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(The group did not respond to a request to comment for this story.) "I am deeply grateful for the friendship of the American NRA," Butina, now a graduate student in international relations at American University in Washington, wrote in an email to TIME."My work has been focused exclusively on the expansion of gun rights--very publicly."But Butina's attraction to the Republican Party runs broader than common ground on gun rights.In 2015, a collection of NRA officials flew over to attend Butina's annual gun conference.Among them was Erickson; former NRA and ACU chief David Keene; gun manufacturer and NRA first vice president Pete Brownell; and Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke, a Trump supporter and sensation among the conservative grassroots.These new bonds with Russia have "been a sea change, both in my own view and also, I think, for many conservatives," Brown says."Wherever there are folks standing up for marriage, we will meet with them."While some activists bonded over faith, others found shared purpose in guns.NRA allies say the group is happy to work with international firearms-advocacy groups to advance mutual interests.

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According to a disclosure filed by Clarke, Butina's group shelled out ,000 for the sheriff's meals, lodging, transportation and other excursions on the trip.

"We were some of the biggest cold warriors ever," says Paul Erickson, a veteran Republican activist who attended the Feb. In war zones like Syria, says Graham, Putin has been a stronger defender of Christians than U. Putin "sees himself in the Middle East as defending the Christian remnant that is left in Syria." In 2015 Graham met privately with Putin, who has supported Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, while visiting Moscow at the Russian Orthodox Church's invitation.

They planned a conference on persecuted Christians, which will be held in Washington in May. "He said he would do all he could from his office to help."Catholic leaders like Brian Brown have been impressed by the Russian Orthodox Church's decision to tighten policies on abortion and uphold traditional marriage.

That encounter "should have set off alarm bells," said one former White House official.

"It is a big deal."Last month Torshin assembled the delegation of Russians who attended the National Prayer Breakfast.

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