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Political Christianity in Orbán’s Hungary

Caravaggio: The Taking of Christ | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Geraldine Fagan’s article “Political Christianity in Orbán’s Hungary,” which we are republishing below with permission, first appeared in East West Church Review, a quarterly publication about Christianity and Christian ministry in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe. To subscribe to the report click here.


Political Christianity in Orbán’s Hungary

As Hungary’s nationalist government seeks a third term in power on 8 April, it is stressing Christian credentials. On a recent visit to Hungary, however, the East West Church Review found signs that this “political Christianity” can run counter to Christian compassion, and thus poses a challenge to active local Christians.

“God’s teachings have led us to see not a mere coincidence or whim of fate in the fact that, here and now, there is a Christian government of faith leading Hungary, but to see in this a manifestation of God’s mercy.” So Prime Minister Viktor Orbán proclaimed to thousands gathered at a Budapest sports arena in October 2017 to mark half a millennium since the Reformation. Orbán identifies as a member of the Reformed Church; his closest colleague in government, Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog, is a Reformed pastor active in European ecumenical circles since the early 1980s.

In both Orbán and Balog’s telling, Hungary is an embattled Christian nation now pitched against an atheistic European Union, Jewish-dominated global capital, and aggressively spreading Islam. In a reference to periods of Ottoman and Communist rule, Orbán reminded international guests at an October 2017 event on Christian persecution that “a great many times over the course of our history we Hungarians have had to fight to remain Christian and Hungarian.” Now once again, he claimed, Hungarians are “living our lives as members of a community under siege.”

Christian national culture?

In contrast, a wide-ranging survey on religious belief and national identity in Central and Eastern Europe conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015-16 does not attest to the staunchly Christian Hungary that Orbán projects. While some 78 percent of Hungarians identify as Christian, three-quarters of the 56 percent majority who are Catholic acknowledge that their religious identity is largely a matter of national culture or family tradition. Only around one in ten attend obligatory weekly Mass.

Contempt for minorities

And although Orbán depicts Hungarian society as adhering to Christian values and opposed to the secular West, only around a third of Pew’s respondents agreed completely or mostly that “there is a conflict between our country’s traditional values and those of the West.” Many Hungarians appear to hold views at odds with Christian teaching: 84 percent of those polled did not agree that divorce is morally wrong, and 70 percent said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

If not high levels of Christian observance, competition from Orbán’s nearest political rival, the self-proclaimed “patriotic Christian party” Jobbik, does appear to be a factor behind the government’s patronage of Christianity. For the far-right Jobbik—polling around 20 percent to Orbán’s 50 percent in early 2018—yearning for a Greater Hungary three times its present size, and contempt for Jews, Muslims, and the Roma (Gypsy) minority, are also part and parcel of Hungarian identity.

This unlikely combination of attitudes is on display in downtown Budapest, surreally close to Freedom Square’s statue of Ronald Reagan. Less familiar to foreigners, Admiral Miklós Horthy’s bronze bust dominates the entrance to a prominent Reformed church. Horthy led Hungary from 1920 to 1944, including into alliance with Nazi Germany. This enabled Hungary to restore territories—now in Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine—confiscated by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon after defeat in World War I. Following Horthy’s own anti-Semitic policies, introduced as early as 1920, two-thirds of Hungary’s Jews—some 600,000—were killed in the Holocaust.

Horthy’s bust was commissioned by the church’s pastor, Lóránt Hegedüs, Jr., whose wife Enikő is a Jobbik member of parliament. Another Jobbik parliamentarian, Márton Gyöngyösi, was guest speaker at the November 2013 church service to mark the bust’s unveiling; the previous year, Gyöngyösi had called for the cataloguing of Jews in Hungary who pose a “national security risk.”

Soon after the bust was unveiled, Reformed Bishop István Szabó of Budapest expressed shock at this “provocative political action” held “to shame the Christian community.” At subsequent ecclesiastical court hearings, the Church called for Rev. Hegedüs, Jr., to be defrocked. Yet he—and the bust—remain.

The Orbán government has similarly endorsed those with extreme nationalist views. In August 2016 it awarded prominent publicist Zsolt Bayer the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, a high state award. In recent years, Bayer has described Roma as “animals [who] shouldn’t be tolerated or understood, but stamped out,” and responded to a Jewish critic of Orbán’s policies with regret that not all victims were killed in an early twentieth-century pogrom.

Far-right sentiment also infused the 2017 government billboard campaign against émigré Hungarian Jewish tycoon George Soros—ironically, sponsor to Orbán as a young scholar at Oxford University. Using imagery evocative of Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda, the campaign urged the public to vote against the so-called Soros Plan, a series of measures through which, the government alleged, Soros sought to undermine Hungary. András Aradszki, a member of the governing coalition partner KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party), described the Soros Plan as “satanic,” and claimed opposing it was as important as the rosary. “The rosary is the greatest weapon against evil and is able to change history,” he told parliament. “George Soros will experience this too.”

Humanitarian emergency

A central allegation of the Plan was that Soros wished to flood Hungary with migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Following Europe’s recent refugee crisis, hostility towards migrants has also become a signifier of Christian identity in Hungary.

Over the summer of 2015, many thousands of people—most fleeing the conflict in Syria—entered Hungary seeking to travel on to Austria, Germany, or other more accommodating EU states to claim asylum. The numbers were overwhelming. That September, Austria and Germany introduced border controls, and Hungary closed its southern border with Serbia, leading to bottlenecks at points of transit. For some two weeks, more than 3,000 refugees camped out at Budapest’s main Keleti Railway Station.

Christians respond

Faced with a humanitarian emergency, Hungarian Christians were conflicted. In an op-ed for Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, Viktor Orbán defended his closure of the southern border as a way to block incoming Muslims: “European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian.” Soon after, Pope Francis called upon every parish and monastic community in Europe to take in one refugee family— “the Gospel calls us to be close to the smallest and to those who have been abandoned”— but Hungarian Catholic Bishop László Kiss-Rigó sided with Orbán. Those entering Hungary were not refugees, he maintained, but an “invasion” seeking “to take over,” and therefore posed a threat to Europe’s “Christian, universal values.” Rev. Ódor Balázs of the Reformed Church rejected this view but admitted that the Churches had not been fast or vocal in giving a clear response to the crisis.

Yet local Christians were still faced with the challenge of what to do. In the summer of 2015, Major Bernhard Wittwer and his wife Regina, Salvation Army officers from Switzerland, had just arrived in Budapest. Last October, the East-West Church Report found them supervising distribution of soup to 200 homeless, a line waiting patiently outside the Army’s headquarters as a first sitting filled the cellar. As well as feeding programs, Hungary’s 70 Army officers—mostly locals, including two Roma—focus on assisting “the very poorest,” Major Wittwer explained. They include women and children in crisis and Roma families in Budapest, Debrecen, Gyöngyös, Miskolc, and the village of Sajókaza. In 2015 the Army instinctively went to help the thousands of refugees at Keleti Station, he said. “For the stranded people, we provided tents and clothes. At the beginning of September, it got colder, so we cooked around the clock and handed out meals in shifts.”

In downtown Budapest, staff and workers at Kalunba—a charity devoted to social integration of the small number of refugees granted asylum in Hungary—were preparing distribution of second-hand clothing when the East-West Church Report visited. A stack of Arabic children’s Bible storybooks reminded that some Syrian refugees are Christian. So are two of Kalunba’s three founders. One, Dóra Kaniszai, joined the Reformed Church’s Refugee Ministry in 2008, assisting with housing, schooling—particularly Hungarian language lessons—and how to navigate both government bureaucracy and the job market. While this work was not generally understood within the Church, says Kaniszai, then-presiding Bishop Gusztáv Bölcskei was “very committed.” By 2014, however, growing “shyness” within the Reformed Church in Hungary— “This is not what the government is fond of,” Kaniszai explained—led the three colleagues to found Kalunba as a separate operation.

As Kalunba works exclusively with refugees already granted asylum in Hungary, most of those arriving in 2015 could not have benefited from its services. But the charity soon became involved due to the active response of its main Reformed partner, St. Columba’s Church. Also known as the Scottish Mission in Budapest, St. Columba’s was founded in 1841 when a group of Scottish missionaries bound for Palestine turned back after one fell off a camel. During their stay in Budapest, Archduchess Maria Dorothea of Austria invited them to found a mission there. This belongs to the Church of Scotland as well as the Reformed Church in Hungary.

Sanctuary night shelter

St. Columba’s is located close to Keleti Railway Station. During the summer of 2015, the congregation began to take humanitarian aid to the refugees there after Sunday worship, Kaniszai recalled. Then, as the weather turned colder, its Pastor Aaron C. Stevens learned that a baby had been born at the station one night. The presbytery decided to open up its sanctuary room as a night shelter, and asked Kalunba to assist. Aided by young refugees who had already learned Hungarian through Kalunba and could act as interpreters, “we collected families with children, provided bed, dinner, and breakfast,” said Kaniszai.

Public hostility towards the largely Muslim migrants was intensifying at this time, however, in response to a series of Islamist terrorist attacks in Western Europe. Days after bombings and a mass shooting in Paris in November, Dóra Kaniszai was among academic, church, and government experts on migration asked to speak at the annual National Forum of Christian Civil Organizations in Budapest. The gathering, held in Hungary’s parliament building and hosted by the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), opened with the Lord’s Prayer. But “they couldn’t listen and give honor and respect to the guests who spoke,” Kaniszai recalled. “They were shouting, ‘Traitor of the nation!’ to us. And then we closed with the Lord’s Prayer again!”

“To talk is also dangerous.”

In the southern city of Szeged, Sarolta Rozgonyi, who edits Lydia Christian women’s magazine, also became aware of the heated political discussions surrounding migration during 2015. But she was too busy to listen. By late summer thousands of refugees were also congregating around the local railway station—Szeged is a transit hub close to the border with Serbia and Romania—and Rozgonyi was coordinating donations of food, water, and essentials such as diapers with members of her Pentecostal congregation. “As a mother who raised three children, I was moved by their situation – that they had to leave their homes and don’t know where they can go,” she told the East-West Church Report. “I just knew that I had to do something for them.” Still, when she heard hostile views, Rozgonyi did question her motivations. “Biblical verses came to my mind: Jesus was always merciful to people and said, ‘Whatever you do with the least of these, you do to me.’ And if I do not act for them, I do not act for Him.”

Two years on, a visitor to Hungary might gain the impression that hostility towards refugees has cooled. In one Budapest storefront window, an English-language sign advertises products created by “a young group of refugees, designers, architects and European volunteers” to support “our work for the social inclusion of young refugees living in Hungary.” In another compassionate gesture, Orbán has set up the Deputy State Secretariat for the Aid of Persecuted Christians, which has spent over seven million dollars helping embattled Christian communities, largely in Iraq. Under its scholarship program, 72 young Christians from the Middle East and Africa are studying at Hungarian universities. Several attending the Secretariat’s October 2017 International Consultation on Christian Persecution warmly thanked the Hungarian government for this work, as did hierarchs of the Chaldean Catholic, Syriac and Russian Orthodox Churches, and the EU’s special envoy for religious freedom, Ján Figeľ.

Yet while this Consultation focused on support for Christians outside Europe, Orbán’s introductory speech turned to his starting point for such assistance: the goal of keeping Europe a Christian continent. “Even though we may not be able to keep all of it Christian, at least we can do so for the segment that God has entrusted to the Hungarian people.” The hostility towards Muslim refugees accompanying this viewpoint in Hungary in fact appears undiminished, despite their waning numbers.

On the eve of the Consultation, Catholic, Lutheran, and Jewish representatives spoke on a panel in Budapest’s historic Jewish quarter. “I won’t say if [refugees] are staying with us or not, because my tires would be slashed, or even things will be thrown,” Lutheran pastor Márta Bolba lamented. “We got to the point where it’s already dangerous. To talk is also dangerous.” Miklós Beer, Catholic Bishop of Vác, refused to differentiate between Christian and Muslim asylum-seekers: “There are some borders that cannot be crossed, and that is the border of humanity.”

Less open society

An incident two weeks prior prompted their concern. On 25 September 2017 public discussion in the southwestern village of Őcsény of plans by local guesthouse owner Zoltán Fenyvesi to host small groups of refugee children for vacations dissolved into raw anger. “They are Muslim, they have no honor!” one villager shouted. Fenyvesi abandoned his plans after being physically threatened and having his tires slashed. The mayor resigned, but Prime Minister Orbán later backed the villagers: “It’s quite right that they express their opinion firmly, loudly and clearly.”

The Salvation Army’s Major Wittwer acknowledges that it is now difficult even for refugees granted asylum to get established in Hungary: “There are many prejudices which do not correspond to the truth.” However, he also suggested that those living in long-open societies—such as Americans or his native Swiss—should try to understand “people who never had free choice, and who have at first a bit to learn about what it means to be able to live together with people of different opinions and faiths.” Yet Wittwer also observed that Hungarian society is today more closed than when he and his wife—both Hungarian speakers—first worked there from 1998-2003. “It’s much harder to get to know your neighbors, and there is less solidarity with other people than before.” This is borne out by the Pew survey, where only 16 percent of Hungarians polled agreed that most people can be trusted, while 72 percent thought that “you can’t be too careful with people.”

Despite having no recourse to public funds and acting as guarantor for its former refugee tenants, Kalunba now finds it extremely difficult to obtain rented accommodation in Budapest for refugees newly granted asylum. The charity no longer publicizes its positive stories of integration in the media, says Dóra Kaniszai, “because Hungary is a small country, and refugees can be found.” She believes the government-controlled media are responsible, as hostility is strong even in eastern areas where there are no refugees. There had been an expectation that, under a pro-Christian government, “we would have a pure, beautiful, balanced country finally leaving Communism behind,” Kaniszai recalls. It has turned out very differently. “We are learning to be afraid of politics again.”

Benjamin Novak :