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Bad connections?

A Russian spy drama entangles the National Prayer Breakfast, revealing both weaknesses and strengths of the prayer breakfast movement


A monitor hangs above attendees at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington; Russia’s Alexander Torshin. Win McNamee/ Pool via Bloomberg/Getty Images; Yegor Aleyev/TASS via Getty Images

Bad connections?
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Top Russian government official Alexander Torshin is a longtime attendee of the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., with close ties to the breakfast’s associated organization, the Fellowship. The breakfast is a gathering of thousands of political and ministry leaders from the United States and all over the world, and the U.S. president has attended every year since 1953.

“A new relationship between two countries always begins better when it begins in faith,” wrote Torshin’s aide, Maria Butina, in an email to one of the prayer breakfast organizers in 2017, according to a recent Justice Department affidavit.

U.S. authorities arrested Butina in late July and charged her with being an unregistered foreign agent—a spy. Prosecutors alleged that she was part of a years-long covert Russian influence operation in the United States, citing evidence of her contact with suspected officers in the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency. Butina’s lawyer has said she is not a spy, simply a networker.

The general outline of Butina’s case—that she formed an extensive network in the conservative world—was public before the affidavit from the FBI agent handling her case. But the affidavit added a new detail, alleging that she and a “Russian Official” had attempted to create a “back channel of communication” through the prayer breakfast.

Maria Butina

Maria Butina AP

The documents do not name Torshin, a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party, but the “Russian Official” fits Torshin’s profile perfectly: He is a top official at the Russian central bank (check), a former member of the Russian legislature (check), Butina’s boss (check), and a participant in the National Prayer Breakfast (check).

In October 2016 in Twitter direct messages, again from the affidavit, Butina told the “Russian Official”: “I am following our game. I will be connecting the people from the prayer breakfast to this group.” The official responded, in part: “This is the battle for the future, it cannot be lost! Or everyone will lose.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as part of his probe into Russian influence in the U.S. election, is investigating whether Torshin channeled Russian money through the National Rifle Association to support Trump, according to the McClatchy news service. Mueller’s probe so far has resulted in dozens of indictments and several guilty pleas. The United States sanctioned Torshin along with dozens of other Russian officials and oligarchs early this year, and Torshin did not attend this year’s National Prayer Breakfast as a result. Butina did not attend either.

THE PURPOSE OF THE PRAYER BREAKFAST, and the Fellowship-associated organizers behind it, is to build relationships among the world’s powerful for Jesus, regardless of the clouds that may hang over a particular person. The rationale is that Jesus would spend time with anyone, no matter his or her sins.

The Fellowship has had some success with this approach; longtime Fellowship leader Doug Coe, who died last year, was instrumental in bringing Nixon “hatchet man” Chuck Colson to Christian faith. But the Fellowship also built relationships with bloody men, like the Indonesian dictator Suharto. The Fellowship ethos is that relational reconciliation can solve any geopolitical problem.

“You don’t bat a thousand with people,” said Fellowship associate Doug Burleigh, in reference to bad eggs coming to the breakfasts. “The thing I love about this work—Jesus, He worked with all kinds of disreputable people. Doug [Coe] worked with Muammar Qaddafi. Does Jesus love Muammar Qaddafi?”

Torshin has long had some reputation problems: Spanish investigators have accused him of laundering money for the Russian mob, a charge the Russian central bank denies. (The Spanish newspaper El País reports that Spanish police were planning to arrest Torshin in 2013 in Mallorca, where they were expecting him to attend a birthday party of an accused Russian mob leader, who has since pleaded guilty to money laundering. Torshin didn’t show up.)

“There’s probably all kinds of espionage practiced at the prayer breakfasts across the decades because of how international the prayer breakfast is and how many senior officials are there,” mused Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. “It would be natural for governments to seek out contacts.”

Burleigh, the former head of Young Life and son-in-law to Coe, knows Torshin and has spent decades of his ministry working in Russia. Burleigh still works closely with the Fellowship (the group denies that he is the head of the prayer breakfast, contrary to media reports) and explained the rationale. “How would you ever get something done if you don’t meet with people?” he said. “It’s not a political thing for me—if you meet together, good things happen. When you don’t meet together, usually bad things happen.”

He recalled several situations of successful spiritual diplomacy, like this year’s prayer breakfast in Kenya where the recently elected Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his election rival Raila Odinga hugged and apologized to each other for wrongdoing in the campaign. Odinga had previously alleged that the close election was stolen from him, and some of his supporters were killed in the aftermath.

“Never again shall a Kenyan die because of an election,” Odinga said at the breakfast. Breakfasts are “a place where reconciliation happens,” Burleigh said.

Maria Butina

Maria Butina AP

The court documents here show no evidence that prayer breakfast organizers did anything wrong. The breakfasts feature many international guests, so the presence of Russian officials is not by itself nefarious. But if what the documents allege is true, a picture forms of Putin’s government attempting to use American Christians to accomplish its political purposes. Larry Ross, a longtime Fellowship associate and spokesperson for the group, in an email said, “While we try not to question attendees’ motives, we certainly discourage anyone from using the NPB for personal, financial, or geo-political gain. ... Like Jesus, who loved and came for all people, the NPB is open, welcoming and inclusive as to who attends.”

HOW IS ATTENDANCE DETERMINED? First, if a spy wanted to go to the National Prayer Breakfast, he or she couldn’t buy a ticket. You must be invited. Two members of Congress—always a Democrat and a Republican, drawn from a prayer group that meets at the Capitol—officially manage the breakfast. But Fellowship associates also work on the invite list.

Many of the invites go to those in the web of Fellowship relationships, and different countries get specified blocks of tickets. The organizers set aside of a block of 40 tickets for a delegation of young Russian entrepreneurs this year, but they set aside a block for Ukrainians the previous year, and one for Harvard MBAs the year before.

The Fellowship seems aware that those with “ulterior motives” may attend the breakfast, but Ross hopes that the relationships there, with “Jesus at the center,” will be transformative. “We … leave the results to God,” said Ross. He added that if anyone would try to use the breakfast for “profit,” the Fellowship would take “appropriate action,” but that hasn’t been a complaint.

“There’s probably all kinds of espionage practiced at the prayer breakfasts across the decades because of how international the prayer breakfast is and how many senior officials are there,” mused Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. “It would be natural for governments to seek out contacts.”

Torshin has been going to the National Prayer Breakfast for more than a decade and was friends with Coe. According to a Russian news agency report in 2006, Torshin returned from the U.S. prayer breakfast that year with a plan to set up an anti-terrorism NGO, and he said FSB officers “heartily approve” the idea.

Burleigh recalled talking about plans for the 2017 breakfast with Torshin over dinner, with Butina translating for Torshin (Burleigh said Torshin doesn’t speak English). Burleigh asked whom Torshin would bring if he had 10 invites, and Torshin said he would bring top Russian leaders. Torshin got the 10 spots, but when the two of them had a dinner for the Russian delegation the night after the breakfast, several of the guests were inattentive or disrespectful—talking on their phones, or complaining that there wasn’t alcohol.

“Afterwards I talked to Torshin about it. I said, ‘Brother, we should invite people who really want to be there,’” said Burleigh. “He agreed and apologized.”

Whatever the results of the Fellowship’s relationship-building among the powerful, the $12 million organization’s effort to work behind the scenes can give it a sinister aura. Media reports after Butina’s arrest seized on the mention of the prayer breakfast in court papers as evidence of collusion between a secretive Christian organization and Russia. “Why the Christian Right Has Embraced Putin,” declared a headline in the New York Post. A column in The New York Times termed the prayer breakfast organizers “America’s homegrown Christian nationalists.”

In reality, some Christian conservatives view the Fellowship with a degree of wariness. The Fellowship avoids using words like “Christian” or “Christ,” referring instead mainly to “Jesus” or “Jesus of Nazareth" as a way to put Muslims, Hindus, and others at ease.

Last year WORLD investigated d the alliance between Putin and some U.S. social conservatives, and while those alliances have existed on issues like marriage and abortion, they have diminished. Many Christian activists backed away from working with Russia after its actions in Ukraine. And prominent American social conservative activists I talked to who worked with Russia (like former Rockford Institute President Allan Carlson) were not familiar with the leadership of the Russian prayer breakfast, the local expression of the Fellowship.

Even as ties between conservative Christian activists and the Russian government weakened in Russia, Torshin, an Orthodox Christian, saw an opportunity in working with American Protestants. In a 2015 tweet, Torshin said in Russian, after noting that Trump is a “proponent of traditional family values”: “There is no influential Orthodox Church in the United States. Influential Protestants. We have one with them. Positions: Traditional values.”

The Russians, meanwhile, have their own prayer breakfast. Before all this spy drama, the Fellowship leaders had disassociated with the Russian Prayer Breakfast after disagreements with local leaders over management. Fellowship leaders have instead focused their attention in Russia the last few years on a separate prayer breakfast for young professionals.

The Russian Prayer Breakfast is now run by a coalition of Russian evangelical pastors. Russian politicians attend the evangelical-led breakfast despite the Orthodox Church’s hegemony in Russian politics and government restrictions on evangelical religious practice.

Americans were never a significant presence at the Russian breakfast, according to those involved. But one American who did attend in 2016 was Johnny Yenason, a Pennsylvania businessman and a self-described “devout Christian.”

Yenason met Butina and Torshin there, and later tried to set up a meeting for them with top members of the Trump campaign—a meeting that did not come to pass. Yenason talked to his local newspaper, The Citizen’s Voice, about the attempted meeting later, saying it was a Christian effort at reconciliation between the nations.

“Relationships could be built, and then under those relationships you could then work out problems that are causing issues between your countries,” he said, echoing a common Fellowship refrain.

EVGENY BAKHMUTSKY IS A RUSSIAN PASTOR affiliated with the evangelical Baptist Union and has attended many of the Russian prayer breakfasts in Moscow. Bakhmutsky felt that the breakfast had become “more and more politicized” over the years, and “less and less Christ-centered,” so the Baptist Union recently withdrew from the breakfast. He heard good reports on the breakfast this year, so he’s open to coming back.

“It’s natural for politicians to use something prominent ... for their own sake,” he said. “[The Russian Prayer Breakfast] is not such a huge event yet; it’s a little bit protected because of that. The more it will grow, it might be used.” Russians view spirituality as a “private thing,” he said, so meeting at a prayer breakfast for the sake of spiritual growth is still a “fairly new idea.”

Bakhmutsky attended his first National Prayer Breakfast in Washington this year, with the goal of preaching the gospel to politicians and entrepreneurs he met there. He said two that he talked to since then have started to believe in Jesus.

“The longer [the National Prayer Breakfast] is around it’s going to be more of a social, economical, business event,” said Bakhmutsky. “But it depends on the people [involved]. The more they know the Lord … they’re going to try to bring Christ as much as possible. The less they know, the more it will become a social thing. Sadly, even the best things might fade or be corrupted or decay if you don’t keep Christ in the center.”


Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.

@emlybelz

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