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.
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.
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.