Tag Archives: Christianity

They don’t see eye to eye: Pope Francis and the Hungarian bishops

Looking through the comments to yesterday’s post, I was struck by the general concern about the almost total disengagement of Hungarian churches from the most burning social issues of the country, the extreme conservatism of the Hungarian Catholic Church, and the Church’s antagonism to the refugees.

During religious holidays, the media usually bombards readers with articles with religious themes. Without searching very hard, I found two relevant interviews. One was conducted with Miklós Beer, the bishop of Vác. He is practically the only man in the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops who takes his calling seriously and who approves of and follows the guidance of the pope. The rest, 50 years after, still haven’t even accepted the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council. I like Beer very much; he reminds me of Gábor Iványi. Both men exhibit the kinds of qualities we would hope to find in priests and ministers.

The other interview was given to Pesti Srácok by Pál Bolberitz who, as I learned from this conversation, was the confessor of Prime Minister József Antall (1990-1993). Bolberitz manifests the less compassionate and tolerant side of the Church. We learn that Antall on his deathbed told Bolberitz that “I wanted a Christian Europe, believe me, because only such can have a future.” Yet, according to Bolberitz, the European Union “doesn’t want a Christian Europe.” What follows is a repetition of the official Fidesz view that the troubles of Europe began with the student revolution of 1968 and that “the gangsters of 68 by now are the chief bureaucrats who lead the Union and who want to force their ideas on Europe while they talk about freedom and democracy.” Bolberitz shows his true colors when, in his passionate assault on the EU, he maintains that “democracy is a nice tale; this is what the masses need.” But, he continues, there is something very wrong in Europe where “a distorted concept of freedom takes the place of God.”

I’m afraid Miklós Beer is about the only bishop who thinks that Pope Francis is true to the original and unadulterated teachings of the Church. The others might not openly say what an English cleric told a journalist of The Guardian–that “we can’t wait for him to die,” but they are convinced that the pope, being from Argentina, understands neither Europe nor the reality of the refugee crisis. The Hungarian Catholic clerics’ criticism of the pope was loud enough in the summer of 2016 for me to devote a post to the topic. Since then the relationship between the Hungarian Catholic Church and the Vatican hasn’t improved. The Hungarian government, in conjunction with the Hungarian Catholic Conference of Bishops and the city of Szombathely, devoted the year between November 2015 and November 2016 to the memory of St. Martin of Tours, who was born in Savaria, Pannonia, today called Szombathely. Pope Francis was invited, and the Hungarian Catholic leaders were very much hoping for a papal visit, but the pope sent Cardinal Dominik Duka, archbishop of Prague, as his representative. This was interpreted by Hungarian critics of the Church as a sign that Pope Francis disapproves of the migrant policies of Viktor Orbán and his supportive Catholic hierarchy.

Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops

A few months ago Attila Buják, a journalist for 168 Óra, wrote an investigative article reporting on the inner workings of the Hungarian Catholic Church. The information came from sources inside of or close to the Church. We learn from the article that apparently the Vatican already in the late 1980s anticipated a political change and tried to prepare for the day when democracy returns to the country. At that time four relatively young men were appointed to be bishops, but the choices were haphazard. Pope John Paul II didn’t really know the men he appointed. Moreover, being a conservative himself, he wanted people who would diligently follow the Vatican and not men with reformist ideas.

Péter Erdő’s rise in the church hierarchy gave some hope at the beginning. He was young and looked like a strong leader. His consecration as Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in December 2002 and primate of Hungary was hailed as a step in the right direction. A year later he was made a cardinal. Clearly, Erdő was a special favorite of John Paul II. But Erdő turned out to be a weak leader who lost his position as president of the Hungarian Catholic Conference of Bishops. He lost to the super-conservative András Veres, whose “ever stronger voice was the symbol of change in the atmosphere surrounding the Church.” Veres was the first bishop who was described as “fideszes püspök.” But it would be a mistake to think that Erdő is less rigid in his adherence to dogma; he is just not as outspoken as Veres. In the latest controversy within the Church concerning giving holy communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, Erdő said that he opposes Pope Francis on this contentious issue. In fact, it is a well-known fact in Catholic circles that Hungarian bishops with good connections in Rome are in close alliance with the pope’s adversaries.

Although on the surface it is the migrant question that seems to be the chief point of disagreement, the differences of opinion between the two sides are much more fundamental. There is a visceral hatred of what Pope Francis stands for on ideological grounds. In the Hungarian Catholic media, articles about him give the impression of a “pious, good-natured but somewhat muddle-headed old man.”

At the same time, the Orbán government “is pouring money and influence into the church, giving it schools and institutions which it cannot operate on its own. One cannot escape from the government’s embrace, especially since it declares ‘Christian’ everything that is important to the government.”

Although Catholic clerics have opinions on even the most insignificant domestic issues, they have for the most part avoided making religious judgments when it comes to the refugees, which “is a truly Catholic, universal cause.” Catholic churches west of Hungary, even if not exactly enthusiastically, eventually “stood by the teachings of the gospels.” But not Péter Erdő, who came up with the lame excuse that the Church must obey the laws of the land, which forbid giving shelter to refugees.

The 2011 census was a great disappointment to the Catholic Church. In 10 years the Church lost 1.2 million people. Whether the Church’s far too close relationship with the government has anything to do with the loss of declared Catholics, as some people claim, I don’t know. I do know, however, that despite all appearances to the contrary, Hungarians today are not really religious. The number of people who attend church services regularly is very small. I also have the distinct feeling that the incredible amount of money that is given to churches is distasteful to a lot of people, perhaps even the majority of the population. There seem to be three causes close to the heart of Viktor Orbán: sports, Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, and the churches. These causes receive huge amounts of money, which, I believe, greatly irritates Hungarians, working hard and getting nowhere.

P.S. Alex Kuli reminded us of an article that appeared in Népszabadság in September 2016 about a sermon given by a Hungarian Reformed Minister. In fact, I wrote about this incident, which I would like to quote here:

A Hungarian Reformed minister, László Károly Bikádi of Hajmáskér, a small town about 14 km from Lake Balaton, delivered a sermon last Sunday, offered to the soldiers and policemen defending Hungary’s borders against the refugees. The text for his sermon was Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan. In his exegesis he said: “You just have to take a look at the story of the Samaritan. Jesus asks who the brethren of this man are. Everybody? Are we all brethren of each other? It is true that we are all children of God. But who are the brethren? Those who are merciful to us.” Then the merciful reverend launched into a muddled story about “us as white men who didn’t treat the colored people, be they Arabs, Negroes, Africans, Asians, as our brethren and therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t look upon us as their brethren. And they are coming like locusts, coming because we chased them away from their lands. … Allow me to say that they are like ants, like the feral of the wilderness” and because the white men pushed them out from their natural habitat “they come like ants. They move into our houses. What happens with mice, voles, and other creatures of the field? They come and beset us.” He finished his sermon by asserting that although it might be our fault that these people are on the run, “we shouldn’t make the mistake of throwing out our values just because people arrived among us who don’t consider us their brethren.”

December 27, 2017

Viktor Orbán rewrites the Bible and falsifies the words of Jesus

Before I come to the main topic of the day, I want to call attention to an opportunity offered by the Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchivum (Hungarian National Film Archives). Between December 22 and January 12 sixty famous Hungarian films can be viewed free of charge. An added bonus is that they are subtitled in English.

Over the holidays I watched a comedy from 1965 called “A tizedes és a többiek” (The corporal and the others), which is about a bunch of deserters in the last days of the war. Their encounters with the Germans, Russians, and Arrow Cross loyalists are hilarious. I can highly recommend it. You can find the list of the available movies here.

Now onto something less amusing.

On December 23 Viktor Orbán addressed his people on the subject of “the great holy day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” which turned out to be the usual mixture of misinterpretation and outright falsification. In part, Orbán’s message bears a certain resemblance to Donald Trump’s recurring theme of Christians being deprived of their holy days by evil forces, primarily on the left. In Orbán’s case the culprit is the Muslim hordes, who are invading Europe while politicians west of Hungary either claim that the problem doesn’t exist or believe that multiculturalism means progress. But Hungary under Orbán’s guidance is different. Hungary will defend its right to protect the Christian way of life.

Unlike Trump, Orbán engaged in a reinterpretation of the Holy Scriptures, on the basis of which he tried to justify his own anti-migrant policies. The result was a most cynical game played with the holiest book of Christianity, which he considers to be the guiding light of the Hungarian nation and the salvation of mankind. His twisted interpretation of the words of Jesus, whom he allegedly holds in such great esteem, is outright disgusting. Let me translate the crucial passage: “According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s second commandment is ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Recently one has frequently heard this commandment of Christ in Europe. They reproach us for not wanting, nay, not allowing, millions from other continents to settle in Europe despite our Christian faith. But they forget about the second half of that commandment, although the commandment has two parts: we must love both our neighbors and ourselves.”

At this point I will rely on the expertise of György Gábor, a philosopher of religion, who responded to this interpretation in the strongest possible terms. According to Gábor, Orbán commits “blasphemy when he cynically rewrites the holy book of Christianity” in his own corrupt image and for his cheap political purposes. In fact, Jesus here [Mark 12:31] is commenting on Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus doesn’t command anyone to love himself; he simply states the degree of love that one ought to extend to one’s neighbor.

The first page of the Gospel of Mark / Károli Biblia, 1590

This passage in Mark is also repeated in Luke 10:27 when the lawyer repeats God’s command about the love of God and one’s neighbor. It is here that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. But one can return to Leviticus 19:33, which reads: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

As Gábor sarcastically remarks, these passages seem to be missing from the bibles of Viktor Orbán and Zoltán Balog. He is appalled that no minister or priest has raised his voice against this gross reinterpretation–actually a rewriting–of the Bible. This is especially regrettable because Christian teaching condemns self-love. Gábor quotes Saint Augustine’s City of God (Book XIV:28), in which Augustine says that “two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” As Gábor explains, the earthly city, which Augustine describes as a city characterized by self-love (theft, fraud, libel, lawlessness, infringement of the law), leads to God’s contempt, while the city of God is the love of God, leading to self-denial.

I remember hearing a long time ago that Gábor Bethlen, prince of Transylvania, reread the Bible forty times in his lifetime. I’m not surprised. Hungarian Calvinists, even the peasants, were avid readers of the Bible. Calvinist ministers normally spend the larger part of the service on a detailed explication of the biblical passage chosen for the day. I can’t imagine any Hungarian Calvinist minister suggesting that God commands one to love oneself. Yet Orbán’s followers may well fall for this nonsense because they are about as well educated about the Bible as Orbán is himself. I don’t know whether it is Zoltán Balog, the Calvinist minister, who is responsible for particular rewriting of Jesus’s words, but he was apparently the man who led Orbán onto the road to salvation.

The Bible was not the only text that got rewritten in Orbán’s Christmas message. At the end of his article he recalls that Robert Schuman, one of the co-founders of the European Union, 60 years ago insisted that “Europe will become Christian or it will not be.” The only problem is that, as far as I can ascertain, Robert Schuman didn’t say anything of the sort. More than four years ago, while researching my post on “Viktor Orbán and Christian Democracy,” I was unable to come up with this particular Schuman quotation. On the other hand, I found an article that appeared in The Guardian about Christian democracy in which the following sentence appeared: “Konrad Adenaur, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman … drew from religious faith, professed and lived, and from their political commitment to a common conviction: that only Christianity could be the cement for the European Union. Europe and Christianity are an inseparable pairing. With the same understanding as Leo XIII, they affirmed that Europe and Democracy would either be Christian or not at all. Schumann wrote: ‘All the countries of Europe are imbued with Christian civilization. This is the soul of Europe, it must be reborn’.” If I’m correct, Orbán and/or his helpers found this article and used it for his speeches, but he conveniently left out the word “Democracy” from the quotation. An early Christian Socialist, Frederic Ozanam, said “Democracy will be Christian or will not be.” Schuman said that “Democracy owes its existence to Christianity. It was born on the day when man was called to realize in his temporal life the dignity of the human person, in the individual freedom, in the respect of the rights of each and by the practice of brotherly love with respect to all.” In brief, Orbán rejects the very essence of Christian socialism, democracy.

December 26, 2017

Hungary leads the way in defense of persecuted Christians

Yesterday Viktor Orbán delivered a speech at the International Consultation on Christian Persecution, organized by the Hungarian government and held in Budapest between October 11 and 13. We know that the prime minister considered this speech to be of great importance because it was made available in its entirety, in both Hungarian and English, on his website within hours. Such speed normally attests to Orbán’s belief that the content of a message is particularly significant.

I must say that I have to strain my imagination to see the political implications in this address, but Zoltán Lakner, whom I consider a sharp-eyed commentator, sees this talk as a new stage in the Hungarian government’s assault on the European Union. Others, like Tibor Pethő in a Magyar Nemzet editorial titled “Crusade” (Keresztes háború), views the Christian Democratic András Aradszki’s reference to the rosary as a weapon against the Satanic George Soros as an introduction to Viktor Orbán’s speech, in which he said that Hungary will take the lead in the defense of the Christians of Europe and the world. He is not the only one who is convinced that Aradszki’s remarks in the Hungarian parliament were inspired, if not dictated, by the highest authority of the land.

In the last few months high-level politicians and government officials have taken up the cause of Christianity, the most persecuted religion. As Viktor Orbán put it, “215 million Christians in 108 countries around the world are suffering some form of persecution.” These figures are being repeated practically everywhere. I encountered one site where the claim was made that even in Mexico Christians are suffering “a high persecution level” from “organized corruption.” From remarks by Hungarian church officials and Christian Democratic politicians I learned, to my great surprise, that Hungary is also one of those countries where the persecution of Christians takes place.

According to Viktor Orbán, Christian persecution in Europe “operates with sophisticated methods of an intellectual nature.” Admittedly, it cannot be compared to the sufferings of Christian communities elsewhere, but greater dangers are lurking for European Christians, which many people don’t want to notice. He recalled the watchman in the Book of Ezekiel who, neglecting to warn people of the danger, was held accountable for the blood spilled by the enemy. Surely, Orbán sees himself as the watchman bearing news of the coming danger to the “indifferent, apathetic silence of a Europe which denies its Christian roots.” But there will be a price for this neglect of European interests. The present immigration policy will result in the transformation of Europe’s Christian identity.

Hungary is a small country without many relatives, but it has something other richer and bigger countries don’t have, Orbán claims. Many larger countries may have well-intentioned politicians, but they are not strong enough because “they work in coalition governments; they are at the mercy of media industries.” Hungary, by contrast, is a “stable country” whose current government has won two-third majorities in two consequent elections and, what is also important, “the public’s general attitude is robust.” Therefore, “fate and God have compelled Hungary to take the initiative.” I puzzled over the meaning of Orbán’s reference to the “robust attitude” of Hungarians and, since it didn’t make much sense to me, I turned to the original Hungarian text where I found that the prime minister was talking about the “healthy attitude” of the population. What are the characteristics of this healthy attitude? What about those who, unlike Hungarians, don’t have a healthy attitude? It is a good topic for a debate.

These are the main points of Orbán’s speech. Hungarian assistance in Iraq, which he briefly described at the end of his speech, needs no elaboration. I already wrote about it a couple of weeks ago in a post titled “Two New Hungarian citizens: Part of assistance to persecuted Christians.”

So, let’s see what the other shining lights of the Fidesz world had to say. After all, the conference lasted three days and those days had to be filled somehow. As a result, there were many, many speeches on the subject of Christian persecution.

One of the first men to greet the participants was András Veres, bishop of Győr, who currently serves as president of the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops. He was the one who, in his sermon on the August 20 national holiday, felt compelled to talk disapprovingly about increased government support for the in-vitro fertilization program. His words created quite a storm. After some hesitation, the government stood by its position. Details of the controversy can be found in my August 25 post. At the conference he admitted that the persecution of European Christians still means only mocking them, “but all bloody persecutions” began like that. The reason that Hungarians understand the plight of Middle Eastern Christians better than Western Europeans do is because “there is persecution of Christians in Hungary today.” You can imagine what some bloggers had to say to that when the government is pouring money into the churches–well, at least into the government-approved churches; it financially “persecutes” the others.

Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources who himself is a Protestant minister and who, over the years, has acquired the reputation of formulating high-flown ideas that usually fall flat, decided that “the conservation of Christian values, worldview, and culture also means the conservation of democracy.” I assume that for most people this assertion makes no historical sense whatsoever. Balog, presumably following Viktor Orbán’s lead, sees in Hungary’s assistance to the Christians of the Middle East “an opportunity to reform the foundations of European Christianity.” Well, that’s quite an ambitious undertaking. It seems that Hungary is not only defending Christian Europe but also wants to reshape it.

Péter Szijjártó was more modest. He only wants to make Budapest “the engine of the fight against the persecution of Christians.” We learned from him that “work is a Christian value,” as if working hard was alien to other cultures. He also had the temerity to say, after the government propaganda against migrants and lately against George Soros, that “a good Christian cannot be against anyone.”

Zsolt Semjén and Zoltán Balog at the press conference / MTI / Photo: Attila Kovács

Zsolt Semjén didn’t disappoint either. He gave a press conference after the “consultation” was over. He argued that Islamists who commit anti-Christian genocide should be brought before the International Court of Justice. He also said that the persecution of Christians in Europe is of “the light variety,” which is “not without its dangers because what’s going on in Europe is the conscious destruction and apostasy of Christianity.”

I’m pretty sure that Semjén was not happy with a question he got about the 1,000 Coptic Christian families from Egypt and Iraq the Hungarian government allegedly generously settled and gave Hungarian citizenship to during 2014 and 2015. Both Zoltán Balog and Péter Szijjártó insisted at the time on these people’s presence in Hungary, but the problem was that the leaders of the already existing, though small Coptic community had never heard of them. Or, rather they knew about “a few businessmen who have permission to live in Hungary but who don’t live in the country on a permanent basis. They come and go in Europe and the world.” The government couldn’t give a coherent explanation for the invisible Coptic Christians. After all, 1,000 families should mean about 4,000 people. I devoted a whole post to the story at the time. Now Semjén insists that the government cannot say anything about these 1,000 Coptic families because their lives are in danger. I guess that’s one way for a good Christian to avoid the issue.

October 13, 2017

Two new Hungarian citizens: Part of assistance to persecuted Christians

I read with astonishment that two Syriac Orthodox Christian prelates have just received Hungarian citizenship. The two men swore allegiance to their adopted country at the Hungarian consulate in Erbil. They are Sharaf Saman Matti Sharaf (Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf), the metropolitan of Mosul & Environs, and Azeez Raed Ablahad (Mor Timotheus Mousa A. Shamani), bishop of the Mat Mattai monastery, 20 km from Mosul. Sharaf Saman Matti Sharaf thanked János Áder and the Hungarian people for their generosity and solidarity in a time of need.

The brief announcement gave no explanation for this rather unusual event, which prompted me to learn more about the background of these two men. I was lucky as far as Sharaf Saman Matti Sharaf was concerned because I managed to track him down in Canada, where he visited his parents and his brother with his wife and family. From the article written about this 2015 visit I learned that in June 2014, at the urging of his friend, the minister of interior of Kurdistan, the metropolitan left Mosul and settled in Ankawa, a Kurdish town 90 km from Mosul. Apparently there are 140,000 Iraqi Christian refugees in Kurdistan.

Metropolitan Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf

A year later both men were in the news. The Express reported that Metropolitan Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf and Bishop Timotheus Mousa Shamani had hoped to visit Great Britain for the November 24, 2016 consecration of the St. Thomas Cathedral in London, which is the first Syriac Orthodox cathedral in the country. They were denied entry by the Home Office. It’s possible that the Hungarian passports the two prelates are entitled to are intended to save them from similar experiences in the future.

All that took me to the Orbán government’s mission to defend Christians living in territories where they could face persecution on account of their religion. At the end of last summer, during his visit to the Vatican, Viktor Orbán met Christian prelates from the Middle East. Their plight apparently moved him to extend aid and assistance to Christian communities in the region. I suspect that he also figured that such generosity would somewhat mitigate the bad reputation Hungary had acquired as a result of the Orbán government’s heartless treatment of the refugees.

Bishop Mor Timotheus Mousa A. Shamani

So, last fall Zoltán Balog’s ministry of human resources got the job of setting up a special department headed by an assistant undersecretary with a staff of ten. The job of undersecretary was entrusted to Tamás Török, formerly chargé d’affaires of the Hungarian Embassy in Rome. The department received a yearly budget of almost 1 billion forints. One of their bigger projects was the renovation of a school building in Erbil that would apparently house 700 students. The government gave 120 million forints for the project, to which the Hungarian Catholic Church added another 80 million. Orbán explained that the school project “proves that we Hungarians don’t have stones in place of our hearts.” The school was supposed to open by this September, but something went awry. The ministry decided that the fault lay with Tamás Török, who was apparently unceremoniously fired. The mini-department devoted to fighting the persecution of Christians is now headed by a young man, Tristan Azbej.

The name of the new assistant undersecretary in charge of assistance to persecuted Christians sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him until I found the first article about Azbej from 2013 when he headed the ill-fated “Come Home” program. Azbej, who had just returned from the United States where he received his Ph.D. from Virginia Tech, was one of the vice presidents of IKSZ (Ifjúsági Kereszténydemokrata Szövetség/Association of Young Christian Democrats). He found the large number of Hungarians leaving the country and establishing new lives in foreign countries distressing and convinced the ministry of human resources to sponsor an organization whose task would be to convince emigres to return to Hungary. About 100 million forints was allocated to the project. The idea was to convince a number of private firms to offer jobs to those wanting to take advantage of the offer. The project was a total flop. In two years only three families picked up their belongings and returned to Hungary. During these two years Azbej had an office in the ministry and I assume he was also paid a salary.

Once the project came to an end, Azbej was out of a job, but soon enough the media learned that Azbej was going to Tel Aviv to serve as the “science and technology attaché” at the Hungarian Embassy. The position was created for him. What he did there is hard to know, but by now he describes himself as having knowledge of Middle Eastern politics as well as some diplomatic experience. After three years in Tel Aviv he returned to Hungary this spring. He gave a few lectures and also wrote a glowing article about the most charitable Hungarian attitude toward the refugees. He specifically praised the “Hungary Helps” program, to which Viktor Orbán assigned close to one billion forints. As he put it in an article which appeared in Magyar Hírlap, the Hungary Helps program makes it clear that “Hungary’s refugee program can receive an A from love.” And the ceiling didn’t fall on the young man, as a Hungarian would say.

Tristan Azbej was born in Paris to a French mother and a Hungarian father. His father’s family is apparently of Armenian origin, but he claims that his ancestors have been in the Carpathian Basin for the last 350 years. Otherwise he describes himself on his blog as an “enthusiastic realist, multicultural patriot, young KDNP, tolerant conservative, refined Fradi animal, pro-economy environmentalist, workaholic father, pacifist Christian, foreign-service ‘come home’ activist, gentle provocateur.”

The new assistant undersecretary will have to make sure that the school building will be ready soon. The Hungary Helps program, it seems, has a host of projects. It will supply medicine to a hospital and will renovate churches. One project seems particularly ambitious. Hungary will pay for the renovation of an entire town with a population of 11,000. The town is Tesqopa (Tel Eskof) in northern Iraq. It was briefly occupied by ISIS twice, once in 2014 and again in 2016. As of September, a number of Christian students will be able to study at Hungarian universities.

Viktor Orbán’s generosity is touching. I wish he had similar feelings when it comes to Hungarians living in poverty.

September 23, 2017

Viktor Orbán: Christian Europe in danger

Once a year the Keresztény Értelmiségiek Szövetsége/KÉSZ (Association of Christian Professionals), an alleged NGO, holds its congress. The fact that since 2011 the event has been held in the chamber of the former Upper House (Főrendiház) says a lot about the independence of the organization.

Until very recently KÉSZ was a purely Catholic affair. It was established in 1989 by a Catholic priest and professor of theology who served as its president until his death in 1996. In that year another Catholic priest and a great admirer of Viktor Orbán, Zoltán Osztie, took over. He served until 2016. At that point the presidency was assumed by a Greek Catholic priest and canonist, I guess in an attempt to appear a bit more ecumenical.

The close connection between KÉSZ and Fidesz was obvious even from the few references Viktor Orbán brought up about the organization’s past. He specifically noted KÉSZ’s assistance in setting up thousands of “civic cells” that Fidesz used to widen the base of the party after the 2002 defeat. Then, in 2009, KÉSZ joined the notorious Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), a phony NGO financed in all sorts of devious ways by the Orbán government. KÉSZ also gives assistance to the government when it comes to its nationality policy outside the country’s borders. For example, KÉSZ has signed joint declarations of intent with the Keresztény Értelmiségi Kör (Christian Professional Club) in Serbia where the Hungarian political elite is an important supporter of the current government. KÉSZ’s website provides no details about its financial resources, but it has a publication called “Jel” (Sign) which looks quite professional, it finances books, and it organizes conferences.

At the KÉSZ congress held on September 16 Viktor Orbán delivered a lengthy lecture on the state of the world. His two most important statements, both made at the end of the speech, were that (1) “the Germans, the Austrians, and the arrogant western media” began a “smear campaign” against his country which was “centrally ordered, centrally controlled, centrally engineered against Hungary—out of vengeance because [Hungary] closed the Balkan route used by the migrants” and (2) if the European leaders are unable to find a path to coexistence between immigrant and non-immigrant countries “the tension that exists between them now will be even more intensified, which may lead to a greater chasm or even a fatal break in the history of the European continent.” Both of these claims are rather frightening.

The attentive audience / Source: Index / Photo János Bődey

Although these are the two statements I chose as the weightiest, there were some other noteworthy claims. One was that “the goal of today’s anti-Christian program” is the importation of non-Christian elements, which in turn will weaken Christianity in Europe to such an extent that it will actually die out. Before Orbán spoke, Cardinal Péter Erdő had delivered a speech in which he talked about the strong roots of Christianity in Europe. Picking up on this theme, Orbán accused “the anti-Christian European program” of planning “to change the subsoil” so that “the roots of Christianity, no matter how thick and strong they are, cannot take hold, and thus the giant tree simply falls over.” Again, Orbán sees a malicious design or at least tries to convince his audience that there is such a design–that European politicians are contemplating the Islamization of Europe and the death of Christianity on the continent.

Orbán also set forth a religious elaboration of his theme that “We want a Hungarian Hungary and a European Europe.” He added: “But this is possible only if we take upon ourselves the task of creating a Christian Hungary within a Christian Europe.” This qualifying sentence is a new motif in Orbán’s political vocabulary. He is certain that under his leadership Hungary will remain a Christian country, but he is not so sure about Europe. “The ideology of the immigrant countries is international liberalism,” while in the case of the non-immigrant countries “the guiding principle is … sovereignty and Christian social teaching. The adoption of Western European liberalism by the people of Central Europe would simply mean suicide. Or to be more precise it would be a suicidal ideology for the countries of Central Europe” because it would result in their becoming immigrant countries. Obviously, liberalism in any shape or form should be banished from Central Europe. I wonder what the Czechs and the Slovaks would think of this demand.

Finally, here is something that Orbán uttered elsewhere, but I think it belongs here. In his speech to the members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation he apparently noted with great satisfaction that “in the last six years, on the left-right scale, a thoroughgoing shift has occurred toward the right.” I’m afraid he is correct.

September 19, 2017

Musings on history and politics on the eve of Hungary’s national holiday

Almost every year since 2007 I have devoted a post to Hungary’s most important national holiday, August 20, the day that, at least in Hungary, is devoted to the veneration of St. Stephen, the first crowned head of the country. I searched in vain for Stephen’s name under this date on the website catholic.org. I discovered that the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of St. Stephen on August 16. Hungarians, however, chose August 20 because it was on that date that King István/Stephen I was canonized in 1083.

August 20 as a national holiday has gone through some interesting metamorphoses. After the communist takeover, it remained a national holiday but was named “the day of the new bread.” A few years later the government decided to publish the new Stalinist constitution on that day, and therefore between 1950 and 1989 it was called the Day of the Constitution. Somehow the idea of bread kneaded from newly milled flour appealed to Hungarians, and to this day a special loaf of bread is baked for the occasion, called “bread of the country.” As of last year, another loaf is being made in the city of Szolnok, called “bread of the Carpathian Basin.” Hungarians are expanding their horizons. The chief of the baking team in Szolnok will be from Sfântu Gheorghe/Sepsiszentgyörgy (Romania). He will be assisted by bakers from Senta/Zenta (Serbia), Berehove/Beregszász (Ukraine), Komárom (Hungary), and the Polish city of Tarnów. They will use water from Berehove, yeast from Senta, potatoes from Komárom, and salt from Praid/Parajd (Romania). The loaf will weigh 300 kg. and will be baked in the largest “Szekler oven” in Central Europe.

In the past I covered this day by telling readers about the paucity of contemporary sources we have for the first couple of centuries of Hungarian history after the settlement in the Carpathian Basin and the limitations this poses to historians of the period. Pál Engel (1938-2000), a historian of the Middle Ages, wrote that a Hungarian historian’s situation in this respect can be compared to a British historian who would have to tackle the history of England without the existence of the Public Record Office. One has to be very careful not to create an imagined or “untruthful history,” as Nóra Berend, professor of medieval history at the University of Cambridge, said in an interview she gave to Népszava today. Unfortunately, all nations are full of myths and dubious interpretations of historical sources, which from the eleventh century are meager indeed.

Népszava was the only publication that turned to a historian for information about the time of St. Stephen. Others reported on the government’s intentions to provide the “correct” interpretation of this holiday. Perhaps the most outrageous among these are the “instructions” that were given to the staff of Hungarian embassies for guidance about the proper way of informing their guests of the Hungarian government’s position on the migration issue. The text of “Communication messages for August 20” found its way to Magyar Nemzet.

It is customary for each embassy to give a reception on August 20, to which the ambassador invites members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of the host government. Unfortunately, many officials and diplomats are on holiday in August. But the few people who show up will be subjected to Hungarian government propaganda. The main point Hungarian diplomats are supposed to emphasize is that “Hungary has always had to fight hard for its existence” because there was always a real danger that certain people “want to place the country into foreign hands.” Until now no one has succeeded in doing so, but now that danger is real. The diplomats should point out that we are at a junction when “we will have to choose between the Hungary of St. Stephen and those who attack our culture.” The diplomats are also supposed to call attention to the fact that already in the age of St. Stephen Hungary had domestic enemies who “wanted to make the country part of other empires,” and the situation is not at all different now. At this point, the Hungarian diplomat is supposed to note that George Soros would like to see “foreigners invade our homeland.” People in the service of the American billionaire want to destroy the Hungary of St. Stephen. “They are ready” and therefore “we must be ready too.”

András Kósa, the author of the article, when he got to the point about the internal enemies in St. Stephen’s Hungary, jokingly added in parentheses: “Does Koppány know about this?” And now let’s return to Nóra Berend’s interview, in which she brought up the story of Koppány as an example of a story that may not be true.

If you go to the Wikipedia English-language entry on Koppány, you will be struck by all the question marks concerning this relative of Stephen, who in accordance with the traditional principle of seniority claimed the throne. Stephen’s father Géza, however, following the Christian law of primogeniture, designated his son as his successor. Koppány, who was ruling over the area of today’s Zala and Somogy counties, revolted against Stephen, who defeated him. On Stephen’s order, Koppány’s body was quartered and its parts hung over the walls of Esztergom, Veszprém, Győr, and Gyulafehérvár/Alba Iulia. In today’s interpretation, this was not just a battle between two members of the ruling house. It was a decisive struggle between Christianity and the old pagan ways. The outcome of this battle really made Hungary part of Europe. This was the interpretation proposed by György Győrffy in his 670-page book on King Stephen and his Creation (1977). As adviser to the Hungarian rock opera Stephen, the King, he further emphasized the point. Largely because of the popularity of the rock opera, this is the accepted popular interpretation of the encounter between Stephen and Koppány.

Kósa is right. By no stretch of the imagination can Koppány be called a “foreign agent.” Moreover, Nóra Berend has very serious doubts about many details of the story of Koppány’s encounter with Stephen. As she points out in the interview, the main source of information about the event comes from the fourteenth century, which is very late. This chronicle doesn’t mention Koppány’s religion at all. There were two or three pagan rebellions during Stephen’s reign, but they are not associated with Koppány. Moreover, the story of Koppány’s body’ being quartered by order of Stephen is suspicious since, according to Berend, quartering didn’t exist before the thirteenth century. All in all, the whole account is most likely the result of efforts to create a coherent story from extremely meager facts at the disposal of historians.

The question is whether it matters what today’s children learn about Koppány’s religion and his struggle with Stephen. I’m sure that a lot of people would say it matters not at all. But, unfortunately, this is not the case. A few years ago there were serious discussions in right-wing circles bemoaning the fact that Stephen won that battle and thus ruined the original ethnicity and purity of pagan Hungarians. And paganism is staging a comeback. Take, for example, the annual gathering called Kurultaj, a three-day affair organized by the Hungarian-Turanian Foundation, where, among other things, shamans perform marriage ceremonies pagan style. These gatherings attract larger and larger crowds every year. The modern pagan and native faith movement in Central and Eastern Europe has a sizable literature by now. So, what the struggle between Stephen and Koppány was all about does matter.

August 19, 2017

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.”

Jefferson

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