Tag Archives: Christianity

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

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.