Opinion & Features

Barbed-wire Christianity

Orbán: a Calvinist with a Catholic wife

As disputes continue over the mistreatment of refugees attempting the “Balkan route” into Europe, no government has been criticised as harshly as Hungary’s for its razor-wire fences and holding camps.

The country’s 53-year-old prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has defended his tough policies with talk of protecting Europe’s Christian heritage. But what should Western Catholics make of his claims?

Excluding refugees has been only one of many controversial actions by the Oxford-educated Orbán, a Calvinist with a Catholic wife, who started his career as a professional footballer and led his first government aged just 35. Opponents have lampooned his authoritarian catchphrase, “illiberal democracy”, comparing him to Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin for his populist, nationalistic rhetoric.

But Orbán has worked hard to justify his stance, gaining implicit acceptance from Hungary’s Christian churches. When a 110-mile fence was completed in late 2015 on Hungary’s southern frontier with Serbia, and beleaguered refugees were roughed up by police, the Hungarian bishops were unsympathetic, simply recalling in a one-paragraph statement “the right and duty of states to protect their citizens”. Although Hungary’s primate, Cardinal Péter Erdő, blamed “misunderstandings”, little support or shelter was offered to refugees beyond token assistance by Caritas.

With thousands crossing into Hungary every day, opinion polls suggested that most Hungarians backed Orbán’s restrictions. But the Church’s hands-off stance clearly contradicted a call by Pope Francis for all parishes and religious houses to take in at least one refugee family.

Speaking at the time of the Pope’s appeal, Orbán spoke darkly of a Muslim “invasion of Europe”, saying that the continent seemed “barely able to maintain its Christian values”. He has since gone further, making his centre-right government the first in Europe to create a special department for persecuted Christians. The new state secretariat makes Budapest “a world centre” for helping the oppressed, Orbán told the Catholic Magyar Kurír press agency. It will promote exhibitions, documentaries and university studies, and co-ordinate a “humanitarian mission” with established charities.

Visiting Rome with the secretariat team, Orbán insisted that he had viewed the defence of Christians as a priority as far back as 2011, when Hungary held the European Union’s rotating presidency. But he had decided to act after talking to Pope Francis last August. His government has already allocated funds to support Christian children in Middle East refugee camps.

The Catholic Church, traditionally making up 70 per cent of the Hungarian population (currently 9.9 million), has been allowed to reclaim land and property, confiscated under communist rule, during Orbán’s premiership. In 2011, a new constitution invoked God’s blessing on the country’s inhabitants and recognised “Christianity’s key role in upholding the nation”. It defended life from conception and defined heterosexual marriage as the “foundation for national survival”. It also lauded the “great spiritual achievements” of Hungarians since their first king, St Stephen, made his nation “part of Christian Europe”.

In 2012, the government passed a controversial new law reducing Hungary’s 362 recognised religious communities to just 14, and requiring others, with a minimum of 1,000 members, to re-register after obtaining parliamentary approval. A year later the government rewarded the mainstream churches for their acquiescence by pledging a billion euros of EU funds to help them meet their “social responsibilities”.

One of the recipients is the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been promised state money to restore its cathedral in Budapest and other landmarks. Unsurprisingly, the Russian Patriarch has had warm words for Orbán, assuring a Hungarian delegation in January of his “profound respect” for Orbán’s “independent policy and ability to be firm in defending Christian values”.

After an inconclusive referendum last October, the Hungarian government refused to accept an EU quota for refugees and said it would detain any new arrivals while their asylum requests were processed. Although some 30,000 people sought protection in the country last year, according to official data fewer than 400 received it.

In Eastern Europe at least, Orbán can claim to be reflecting popular attitudes and acting in line with predominant Church thinking. Although Catholic bishops in neighbouring Austria and Germany have shown generosity to refugees, their counterparts in the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have also argued for Christians to be given preference, citing security and integration problems.

Nevertheless, Hungary’s religious orders have deplored Orbán’s “lack of compassion”, and at least one bishop, Miklós Beer of Vác, has voiced “shame” at the silence of fellow Catholics. Some local priests, meanwhile, have answered the Pope’s appeal by offering help. Fr Zoltán Németh was praised by the United Nations for sheltering freezing Afghans and Iraqis in his presbytery near the Austrian border.

With Orbán now being criticised for centralising power and restricting civil liberties, Christians will be viewing his claims more cautiously. As Hungarian Catholics prepare to host the International Eucharistic Congress in three years’ time, many will be wondering whether their prime minister’s much-vaunted championship of Christianity is just another attempt to use the faith for political ends, or whether it will extend to a genuine defence of Christian values.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Oxford and Warsaw. His two-volume study of communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing