Tag Archives: Christianity

Religion is not a private matter according to the Hungarian government

A month ago Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and an ordained Hungarian Reformed minister, ruffled the feathers of those who take the separation of church and state seriously. The occasion was a speech he delivered in Szombathely at a thanksgiving service upon the completion of a steeple for the local Hungarian Reformed church and the installation of three new bells.

Balog was present because his ministry gave a 43.3 million forint grant for the steeple and five million for the bells. When all was said and done, the 29-meter steeple cost 73 million and the price tag of the bells, which were cast in Poland, turned out to be 10 million forints. From the Népszabadság article it is not clear who paid for the cost overrun.

Balog in his speech announced that “religion is not a private matter. The confession of faith is the most personal public issue.” It is for that reason that the government considers it important to support the construction of churches. Népszabadság’s reaction to the news was “Back to the Middle Ages? According to Balog, religion is not a private matter.”

Balog’s pronouncement shouldn’t surprise anyone because the Hungarian right’s belief in a close relationship between church and state has been of long standing. The first reference I found to this “personal public” concept was Lóránt Hegedűs’s assertion in 1998 that “religion is not a private affair but the most personal public matter.” The same language Balog used. Hegedűs, the openly anti-Semitic Hungarian Reformed minister, is, after all, Balog’s colleague.

In 2006, during the heat of the election campaign, Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), attacked Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had announced earlier that “religion is a private matter.” Semjén at this point turned to Cardinal József Mindszenty, who in 1946 had claimed that “where religion is a private matter there is corruption, sin, and cruelty.” He added that Hitler also thought that religion is a private matter and “soon enough came the Gestapo, Auschwitz, and jail.” Because of the machinations of SZDSZ politicians, an “amok-runner” was let loose on the country, who is now destroying the heritage of St. Stephen. A huge outcry followed Semjén’s accusations.

A couple of years ago members of Catholic Radio met with church leaders. During this meeting Bishop László Rigó-Kiss, one of the most reactionary Catholic bishops, expressed the church’s demand that church news should be spread widely in the media because “religion is the most personal public matter.” The same notion was expressed by Fidesz Mayor Attila Ughy of Budapest’s District XVIII, who added that for this reason the District financially supports, to the tune of 25 million forints, both Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches.

The debate over the private versus public nature of religion has a long history. Perhaps the best known expression of the belief that religion is a private matter comes from Thomas Jefferson, who in his letter to the Danbury Baptists wrote: “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.”


What led me to this topic today was a recent opinion piece by Gábor Czakó, a Catholic writer who established a separate association of Catholic journalists. The article appeared in Magyar Idők. We learn from Czakó that the Kádár regime “transformed religion, the greatest public matter, into a private affair.” It was “inspired by a liberal idea.” The Kádár regime was so successful at implanting this erroneous idea into the heads of people that even right-wing “thinkers” believe that “the Christian faith is a private matter while Islam is a way of life.” But this is not so as long as there is a “templum,” which is a community gathering place. Liberals and socialists, however, first harassed Christians and Christian churches and finally declared the Christian religion to be a private matter.

Here are a couple of historical examples of real religiosity that Czakó cites. “Who remembers nowadays that during the kings of the House of Árpád there were more than one hundred holy days when work was forbidden and even later people devoted a third of the year to God? It was the Freemason Joseph, the hatted one, that suppressed them.” Czakó is talking about Joseph II (1741-1790), who declined to be crowned king of Hungary because he refused to swear to Hungary’s feudal constitution. Therefore people called him “kalapos király,” the hatted king. According to Czakó, the “snake of liberalism” is seemingly on the winning side against God and man, but slowly people are returning to God and away from liberalism.

Nowadays talk about Christianity in Hungary often ends by asserting its superiority over Islam. Czakó points to Jesus’s teaching “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” which he claims is unique among world religions. Czakó finds clear examples of such Christian charity among Hungarian kings. His first example is St. Stephen, who successfully repelled Emperor Konrad II, whose army in 1030 got as far as Győr but had to retreat. The Hungarians even occupied Vienna. So far the story is true, but I found nothing about Hungary’s saintly king feeding Konrad’s starving troops, as Czakó claims. His second example is another incursion into Hungary, this time in 1051 by the troops of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor. In Czakó’s story András I fed the starving German soldiers. Again, I found nothing about this great act of generosity.

Hungarian churchmen and devoted members of the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches categorically reject the notion of religion being at heart a private matter. This goes against mainstream thinking on the subject in western thought. Today, the overwhelming majority of people consider their relationship to God or to organized religion to be private. With the rejection of liberalism, this important tenet is being attacked in Hungary, not only by the churches but also by the government.

May 22, 2016

The fifth anniversary of the Fundamental Law of 2011

Viktor Orbán never disappoints. Every time he opens his mouth he comes out with something that takes our breath away. Today’s speech at a “conference” organized for the fifth anniversary of Fidesz’s Fundamental Law was again full of outlandish statements.

Given the fanfare that surrounded the passage of this new constitution, the celebration today was decidedly subdued–wisely so, considering the checkered history of the document. In five years the new constitution–thrown together in a great hurry, mostly by József Szájer, a Fidesz EP member, and Gergely Gulyás, the rising star of the party–has been altered five times, and its sixth amendment is currently awaiting approval. I wrote several articles about the constitution at the time of its birth in April 2011, but I just discovered that the posts from the second half of that month have simply disappeared from the archives of Hungarian Spectrum. You may recall, even without reminders, that the date the new law was enacted had a symbolic meaning. In that year April 25 was Easter Monday, and for a while government officials talked about the new Fundamental Law as the Easter Constitution. The date, of course, symbolized the resurrection of Hungary.

The constitution was passed by the super majority of Fidesz-KDNP. None of the opposition parties voted for it and now, five years later, all of them swear that with the disappearance of this whole gang (bagázs) this contrivance (tákolmány) will end up in the garbage heap. Együtt’s Viktor Szigetvári called it “the constitution of the cold civil war” and predicted that the downfall of Orbán will also mean the disappearance of his regime’s constitution and institutions. József Tóbiás, chairman of the socialist party (MSZP), reminded his audience in parliament that there is no reason for the government to celebrate. The conference organized by the government was “no celebration but rather a repass after a funeral” because “in the last five years we have had no constitution.”

Although László Kövér (president of the House), József Szájer (EP MP), Pál Schmitt (former president), László Trócsányi (minister of justice), and Tamás Sulyok (acting chief justice of the Fidesz-controlled constitutional court) all delivered speeches, I will concentrate on Viktor Orbán’s speech, which in some respects was truly extraordinary.

Let me start with his claim that the “Islamization of Hungary is forbidden by the Fundamental Law.” It was this claim that captured the imagination of the Hungarian media. According to the summary of the state-controlled news agency, MTI, “the Hungarian government cannot support such movements of people that would be contrary to the pledges stated in the ‘National Avowal’ [preamble] of the Fundamental Law.” In this preamble there is only one sentence that might be relevant. It states: “We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.” I’ll bet no one imagined five years ago that Viktor Orbán would use this sentence about the role of Christianity and nationhood as a constitutional weapon against accepting a few hundred or thousand Muslim refugees. Moreover, the sentence following this one states: “We value the various religious traditions of our country.” And Hungary already has 4,000-5,000 individuals who are the members of the Islamic community. Would a few thousand more alter the overall religious composition of the country? Of course not. But the presumably relevant sentence from the preamble will be useful in the propaganda campaign Orbán immediately began for “a strong showing (izmos) at the referendum” to demonstrate to the world the Hungarian nation’s strong resistance to compulsory quotas.

Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo Béla Nagy

Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo Béla Nagy

Orbán never misses an opportunity to condemn the European Union one way or the other. This time he extolled the virtues of the Visegrád Four. These countries are characterized by vitality, vigor, and an intellectual renaissance. By contrast, the European Union “doesn’t know where it is coming from; it has no vision, and it is myopic.”

Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság considered the following question by Orbán–“Why does the European Union use its power against its own members?”–a watershed. In her opinion, Orbán has never gone that far in his fight with Brussels. Whether this attack is worse than the hundreds of others I simply don’t know.

Today we learned a few new details about the birth of the new constitution. Although earlier Orbán had steadfastly denied any plan to create a new constitution before the 2010 election, it is now clear that he was adamant about it, although he was met with serious opposition within the party. As he put it, “there were strong siren voices that argued against such a move because they feared that [a new Fidesz constitution] would adversely influence Hungary’s [EU] presidency” in the first half of 2011. Today he expressed his thanks to those who stood by him. In fact, he said, the timing was perfect. It would have been a mistake to retreat.

Perhaps the most intriguing comment in Orbán’s speech was about former president Pál Schmitt, who after months of agony was eventually persuaded to resign on April 2, 2012. It turned out that his doctoral dissertation was a translation of parts of an English-language book. I wrote a number of articles on the case during March and April of 2012. To recap the scandal, HVG received a note from someone who discovered the plagiarism and came out with the story. Orbán hoped that the scandal would die a quiet death, but it didn’t. Even he couldn’t manage to quell the outrage it prompted. Reluctantly, he told Schmitt that he had to leave his post. I’m certain that by now Orbán deeply regrets his decision. In the last year and a half he has been calling on Schmitt to fill all sorts of positions in matters concerning sports. Schmitt is a former Olympic fencing champion.

Orbán is now rewriting the history of Schmitt’s resignation. In his version, Schmitt, just like all those who made the decision to go ahead with the enactment of the new constitution, knew full well the consequences of such a decision. As far as his government is concerned, I guess, this means an attack by the international legal community against certain provisions of the constitution. In Schmitt’s case, his very signature on the law regarding the constitution cost him his position as president of Hungary. “Outside and foreign forces will never forgive him for it. This is very important to know, because it places an obligation on us. If they will never forgive him, then we must never forget [him].” So, according to this version, it seems Hungary’s enemies invented the story of Schmitt’s plagiarism and decided to oust him. Instead of a cheat he is actually a martyr in the cause of the nation. The obligation, of course, means that Schmitt, instead of quietly retiring from politics, will return as some “useful” member of the Orbán team.

This latest stunt of Orbán really boggles the mind. Who can believe such a cockeyed story? One would like to say nobody, but Orbán is a skilled storyteller. Perhaps someday one of the National Bank’s foundations can produce a sequel to the Grimm Brothers’ Household Tales–Orbán’s National Tales.

April 25, 2016

Richard Field: Fear and Loathing in Hungary

The author is the managing editor of the Budapest Beacon and chairman of the American House Foundation, which supplies food to the Hungarian Red Cross for distribution to poor Hungarians in Budapest and the countryside and to Migration Aid for distribution to refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants. This article first appeared in the October 9, 2015 issue of  The Budapest Sentinel.

* * *

fear and loathing

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán claims to be not only a good Christian but the savior of Christian Europe. And yet there is very little about his government’s policies that can be considered Christian. It lies. It steals. It bears false witness. It sows rancor and division among its friends. It sets convicted axe murderers free. It perpetrates unconscionable acts of political revenge. It distributes billions in EU and state subsidies to prominent Fidesz supporters even as it deprives millions of Hungarians of the means to feed their children. It prosecutes civil society and political opposition leaders on trumped-up charges, even as it turns a blind eye to ruling party politicians engaged in everything from influence peddling to prostitution to the systematic theft of state assets. And it spends billions of forints every year deliberately manipulating and distorting the truth. In short, there is very little about the current government that could be considered “Christian” and much that could be considered outright evil.

And yet the bulk of Hungarian society remains silent.  Why is that?  The answer is simple: fear.

Fear and loathing in the Carpathian basin

Hungarians fear losing their jobs. They fear being stripped of their pensions. They fear hostile government inspections resulting in draconian fines and business closures. They fear their personal and professional reputations being tried, condemned, and executed in the court of public opinion by state and pro-government media. They fear being denounced as “communists,” “internationalists” or “cosmopolitans” for daring to speak truth to power.

One would think that such an oppressive political climate combined with rising poverty levels would result in greater disaffection, if not open rebellion as it did in 1956. But EU membership serves as an enormous safety valve on Hungarian society. Anyone fed up with the “Christian nationalist” government of Viktor Orbán is at liberty to pack up and move to Germany or England, which is precisely what hundreds of thousands of Hungarians have done since Viktor Orbán and Fidesz returned to power in 2010.

For sure, the majority of those leaving Hungary today are economic migrants, for which the current government is not entirely to blame. East-Central Europe was one of the regions worst affected by the global financial crisis of 2008. But beyond the desire to make ends meet without having to resort to tax fraud or a life of crime is a desire to live in a “normal country” where one is not subjected to a continuous barrage of pro-government propaganda fundamentally at odds with Judeo-Christian values.

Building an “illiberal” state

Viktor Orbán’s government spends vast sums of taxpayer and EU money telling Hungarians what to think and how to feel. The government constantly seeks to justify otherwise irrational and immoral policies by claiming they are part and parcel of building an “illiberal” state, which it claims is necessary if Hungary and the Hungarians are not only to survive but prosper in a dog-eat-dog world of nation-states relentlessly competing with one another to control scarce resources. In fact, no consistent set of values–illiberal or otherwise–underlies the government’s contradictory and counterproductive policies.

In the absence of any moral absolutes, all decisions are taken on the basis of political expediency to which the government then seeks to ascribe a patina of moral legitimacy by invoking the necessity of building an “illiberal” state.

The “Christian nationalist” state

Viktor Orbán likes to remind people that his government is both “Christian” and “nationalist.” But how does that translate into actual government policies and programs?

In Hungary today the children of those unable to work are either taken away from their parents or left to starve. In the impoverished countryside, children unable to gain admission to parochial schools must settle for a second-rate education in run-down facilities that are literally falling apart. Families are stripped of their livelihoods and entire private industries destroyed in order to make it possible for the government to award lucrative concessions to Fidesz supporters. Even as legitimate refugees and asylum seekers are denied the right to enter Hungary, those prepared to purchase EUR 300,000 worth of government bonds (and pay a hefty commission to Antal Rogán’s business associates) are free to settle in Hungary.  Patients unable to afford private health care wait months, even years, for surgery for conditions deemed “non life-threatening” even as those admitted to hospital languish for weeks or months in decrepit, understaffed facilities, often without adequate medicine or food.

Viktor Orbán’s so-called “Christian nationalist” government is one where even fundamental considerations of right and wrong are subordinated to the overriding imperative of keeping Orbán and Fidesz in power. It doesn’t matter how many university educated Hungarians are forced to endure demeaning public work for starvation wages. It doesn’t matter how many underprivileged children go to bed hungry or drop out of school because their families cannot afford textbooks or proper clothing. It doesn’t matter how many people are stripped of their retirement savings or their livelihoods. All that matters is that no one be able to mount an effective political challenge to Viktor Orbán.

Elections that are “free but not fair”

The 2014 general elections, which OECD election monitors pronounced “free but not fair,” are an excellent case in point. In the run up to the election the second Orbán government used every means, fair and foul, to retain its two-thirds parliamentary majority. Beyond redistricting, it offered unprecedented financial inducements to parties enjoying no popular support to run candidates in order to further divide an already divided political opposition. It distributed over half a million Hungarian passports to people of Hungarian heritage living abroad in the belief they would all vote for Fidesz. Shockingly, it changed the method by which votes are tabulated so as to enable the Fidesz-KDNP political alliance to retain a two-thirds parliamentary majority with just 47 percent of the popular vote.

If Viktor Orbán gets away with it domestically, it is largely because, in addition to state media, his party controls a large number of private media outlets whose owners are only too happy to toe the government line in exchange for advertising revenues and lucrative government contracts.

And if he gets away with it internationally, it is because Hungary’s cooperation is required in order for the European Union to implement urgent structural reforms necessary to prevent the whole experiment from imploding.

The closing of the Hungarian mind

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of the second and third Orbán governments is not the generations of Hungarians lost to emigration or condemned to a life of grinding poverty and unemployment. It is the closing of the Hungarian mind to the very principles on which the European Union is based.

With the help of fringe academic “guns for hire” of the likes of Mária Schmidt and Sándor Szakály, the Orbán regime is actively rewriting the past to suit the present. In addition to exonerating Hungary and the Hungarian people for their role in one of the worst crimes of the 20th century, the government reassures the Hungarian people that it is perfectly reasonable and acceptable to harbor feelings of resentment and ill-will towards others.

If one experiences a growing sense of national paranoia and xenophobia in Hungary today, it is largely due to the government’s habit of blaming its failures on the European Union, foreign governments, multinational corporations, and even international relief agencies.

A morally rudderless ship of state 

To live in Hungary today is to be forced to endure cognitive dissonance not known since the darkest days of Communism. Everyone is expected to follow the letter of the law—everyone, that is, except for Fidesz politicians and their supporters who are virtually immune from prosecution. New laws are adopted by the Fidesz controlled parliament in clear violation of existing laws and even the Basic Law bestowed on Hungary by Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz-KDNP alliance in 2011. The government announces one day that state ownership of banks is a good thing, only to announce the next day that it’s a bad thing. Viktor Orbán announces one day that his government is committed to combating racism, only to announce the following week that it was a mistake to allow Roma to settle in Hungary in the first place. Recently, the government lectured Hungarians on the importance of registering asylum seekers and keeping economic migrants out at any cost, only for the Hungarian people to learn the following week that the government had in the meantime allowed tens of thousands of migrants to pass through Hungary without registering them.

In such a topsy-turvy world, where fair is foul and foul is fair, Hungarians find themselves adrift in a morally rudderless ship of state. Without a moral compass to guide them or a leader prepared to point in the direction of true north, Hungarians are condemned to be tossed about on a sea of interminable fear and loathing until they drown in a vortex of self-pity and resentment.

Ignorance is bliss

Unlike US President Barack Obama or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who endeavor to educate the citizenry about what is happening at home and abroad, Orbán deliberately keeps Hungarians in the dark in order to exploit their deepest, darkest fears.

Europe’s refugee crisis is an excellent case in point. Instead of explaining that the migrants are refugees fleeing overcrowded camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, Viktor Orbán told the Hungarian people they were “economic migrants” coming to take their jobs, disrespect their culture, violate their laws, vandalize public property, spread infectious diseases, and commit acts of terrorism.

Having spent over HUF 1 billion dehumanizing the “economic migrants” within the framework of the so-called “national consultation on immigration and terrorism,” the government felt at liberty to disregard its international obligations and do as it pleased. Instead of investing in infrastructure necessary to receive and temporarily shelter tens of thousands of refugees, it spent that money on xenophobic propaganda and building a fence along the Serbian border. It even forbade the Red Cross and other international and domestic aid organizations from aiding refugees outside of Hungary’s overcrowded, understaffed refugee camps. As a result, thousands of refugees were forced to wait for days out in the open in so-called collection areas without food, water, shelter, or services of any kind.

After playing a cruel game of cat and mouse with migrants—telling them one day they could board trains to Austria, and the next day they couldn’t—the government deliberately staged an act of premeditated violence for the sake of demonstrating to the Hungarian people just how determined their government was to save them from the ravages of the economic migrants/terrorists.

A crime against humanity

On September 16th a phalanx of heavily armored Hungarian riot police deployed at the Hungarian-Serbian border at Röszke, reacted to a few cast stones by spraying a crowd of otherwise peaceful asylum seekers with pepper spray and water cannon. Many were crushed as hundreds of men, women, and children, temporarily blinded, reeled back violently from the border crossing gate.

Not surprisingly, a dozen or so youth responded to this outright provocation by throwing rocks, bricks and just about anything they could get their hands on at the police on the other side of the border.

What followed was the worst violation of human rights to take place in Europe since the end of the Yugoslav civil war.

Withdrawing some 150 meters from the border, Hungarian riot police allowed thousands of refugees, including women and children to enter Hungary, only to launch an unprovoked, surprise attack on them by commandos wielding rubber batons who “hit and beat everybody they could get their hands on” including members of the international press.

Without proper spin, this unprovoked attack might have cast the Orbán government in a negative light. Fortunately, international government spokesman Zoltán Kovács was on hand with a MTI television crew. To the moans of the scores of people wounded in the attack Kovács proudly announced that the Hungarian police had “defended the country with their bodies.”

Bombarded that evening in their living rooms with images of angry Arab males throwing rocks at police, it is little wonder the majority of Hungarians agreed that police had somehow reacted in a “measured and proportionate manner” as announced that afternoon by the national police magistrate’s office.

Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was the only opposition leader to denounce this unconscionable act for what it was: a crime against humanity. But even then, one suspects Gyurcsány did so primarily for personal political reasons, as he himself was accused by Fidesz of violating the human rights of anti-government demonstrators in 2006.

Apart from Gyurcsány’s press conference of Friday, September 18th, neither the former prime minister nor any other member of the political opposition has dared to criticize the government for what really happened at Röszke, despite appalling accounts of police brutality offered by Australian photographer Warren Richardson and other members of the international press.

Pandering to the radical right

Apart from not wanting to be burdened with caring for tens of thousands of refugees, the only plausible explanation for Viktor Orbán’s actions is the desire to win over supporters from Jobbik, Hungary’s radical right-wing party. From this point of view, Orbán’s position was a resounding success, but one secured at a very high price in terms of Hungary’s reputation abroad and its relations with its neighbors.

Instead of acting in a cooperative and concerted manner with other EU members, Hungary rejected an earlier EC proposal, electing instead to build fences, first along the Serbian border and then along the Romanian, Croatian and even Slovenian borders. In other words, instead of acting in a concerted manner with Hungary’s allies, Viktor Orbán decided to dump the problem on neighboring Croatia and Slovenia. What he did not count on was Croatia responding to this unneighborly act by bussing refugees en masse to the Hungarian border, where they were met with border guards and soldiers armed with semi-automatic machine guns. Fortunately, they didn’t shoot. This time.

Fair is foul and foul is fair

Even as the government tried to present its harsh treatment of refugees and asylum seekers as a virtuous defense of Christian Europe, it ignored and even discouraged genuinely virtuous, Christian behavior on the part of civil society.

In response to government inaction, the Hungarian people took it upon themselves to feed, clothe, and even shelter the tens of thousands of refugees passing through their country. Migration Aid volunteer Edit Frenyó recounts how anonymous donors provided a steady flow of food, clothing, shoes, bus and train tickets, sleeping bags, tents, and personal hygiene products to hundreds of volunteers across the country for distribution to the migrants.

At the main transit station at Budapest’s Keleti station, hot and cold food prepared by volunteers at nearby soup kitchens was distributed daily to the thousands of migrants arriving on trains from Szeged and Debrecen. Even pensioners living on fixed incomes brought bread and milk because, unlike the “Christian nationalist” government of Viktor Orbán, they could not bear the sight of hungry children.

The miracle at Herceghalom

On September 4th, the day thousands of migrants stranded in Budapest decided to walk to Austria, hundreds of volunteers lined the road to provide them with food and water. That night, as the exhausted migrants bedded down by the M1 motorway in the vicinity of Hegyeshalom, hundreds of volunteers appeared out of nowhere to distribute food, clothing, blankets, even push carts and baby strollers.

Perhaps it was this spontaneous demonstration of sympathy for the refugees that induced the government to send hundreds of busses to transport them to the Austrian border. In Hungary, however, Christian charity has its limits. Despite the pleas of Austrian authorities, the Hungarian bus drivers refused to cross into Austria, thereby leaving the exhausted refugees no choice but to walk the final few kilometers to safety in the pouring rain.

Perhaps not since the aftermath of the Second World War, when tens of thousands of Hungarians were driven from their homes in neighboring countries, has there been such a spontaneous demonstration of compassion and solidarity on the part of ordinary Hungarians. And yet not one word of praise or recognition had been bestowed on them by the government. Instead, jealous of anything that might detract from the great leader’s image as the sole wellspring of all that is good and just, the government of Viktor Orbán has sought to take credit for their actions.

Enough is enough

The time has come for Viktor Orbán and his fellow kleptocrats in the guise of illiberal Christian crusaders to make way for a new generation of leaders–one committed to the liberal values underpinning the European Union and to promoting the public weal instead of lining their own pockets. Unfortunately, given the extent to which Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz minions have completely taken over Hungary economically, socially and culturally—right down to when and where you can purchase groceries or cigarettes and what textbooks your children may study from—one wonders whether such changes will come about in Viktor Orbán’s lifetime.

Viktor Orbán and the “Christian-National Idea”

“Christian and national.” These two concepts are frequently bandied about by Viktor Orbán. Every time I hear him talking about these concepts in such glowing terms I wonder whether he is aware of the meaning of the “keresztény-nemzeti eszme” or Christian-National Idea. I also wonder whether he ever contemplates the contradiction inherent in coupling these two terms. After all, Christianity is considered to be a universal, supranational concept while “national” is a notion applicable to the particular. This is especially true for the Catholic Church, which even carries the idea of universality in its name.

I also wonder whether non-Hungarians fully understand the true meaning of the term in the Hungarian historical context. Most likely not. The “Christian-National Idea” was the dominant ideology of the Horthy era, and therefore the use of the term should be avoided. Opinions on the nature of the Horthy regime may vary, but I think it is universally acknowledged that it was an authoritarian system that granted only limited political rights to its citizens. Surely, returning to the ideals and practices of such a regime in the name of democracy is more than bizarre and retrograde. It is incompatible with Hungary’s membership in the European Union.

But the notion of the Christian-National Idea should be avoided for another reason: historically, in the Hungarian context, “Christian” meant not someone who professes belief in Jesus as Christ and follows a religion based on his teachings but someone who is “not Jewish.” Strengthening the Christian middle class, which was one of the Horthy regime’s aims, meant preventing the social and economic advancement of Hungarian Jews by blocking their way to higher education.  During the interwar years the churches enthusiastically assisted in the propaganda of the Christian-National Idea and, as the historian Miklós Szabó put it, “they allowed the name of Christianity to be used as a cover-up for anti-Semitism.”

I find it odd that a government that vehemently protests every time it is accused of being anti-Semitic would turn to the Christian-National Idea, one of whose most important elements was anti-Semitism. The other components were revisionism, anti-liberalism, anti-communism, and conservatism. Under the present circumstances revisionism is out of the question, but Orbán and his fellow politicians in Fidesz solved that problem by the “virtual unification of the nation” across borders. To demonstrate the idea of a nation one and indivisible, among the Fidesz European Parliamentary members there are four ethnic Hungarians from outside of Hungary: from Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. The other two components of the Christian-National Idea–anti-liberalism and anti-communism–are at the core of the present Hungarian political system. Conservatism, however, has been replaced by a far-right ideology with many references to the peaceful revolution in 2010. Just as a commentator said the other day, it matters not whether the prime minister of Hungary is Viktor Orbán of Fidesz or Gábor Vona of Jobbik. Their ideologies are indistinguishable.

Viktor Orbán’s references to nation, nationalism, and Christianity are abundant, and here I would like to quote only a few that I find most jarring. About a year ago he claimed that “Christian culture is the unifying force of the nation.” It gives “the inner essence and meaning of the state.” And he added that “that’s why we declare that Hungary will either be Christian or not at all.” Or, here is another take on the theme: Hungarians are Europeans not because Hungary is geographically part of Europe but again “because we are Christians.” I won’t even try to make sense of all this, although such ideas even got into the preamble to the Fidesz constitution of 2011: “We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.”

Vktor Orbán's view of the world

Vktor Orbán’s view of the world

By now, as we learned from Viktor Orbán’s speech at Kötcse, the Christian-National Idea is a political creed that he wants to apply to the whole of Europe. The refugee crisis offered Viktor Orbán an opportunity to lead a movement that will replace the liberal blah blah with the Christian-National Idea. I very much doubt that anything will come of Viktor Orbán’s ambitious dreams, but I must say that it would be an interesting twist of fate if the reactionary Horthy regime’s Christian-National Idea became the dominant ideology of the future European Union.

Just like Horthy during the interwar period, Orbán found enthusiastic supporters for his Christian-National Idea among the church leaders. The most important clerical spokesman for the state ideology of the Horthy regime was Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), an early representative of Christian socialism. Because of Prohászka’s vicious anti-Semitism, the Catholic Church didn’t promote his ideas after 1945, some of which were actually quite progressive socially. Since 1990, however, the Catholic Church has embarked on a rehabilitation of Prohászka. By now numerous schools are named after him, and his statues and busts are all over the country. He was the one, by the way, who coined the word “Hungarism” that later was used by Ferenc Szálasi to describe his Hungarian style of national socialism. His writings are full of references to the necessity of a Christian-national Hungary that must battle against Jewish influences that would, left unchecked, lead to the destruction of the nation. Prohászka was one of the forces behind the introduction of the numerus clausus of 1920 that fixed the Jewish presence in higher education at 5%.

In brief, the Christian-National Idea is a loaded concept full of the worst instincts of the Hungarian far right, going back at least a century. There are a number of commentators who claim that Viktor Orbán and his cohorts have no definable ideology. They have only one aim: to remain in power. They adjust their propaganda accordingly. They are simple populists. The recurring theme of the “Christian and National Idea,” however, indicates to me that they wittingly or unwittingly sympathize with the ideology of the Hungarian far right of the interwar period, an ideology that bore striking resemblances to fascism and national socialism.

Viktor Orbán reveals himself to be a racist

The Hungarian media, as usual, are split when it comes to evaluating Jean-Claude Junker’s state of the union address. Those on the left consider it a very tough speech with pointed messages to Viktor Orbán. After all, he condemned the Orbán government even though he didn’t explicitly mention Hungary, but everybody knows about the appalling conditions the asylum seekers have to endure once they cross into Hungary. He promised to look into the fate of the money given to member states that may not have been used for its intended purpose. He stressed that giving assistance to the asylum seekers is a humanitarian and not a religious question. He warned EU member countries to obey EU law, which includes offering asylum to those who are eligible for refugee status. As for the defense of EU borders, Juncker said that the answer lies in a joint effort at border defense. Juncker announced the introduction of the quota system. Moreover, he indicated that, if necessary, the European Commission has the means to force reluctant member states to comply with the directives of the European Union.

At the moment it is impossible to predict the final outcome of the struggle between “national egotism” and “Europe,” although Juncker optimistically predicted that the former “will be defeated in this migration crisis.” Still, he had to admit that at present “there is neither Europe nor Union.” Europe in this context means “European values” and Union, “solidarity.”

Juncker avoided any reference to “Christian values.” By contrast, one of Viktor Orbán’s arguments against accepting refugees from the Middle East is their non-Christian religious background. Slovak and Hungarian attitudes are very similar in this respect. Robert Fico announced that his country is willing to accept 250 migrants, but they must be Christians. The Hungarian government, which incessantly talks about “Christian Europe,” wasn’t that blatant until yesterday. Zoltán Balog, while attending a conference in Paris, defended the current Hungarian immigration policy by revealing that during 2013 and 2014 1,000 Egyptian and Iraqi Christian families received asylum and citizenship in Hungary. All this, he said, was done in secret. I must say that I am dubious about the truthfulness of this piece of news. I can’t see how in a relatively small country the government can grant citizenship to 1,000 families (or approximately 4,000-5,000 people) without anyone noticing it.

The newcomers’ faith is not, however, the only disqualifying criterion as far as Viktor Orbán is concerned. Orbán’s critics claim that racism is the moving force behind his steadfast opposition to admitting any of the asylum seekers. As we have discussed earlier, Viktor Orbán didn’t always oppose immigration. In fact, he thought it would foster economic growth. Most likely he still thinks that an additional 100,000-150,000 immigrants over the next few years would benefit the Hungarian economy. But not these kinds of people. Not people whose skin color is a shade darker than our own.

On what basis can we charge the Hungarian prime minister with racism? In the past, Orbán has always been careful to draft his speeches in such a way that it would be difficult to accuse him of racism, irredentism, anti-Semitism, fascism, or Nazism. But, according to his critics, in the speech he delivered to the Hungarian ambassadors on September 7 his caution abandoned him and he revealed himself to be an outright racist. Here is the passage:

Hungary’s historical given is that we live together with a few hundred thousands Roma. This was decided by someone, somewhere. This is what we inherited. This is our situation, this is our predetermined condition…. We are the ones who have to live with this, but we don’t demand from anyone, especially not in the direction of the west, that they should live together with a large Roma minority.

The first comment on this speech, as far as I could ascertain, came from András Jámbor of kettosmerce.blog.hu. He called Orbán a racist because he treats the Roma as separate and distinct, perhaps even a burden.

In my opinion, an analysis by one of the readers of Hungarian Spectrum is much more astute. According to Gábor Tóka, professor of sociology at the Central European University, this is “a clear plea to consider the Roma in Hungary an equivalent of refugees from Syria: ‘I do not ask you to take a quota of the Roma, so in return you should not ask me to take a quota of the refugees.'” There is only one way to avoid this interpretation but, in his opinion, it is not any better. Perhaps Orbán considers “both [the Mid-Eastern refugees and the Roma] a burden, an economically unproductive mass living on welfare. Here the problem is not simply with how wrong, prejudiced and evil this premise is, but with the idea that ethnicity means (under)class and vice versa. Whichever of the two interpretations you take, the end result is the same: Orbán declared himself to be not simply like-minded with the far-right on immigration but specifically highlighted his racism as a reason for this policy choice.” I consider Gábor Tóka’s analysis to be spot on.

This is what Viktor Orbán wants to avoid

This is what Viktor Orbán wants to avoid

In Hungary this crucial passage was largely ignored, perhaps because the “Roma issue” is something few Hungarians like to talk about. But this passage provides a window into Viktor Orbán’s mindset. Orbán is not so worried about the fate of Christian Europe as he is about racial purity, which has already been compromised by former colonial powers like Great Britain and France and lately by countries like Germany and Sweden.

And so the European Union now has a prime minster who not only embraces illiberal democracy if not worse but who also espouses racist sentiments.

The Hungarian Catholic Church is not very Christian

In the middle of July Miklós Soltész, undersecretary in charge of communication between the government and religious, nationality and civic organizations, called together the Council of Charitable Organizations, whose members are the Catholic Caritas, the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service, the Baptist Charity Service, the Hungarian Red Cross, and the Hungarian Ecumenical Aid Service. It was becoming painfully obvious that these charitable organizations were doing very little to alleviate the suffering of the asylum seekers who were arriving in Hungary on their way farther west.

The spokesmen for these organizations protested and tried to prove that quietly, behind the scenes they were hard at work. They said that they don’t like to brag about their accomplishments, that they were doing their job in a discreet manner. According to their critics, they had succeeded so well that they were practically invisible.

The media decided to look into the “quiet” activities of these organizations. Upon questioning, each of them described their accomplishments which, compared to the work of the ad hoc civilian groups, were minuscule. Two shelters that could give temporary shelter to 80 people (families exclusively), some food distribution in transit zones, psychological counseling, and occasional mobile medical service. The least active, I believe, had to be the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, which seemed to be involved primarily with refugees who had already received refugee status in Hungary. Admittedly, integrating newcomers into Hungarian society is an important job, which should be the duty of the Hungarian government. Language lessons, for example, are much more effective if they are given by professionals instead of church volunteers.

In fact, earlier we were told that there was no need for any charitable services, that the refugees living in camps were well looked after by the Hungarian government. So far this year the Catholic Caritas has sent only four trucks with food, baby food, clothes, and toiletries. In the future, they promised, they will distribute 10,000 bottles of mineral water. The Hungarian Red Cross apparently managed to get 92 million forints from the International Red Cross which is, of course, a drop in the bucket, so they are asking for contributions from the public. I have the feeling, however, that Hungarians have lost their trust in these charitable organizations and that they’d rather offer help to the civilians on the spot.

All in all, the general impression was that neither church-related organizations nor the churches themselves were doing much when it came to the refugee crisis. The silence of the so-called historic churches was deafening. Months ago György Bolgár decided to ask for an interview with Bishop Miklós Beér, perhaps the only bishop who seems to be at all sensitive to the needs of the poor and the downtrodden, especially Hungary’s Roma population. Although Beér was sympathetic to the refugees’ plight, it was clear from his answers that the Hungarian Catholic Church was not contemplating any statement about what a good Christian’s attitude ought to be toward the refugees. Pope Francis at least twice had called on Europeans to take in the desperate refugees and condemned the fences some countries were building to keep them out. In the face of the pope’s statements, it was more and more difficult for Hungarian church leaders to remain quiet.

The Conference of Hungarian Bishops

The Conference of Hungarian Bishops

On September 3 Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, gave an interview to Népszabadság which outraged those Hungarians sympathetic to the refugees. To the question of why the Catholic Church does not open its doors to refugees who need shelter, the archbishop claimed that the reason for the church’s refusal to follow the example of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, who will make space for 1,000 refugees, is that Hungarian law prohibits it. Giving such shelter is tantamount to human trafficking/smuggling. This excuse, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, is nonsense. Smuggling anything or anybody can only be done across national borders.

There is nothing surprising in Erdő’s reluctance to do anything that might irritate the Orbán government. Unfortunately, the Hungarian Catholic Church throughout its history has been a steadfast supporter of the government in power, especially if it leaned right. As far as I can see, the main concern of church leaders is how much money they can get from the government.

After the backlash to his interview, the archbishop claimed that the media “misunderstood” what he had actually said. The journalist took his words out of context. His explanation was anything but convincing, and the only additional information he provided was that “the church was planning to open church properties to the refugees.” Yes, sometime in the future.

Here I would like to record two reactions. One is Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s open letter to Cardinal Archbishop Péter Erdő. Kerék-Bárczy, who is currently on the executive board of the Demokratikus Koalíció, was previously one of the leading politicians of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF), a right-of-center party demolished by the machinations of Viktor Orbán. Kerék-Bárczy is a practicing Catholic.

In this letter he reminds Erdő of Pope Francis’s view that turning these refugees away amounts to “war, violence, and murder.” In June the pope called on those who build fences to beg the forgiveness of God. Many national churches have followed the pope’s instructions and teaching, but there is total silence from the Hungarian Catholic Church. Kerék-Bárczy “as a Hungarian Catholic” is full of questions. This is not the first time that he is confused. He no longer knows “what the Hungarian Catholic Church stands for.” The Bible says that “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:37). And now, a thousand years after Hungarians accepted Christianity, “a government that calls itself Christian does the exact opposite” of what Christ ordered. Instead of accepting them, it sends armed soldiers to keep them out of the country. In Kerék-Bárczy’s opinion, the Conference of Bishops should as a body take a stand against the government’s inhumane behavior. It is not enough to do charity work quietly. One must stand up and provide guidance to Hungarian society, even if that means being on a collision course with the current government.

The other remarkable reaction came from László Vértesaljai, a Jesuit monk who is editor-in-chief of the Hungarian-language Vatican Radio. He delivered a mass yesterday whose message came from the story Luke tells:

On a sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath?” And Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of man is lord of the sabbath.” (6:1-5)

In Vértesaljai’s eyes, Erdő and the rest of the leading Catholic leaders are Pharisees who hide behind the laws. There are times when the laws ought to be transgressed because they go against the teachings of Christ.

Harsh words from both Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy and László Vértesaljai and foremost from Pope Francis who this morning called on Europe’s Catholics to shelter refugees. “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe host a family.” According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there are 120,000 parishes in Europe.

To be fair, one Hungarian churchman, the abbot of the Benedictine Monastery of Pannonhalma, has in the last couple of days sheltered a few refugee families. But one must keep in mind two things. First, Abbot Asztrik Várszegi is an exception to the incredibly conservative Hungarian clergy. Second, it seems that it was not Várszegi who went to the civic organizers and asked how he could help, as, for example, Ferenc Gyurcsány, former prime minister, did. He was approached by the organizers who were shepherding some refugees going to Austria on foot. Almost as if these young volunteers said to themselves: let’s see what they will do. Will they follow the example of Cardinal Erdő or will they decide to act as true Christians?

I assume that sooner or later the Hungarian high clergy will be shamed into offering shelter to the growing number of refugees, but at the same time I doubt that they will do what Szabolcs Kerők-Bárczy asked Cardinal Erdő to do: to speak openly and condemn the Hungarian government for its heartless, un-Christian behavior.

Viktor Orbán went but didn’t conquer: His trip to Brussels

Yesterday I expressed my belief that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would arrive in Brussels with a proposal seeking the European Union’s blessing of his hermetically sealed Hungarian borders, in contravention of European values and the Geneva Convention, in return for accepting a few hundred refugees. I was not very far off. It seems, however, that Orbán’s strategy is not working. He might receive some money to ease the strain caused by the large number of refugees in Hungary, but the EU leaders don’t want to be partners in his scheme.

It is hard to tell whether the chaos in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary is the result of the government’s total incompetence or whether it has been artificially created. The utter confusion everywhere is a source of anxiety, even panic for the refugees. It is hard to fathom that a government chock-full of officials in charge of trivial matters hasn’t figured out that there ought to be a commissioner of refugee affairs. Is it the case, as many commentators suspect, that the Orbán government wants to have as much confusion as possible to show the population the horrible fate that awaits them if they are stranded with these screaming strangers? Moreover, if it becomes obvious that Hungary’s resources are inadequate to handle the situation, more money will come, money to replace the 23 million euros the government has spent thus far on the useless barbed-wire fence.

The reputation of Hungary is in ruins when pictures like this can be found in all foreign newspapers

The reputation of Hungary is in ruins

It seems that Orbán will get money but not much more than that. His proposals were rejected by the three important EU leaders he met with today in Brussels: Jean-Claude Junker, Donald Tusk, and Martin Schulz.

Orbán went to Brussels full of wrath. I suspect that on the way he rehearsed his main talking points, trying to phrase his message in the sharpest possible terms. He succeeded. Perhaps too well. What struck me most listening to sound bites was the primitive language in which he chose to convey his equally primitive ideas on the refugee issue. “The moral, human thing is to make clear ‘please don’t come! Why you have to go from Turkey to Europe? Turkey is a safe country. Stay there, it’s risky to come! We can’t guarantee that you will be accepted here.'”

Prior to his arrival in Brussels, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he described Europe’s response to the crisis as “madness.”  He reiterated his opposition to allowing Muslims into Europe. “Those arriving have been raised in another religion and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims…. This is an important question, because European identity is rooted in Christianity…. We have no option but to defend our borders.”

I’m sure that Orbán hoped that Donald Tusk at least, being a politician from Catholic Poland, would sympathize with him. He turned out to be mistaken. At a press conference in Brussels, Tusk had the following to say on the subject: “Finally let me make a personal comment with reference to PM Orbán’s article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. I want to underline that for me, Christianity in public and social life carries a duty to our brothers in need. Referring to Christianity in a public debate on migration must mean in the first place the readiness to show solidarity and sacrifice. For a Christian it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents.”

Tusk was equally negative on Orbán’s “solution” of banning all refugees who reach the borders of Hungary. While he admitted that the borders of the Union must be more effectively defended, he added that “our attitude to refugees is in fact an expression of European solidarity.” He also said that “EU countries will not change their migratory policies overnight.” Translated into plain English, Orbán, if he wants to stay in the Union, will have to allow asylum-seekers across that fence.

Orbán’s meeting with Martin Schulz didn’t go any better. After the meeting, Schulz told reporters that “the Schengen treaty is under threat.” And he warned people that “a deeper split of the union is a risk we cannot exclude.” This indicates that during the meeting Orbán showed no willingness to compromise. Since in Orbán’s opinion the flood of refugees is not a European problem but a German one, since everybody wants to go to Germany, he believes that Hungary should not be obligated to adjust its policies to those demanded by the European Union. After the press conference Schulz appeared on ZDF, the German public television station, where he expressed himself more forcefully. According to HVG, Schulz announced that Viktor Orbán’s position on the refugee crisis is “totally unacceptable.”

We know relatively little about the meeting between Viktor Orbán and Jean-Claude Juncker since no press conference was scheduled, which usually means that the meeting was not exactly a roaring success. The spokesman of the European Commission called the talks “constructive,” which pro-government Hungarian papers heralded with great fanfare, as if “constructive” in this context means something positive. “Constructive” usually means that each man expressed his opinions and there was no meeting of the minds. Apparently, Orbán talked about his idea for a sealed border, which Juncker disapproved of, while Juncker lectured Orbán on the necessity of a common European solution. At least this is my interpretation of the very brief description I read of the meeting.

After this trip Orbán can reassess what he wants to do: face the threat of the abrogation of the Schengen Treaty, which means the end of free movement and labor within the Schengen borders, or give up the promised legislative package on the refugees, whose provisions would greatly restrict basic democratic rights.

Meanwhile German-Hungarian relations are on the rocks as well. Neither Martin Schulz nor Angela Merkel appreciated Orbán’s accusations. First, Orbán accused Germany of being responsible for Hungary’s current problems with the refugees, and then came the accusation that the refugee crisis in general is a German problem. Chancellor Merkel didn’t wait long to respond: “Germany is doing what is morally and legally required of us, no more and no less,” she said in Bern.

Meanwhile at home János Lázár used the strongest language against Germany’s behavior, which he found to be “beyond words.” It is Germany that is opening and closing the doors of Keleti (Eastern Station) with its irresponsible statements about accepting Syrian refugees.

It was only a couple of months ago that we heard that Hungary’s foreign policy is anchored in the excellent relationship between Hungary and Germany. Moreover, Hungary is heavily dependent economically on Germany. Is it worth attacking the strongest power in the European Union for the sake of playing the role of Defender of the Faith and Europe?

Viktor Orbán has managed to maneuver Hungary into an untenable position. The country’s reputation is in tatters. Finally the whole world can see what kind of a country Viktor Orbán and his fellow Fidesz politicians have created in the last five years. I’m sure that a lot of people thought that the opposition parties and commentators critical of Orbán’s regime were exaggerating. They kept saying: “But Hungary is still a democracy.” The democratic features of the Orbán regime, however, are only skin deep, beneath which one can find many features reminiscent of Mussolini’s Italy.