“God bless the Hungarians.” This is the very first line of the Hungarian Constitution, followed shortly after by an invocation of holy King Stephen, who over one thousand years ago “built the Hungarian State” and “made [Hungary] a part of Christian Europe.” These solemn invocations would give any reader the impression that Hungary is a deeply devout country. Certainly, that is the sentiment Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party wanted to express when, as the majority party of the Hungarian Parliament, it adopted this constitution in 2011. Naturally, such a devout nation formed from the Christian Europe of St. Stephen would be well suited as the defender of Christian Europe today and, lately, Christians in dire straits abroad as well.
Yet a closer look at the religious landscape of Hungary shows a different picture. Historically the junior partner of the Catholic Habsburg empire, since the Reformation Hungary has been religiously divided between a slight majority of Catholics and a sizeable minority of Calvinists (and other Protestants). Due in part to the ravages of communism, Hungary is now one of the most religiously unaffiliated countries in Eastern Europe, with approximately 41 percent of adults identifying as either atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” surpassed only by Estonia and the notoriously irreligious Czech Republic. Furthermore, among Hungary’s largest religious group, Catholics, 76 percent identify “national culture/family tradition” as the primary motivating factor for their religious self-identification rather than personal faith. Enter Viktor Orbán.
Prime Minister Orbán, who hails from among the Hungarian Protestants, has lately taken upon the role as protector of “Christian Europe,” a new King Stephen for today as it were. This notion of Christian protector was born out of political expediency in the early days of Fidesz. The heretofore irreligious Orbán saw an opportunity to move his party rightward and ally with various church leaders in order to stand out among the larger parties of the nascent post-communist political landscape of Hungary. Contrary to what many of Orbán’s detractors say, this protector role is not merely a rhetorical device for winning popularity at home by casting the European Union as a supposed outside force imposing liberal values on the traditional, Christian Hungarian way of life. Orbán’s Fidesz party has actively pursued policies that strengthen traditional Christian understandings of family and the human person. Indeed, this sometime Christian prince has even extended his advocacy outside the boundaries of Europe, looking toward the very real plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, among other regions.
This past week the Second International Conference on Christian Persecution convened in Budapest, where Christian and secular leaders converged. Keynote speakers included Gewargis III, the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Rev. Joseph Kassab, an evangelical leader in Syria and Lebanon, as well as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself. Joe Grogan, an assistant to President Donald Trump, represented the United States, and a representative of the European Union was also present. In addition to Hungary hosting this conference, the country’s Hungary Helps, a humanitarian aid program, has provided nearly €25 million in aid to Christians in the Middle East and North Africa to date. For example, in November 2019 the program began to rebuild the Christian city of Qaraqosh, Iraq, with the help of American contractors. It seems the conference’s primary goal is raising awareness about persecuted Christians, including how since 2003 the Christian population of Iraq has declined by 83 percent from approximately 1.5 million to 250,000, due primarily to threats from the so-called Islamic State. Additionally, Prime Minister Orbán during his address noted that four out of five persons persecuted for their faith today are Christians. Raising awareness is certainly noble and addresses a real problem many in Western liberal democracies are uncomfortable grappling with due to the historical hegemony of Christianity in these societies.
Hungary’s effort to bring persecuted Christians’ plight center stage in the West is laudable, yet the country’s own policy record toward religious minorities should be examined as well. Prime Minister Orbán made headlines when he defied the European Union’s plan to redistribute migrants and refugees, largely from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, across EU member states. He justified this as merely protecting Hungary’s Christian character from the largely Muslim migrants and refugees. Furthermore, Orbán’s Fidesz party has worked hard to downplay the role of the Miklós Horthy government in the deportation of Hungary’s Jews during World War II, while at the same time using anti-Semitic tropes to demonize George Soros, the liberal philanthropist who was born in Hungary and escaped deportation during that war.
Is this truly the proper conduct of a Christian leader today? Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam may have some insights. In his work The Education of a Christian Prince, written for the education of Prince Charles, the future Holy Roman Emperor, Erasmus notes that “it is the part of a Christian prince to regard no one as an outsider unless he is a nonbeliever, and even on them he should inflict no harm.” Arguably, preventing the resettlement of “nonbeliever” refugees (in the parlance of Erasmus) in Hungary has at least resulted in some harm to them. While Erasmus concedes that “his own subjects should naturally come first in his thought,” he notes that “he should help everyone that he can… In the case of strangers he should be even more careful than in the case of his own subjects to see that no harm befalls them, for strangers are deprived of all their friends and relatives.” I see no reason why this maxim should not apply to the largely Muslim refugees being resettled throughout Europe and persecuted Christians alike.
Hungary’s leadership in bringing the plight of persecuted Christians to the attention of an apathetic West should be applauded, as should the good work that Hungary Helps is doing in those critical regions. Yet these good works should not obfuscate the problematic developments of late within Hungary as they pertain to religious minorities and refugees.