Does Hungary really want to help persecuted Christians?
Persecution | Religious rights activists split on motive behind country’s pledge to aid some Middle East refugees
by Samantha Gobba
Posted 9/19/16, 11:30 am
Hungary, a land-locked nation in Eastern Europe criticized for its attitude toward the stream of refugees fleeing Islamic State terror, announced this month a new governmental department to aid persecuted Christians.
The government awarded the 10-person department 3 million euros to carry out its as-yet undefined duties.
Some Christian activists in the United States applaud the move, but an expert on Hungary said he would be surprised if the nation known for its staunch resistance to the tide of humanity flowing from the Middle East ever extended a helping hand to any refugees, even Christians.
“It’s most likely some kind of publicity stunt directed toward domestic public consumption,” H. David Baer, a theology and philosophy professor at Texas Lutheran University, told me.
Hungary has earned a reputation for discrimination, facing recent criticism for presenting a prestigious award to a journalist accused of anti-Semitism and for its 2011 Church Act, which stripped evangelical churches of their official status. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the law violated religious freedom, but Hungary has not repealed it.
“Hungary likes some Christians but it doesn’t like others,” said Baer, a board member for the nonprofit Forum for Religious Freedom Europe, who has spent extensive time in Hungary researching and writing about its religious history and current religious laws. “If the Hungarian government wants to speak out or put an end to the persecution of Christians, they might start by respecting the religious freedom of all Christians [in Hungary].”
The nation also has taken a strong stance against resettling or aiding refugees.
Prime Minister Victor Orbán had extensive razor wire fences built along the country’s borders to stop the flow of migrants seeking asylum in Western Europe. Last year, Hungary closed its entire border with Croatia, and last week, lawmakers passed legislation allowing Hungarian security officials to deport or jail anyone crossing the border illegally. In January, Orbán called for a fence across northern Greece to “stop, not slow down, but stop migration.”
In a March speech, Orbán criticized other European leaders for embracing migrants and attempting to silence any dissent: “It is forbidden to say that immigration brings crime and terrorism to our countries. It is forbidden to say that the masses of people coming from different civilizations pose a threat to our way of life, our culture, our customs, and our Christian tradition.”
The European Union (EU) voted this month to relocate 120,000 refugees from “frontline” countries—Italy, Greece, and Hungary—to other member nations. Hungary is set to send 54,000 refugees to other nations, taking 306 refugees from Italy and 988 from Greece under the same quota system.
Other nations voiced opposition to the plan, but Hungary outright refused to implement the measure. Instead, the Hungarian government set an Oct. 2 referendum on the EU quota system.
During a July visit to Röszke, a main checkpoint on the Hungary-Serbia border, Baer found the Hungarian government clamping down on churches’ aid efforts for refugees. At one point, border guards allowed a Methodist church, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, to pay for portable toilets, but later in the summer, officials shut down the project.
“I understand that countries have a right to control their borders, but there’s also a basic humanitarian minimum any decent society needs to meet,” Baer said. “It’s implausible to me that a government so selective in its acts of charity would actually do much to help non-European Christians with a different skin color.”
Other Christian activist groups are more hopeful.
The Philos Project’s Vivian Hughbanks told me it applauds Hungary for taking a stance for persecuted Christians.
“They’re the first nation to do anything of that kind,” she said. “We really appreciate that more attention is being given to the persecuted church in the Middle East.”
Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, a group that advocates for persecuted Christians overseas, said despite legitimate concerns about Hungarian policy, “we think any effort to offer humanitarian support or protection to Christians around the world is very worthwhile.”
“There’s a special need, given the ISIS genocide against Christians and other religious minorities,” Hamparian said. “When the U.S. or the UN talk about genocide against Christians, there should be some repercussions for that. … We should kind of see what Hungary’s doing in that regard.”
Samantha reports on the pro-life movement for WORLD Digital.