Mouloud Zaid (Western Sahara), a New Testament reading by Antonio Sumbana (Mozambique) and short speech on the importance of small group prayer meetings by Dr. Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika (Zambia).
International Luncheon – The invitation for this event came from Senators Amy Klobuchar and Johnny Isakson, co-chairs of the National Prayer Breakfast. The luncheon was described as
A luncheon for international guests and the Diplomatic Corps will be held at the Hilton Washington in the International Ballroom on Wednesday, February 3, 2010…This luncheon is the first official event for our international guests attending the 58th National Prayer Breakfast.
Former Ohio Representative and current Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, Tony Hall, welcomed the audience and led the opening prayer. The speakers for the luncheon were Yuli-Yoel Edelstein (Israel), Rajai Muasher (Jordan), Grace Pinto (India) and Andrey Makarov (Russia). Mr. Edelstein is Minister of Public Affairs and the Diaspora in Israel and noted that a prayer breakfast small group meets in the Knesset. Mr. Muasher gave what sounded like a political speech, specifying his belief that peace in the Middle East would come in exchange for land. Moving from the political, Ms. Pinto described her large religious school in India. I had to leave during Mr. Makarov’s speech in order to meet Doug Coe.
Rounding out the day, I attended a dinner of representatives from the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain region. Hawaiian Senator Daniel Akaka moderated the event and introductory speeches were given by Rev. Richard Foth, and Chaadi Massaad from Lebanon. Gen. Mick Kicklighter was the keynote speaker with The Shack author, Paul Young giving the closing prayer.
The diversity of speakers and topics was impressive, with a hint of what I was to learn in my meetings with various Prayer Breakfast leaders. For instance, one speaker said he was a Muslim follower of Jesus. He told the crowd that Christians do not own Jesus. While I think different people mean different things by this statement, it appears that changing religious labels is not a requirement to be a follower of Jesus in this movement. As noted in yesterday’s post, the Prayer Breakfast movement puts a focus on what they called, “the main thing” – which is loving God and one’s neighbor.
My friend and Director of the Center for Vision and Values, Paul Kengor, wrote an analysis of President Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speech. As I listened to Obama’s speech, I was distracted in a positive way by his reference to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. However, I also noted the President’s references to civility and hope he means it as more than rhetoric. And like Paul, I loved the reference to the Imago Dei – seeing the Face of God in each other.
God and Man at the National Prayer Breakfast
By Dr. Paul Kengor
President Obama spoke yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast. I’ve long studied the sitting president’s remarks at these breakfasts, particularly President George W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, and President Ronald Reagan. I note this to hopefully lend a little credibility in putting my observations into historical context, while also not avoiding the current political climate—as Obama certainly did not. Continue reading “Paul Kengor on President Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speech”
Yesterday morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, keynote speaker, Hillary Clinton criticized the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and President Barack Obama called the bill “odious.” The reaction from leaders in Uganda and Ugandans attending the National Prayer Breakfast has been mixed.
Immediately Minister of Ethics and Integrity Nsaba Buturo reacted with defiance.
Buturo, one of the main Ugandan proponents of the bill which would further criminalise homosexuality and even gay rights advocacy, vowed that Ugandan MPs would not be swayed by US or any outside criticism.
“We cannot tell the Senate what to do. We cannot tell Congress what to do. So why do they feel that they can tell us what we should do in the interest of our people?” he asked.
“It is totally unacceptable,” Buturo added, in reference to any attempt by some of Uganda’s partners to reverse the adoption of the bill.
However, a bit later Minister of Foreign Affairs, Henry Okello Oryem said the bill will be changed.
“I am sure the bill will take a different form when it is tabled on the floor in parliament,” Mr Oryem told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.
However, he also pointed out that it was a Private Member’s Bill and so the government did not have the powers to alter it at this stage.
“Homosexuality is not a top priority for the people of Uganda,” he deputy minister said.
“Our priority is to make sure there is food on the table of our people – that we deal with the issue of disease.”
Ugandan delegates to the National Prayer Breakfast speaking to me anonymously agreed that the bill would almost certainly be changed, perhaps dramatically. One source told me that the section imposing death on a HIV positive person for “touching” should be changed to reflect an offense of knowingly spreading HIV without the consent of the other person. Others made it clear that they believe the aggravated homosexuality section of the bill should only relate to child abuse and rape of vulnerable people. None of those I spoke with believed that private conduct should be criminalized.
However, the delegates differed on their views of criminalization on public homosexual conduct. Some believed that homosexuality could be spread via societal acceptance, whereas others believed homosexuals should be respected as free agents to choose their own actions, even in public. All agreed that homosexuality is not socially acceptable in Uganda.
Some were concerned that Americans critical of the bill are not respecting the autonomy of Uganda. “You must respect our democratic process,” one delegate said. “The bill is only a proposal at this point, there are many chances for it to be amended,” he added. One delegate said emphatically that all input would be considered but that those who are critical should respect the right of Ugandans to govern themselves.
One Ugandan delegate who would only speak on condition of anonymity said that the rumor that people associated with the Fellowship had any influence on the writing of the bill were “totally untrue.” He said Bahati did not ask for advice on the bill and added, “This is not the kind of thing the Fellowship would support.”
The headline says it all. There can be little doubt that the Fellowship Foundation condemns the bill. They provided one of the most powerful platforms possible to offer specific condemnations of the bill.
In Clinton’s keynote address and Obama’s prepared remarks, they both condemned the bill.
According to the BBC, the second reading of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is slated for February, 2010. There was a report yesterday that it would be debate today. And while there might be some discussion on the bill in the Parliament, I heard this morning from a Ugandan MP that the second reading would not be conducted today.
If the BBC report is correct, then the second reading of the bill will take place during the same month as the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. This is significant because bill sponsor David Bahati is an associate of the Fellowship Foundation who convenes the NPB. Bill supporter, Ethics and Integrity Minister, Nsaba Buturo, and Ugandan President Museveni are involved in the group as well. Buturo told me yesterday that he was not yet sure about his attendance.
Jeff Sharlet reported here on Wednesday that the Fellowship Foundation has condemned the bill as have most of the US Senators and Congressmen associated with the group. I feel certain that the Fellowship does not want their signature event to be overshadowed by protests about Uganda. However, the event almost certainly will be if the Fellowship invites Ugandan Fellowship associates to attend. Jeff Sharlet reported here in his guest post that those invitations have not been delivered. One can imagine several scenarios which will have the nation’s attention on this issue instead of prayer.