In 26 years of advocacy for the global persecuted church, this is a new one for me. The government of a country establishing a national-level office to support Christians suffering for their faith in Christ was heretofore unheard of. But that is what Hungary did in 2016. The next year, Tristan Azbej became state secretary for the aid of persecuted Christians and the Hungary Helps Program in the office of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
On November 26-28, that office sponsored their Second International Conference on Christian Persecution (ICCP) in Budapest. They invited some 800 of us who do religious freedom advocacy, as well as church leaders and victims of persecution. I was very happy to go.
Why the need for a stand? What is so objectionable about Hungary’s defense of and support for persecuted Christians? And what is it about Hungary’s defense of its sovereignty that has the world’s knickers in a twist?
Here are five things I learned about the Hungarian government’s commitment to the most persecuted religious believers worldwide (that would be Christians, in case you were wondering):
1. Such a government-sponsored, unapologetic initiative to help persecuted Christians around the world belongs to Hungary alone.
Frankly, even mouthing the word “Christian” instead of the ever-present euphemisms “minorities” or “religious believers” is one of Hungary’s trademarks.
Prime Minister Orbán is roundly criticized for many things, including his government’s focus on Christians. It embarrasses Western European diplomats, talking heads, leftist NGOs, and other spiritually dead secularists to hear anything other than euphemisms. Many only grudgingly add the most persecuted religious group of all, Christians, to their victim list. I could count on one hand (and did) the times that some Western speakers used the word “Christian” at this conference that was literally about Christian persecution.
Every Hungarian government official who spoke at the conference—including Viktor Orbán Tristan Azbej, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó, and others—specified Christian persecution. They referred repeatedly to facts that make focused advocacy and support for Christians justifiable.
Hungary is at the forefront of naming genocide against Christians as a “global phenomenon” and not a series of incidences (or coincidences). “Four out of five people persecuted for their faith are Christians, and some 245 million Christians around the globe suffer extreme persecution,” Orbán stated in his ICCP address.
Hungarians agree with Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox archbishop of London. At the conference he counseled, “There is no shame in defining truth.” Foreign Affairs Minister Szijjártó put it even more forcefully, declaring, “The Hungarian government rejects the approach that often appears on the part of the international community, according to which Christian phobia and any form of anti-Christian sentiment is acceptable.”
2. Hungary is determined to remember the past and not to let it be repeated.
Memories of evil haunt Hungary. In recent memory it was dominated by the Fascist Arrow Cross Party and then by the Communists. These memories are the impetus for the Hungarian government’s aid to fellow Christians who face the persecution and horror that they faced—and even worse. It gives them a sense of solidarity with these brothers and sisters.
While at the ICCP, I visited the House of Terror Museum. This is a powerful reminder of what we lose when we lose freedom.
The building on Budapest’s historic Andrassy Avenue was first headquarters of the Nazi-allied Arrow Cross Party. These fascists rounded up, deported, and exterminated hundreds of thousands of Jews. A poignant memorial to their handiwork is on the riverbank. Featuring men’s, women’s, and children’s shoes, “The Shoes on the Danube” commemorates some 20,000 Hungarian Jews murdered by Arrow Cross. They were lined up, shot, and fell into the river. Later the building became the Communist Secret Police headquarters (State Protection Authority or AVH) that “liberated” Hungary from the fascists.
The House of Terror “wishes to commemorate” its countrymen who were detained, tortured, and murdered in the building, says the website. “Apart from the detailed presentation of horrors, this exemplifies that the sacrifice for freedom was not in vain.” The struggle against the two most oppressive systems of the century, it says, “led to the victory of freedom and independence.”
The Hungarian government wants to keep it that way! The country has reestablished Hungary’s Christian identity. Prime Minister Orbán harkens back to Hungary’s founding over one thousand years ago by King Stephen and to the king’s Christian faith. He ties Hungary’s Christian past to his government’s determination that Judeo-Christian values will shape the nation’s future, values such as promoting biblical marriage, sanctity of life, and reaching out to persecuted Christians with practical and generous aid.
After the horrors of World War II and Nazism, Hungary also has a thriving Jewish community. Soon after Orbán’s return to power in 2010, Budapest’s oldest and the world’s second-largest synagogue was rededicated. I visited this beautiful holy place, Dohany Great Synagogue, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to as the “symbol of a Jewish renaissance.”
3. Hungary’s philosophy for aiding persecuted Christians should be imitated.
Rather than working through international organizations such as the United Nations, or awarding contracts to big-time NGOs, Hungary prefers to work directly with the churches and civil society on the ground. This allows them, for instance, to rebuild churches and ensures that Christians get some aid.
In the 1990s I experienced what can happen when aid is funneled through the United Nations or the recipient country’s government. Remembering aerial attacks on starving Sudanese waiting for food drops from UN Operation Lifeline Sudan because it was required to provide Khartoum with coordinates, I can only marvel at the wisdom and simplicity of this philosophy.
A December 3 article in The Spectator describes Hungary’s approach as “unprecedented in its humility.” Reporter Marlo Safi says that it is “the humility to defer to the persecuted themselves who are more aware of their needs than any IGO, and the humility to not allow oneself to be mired down by the accepted narratives of who and who is not a beleaguered people.”
Safi quotes Tristan Azbej:
We are not trying to be smarter than who we support… We always ask what they need and then provide the support for that objective, and in 99 percent of cases, we ask how we can support them and the answer is that they wish to remain in the homeland, in their ancestral land.
In addition to helping Christians remain in their homelands and preserve Christianity in the place where Christianity began, the Hungarians are helping enable future generations. The Hungary Helps’ Scholarship for Christian Young People is providing scholarships to Hungarian universities for almost 300 Christian students from persecution areas such as Iraq, Egypt, and Nigeria. They intend to increase the number of scholarships annually.
4. Hungary Helps is extremely efficient and streamlined.
In part this is because Hungary does not bother with such idiotic dilemmas as “could this support we are giving possibly be perceived as favoring Christians?” But also because of cutting edge technology, Hungary Helps has digitalized the aid process from application to dissemination. This ensures the utmost efficiency and speed of dispatch. The ICCP breakout session for NGOs featured a short video presentation of the Hungary Helps process.
In conclusion, seeing the passion, philosophy, and programmatic excellence with which the Hungarian government is providing aid for persecuted Christians made me eager to share new contacts with them.
The ICCP was admirably ecumenical. Speakers in plenary sessions were Roman, Syriac, Chaldean, and Maronite Catholics; Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic, and Russian Orthodox; Hungarian Reformed; Evangelical Lutherans and Assyrians; Armenian Protestants; Evangelical Americans, and others!
5. The Hungarian government could benefit from a wider range of contacts within the countries in which they are providing aid.
For instance, many of the Christians being persecuted and slaughtered by Boko Haram and Fulani jihadists in Nigeria are Anglicans. The Anglican Church of Nigeria is the second-largest Christian denomination in the country. Anglicans are hit hard by persecution because of their long track record of evangelism and seeing Muslims come to faith in Christ.
A great speaker for a future ICCP is Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos. Kwashi has dynamic love for Jesus and preaching the Gospel. He and his wife, Dr. Gloria, who has a home for children orphaned by persecution, have been targeted by Islamic jihadists several times.
Hungary is under political attack for its stand. Those who stand for Jesus’ persecuted and broken body are vulnerable to many forms of attack. But the officials of Hungary Helps and others in the Hungarian government have already commented on how reaching out to bless the persecuted has returned blessings to themselves.
In standing with those martyred for their faith from all parts of the Church Universal, Hungary is surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” This cloud of witnesses is cheering them on as they help the persecuted, encouraging them to “lay aside every weight and sin” and “run with endurance the race” that is set before them.