Hungarian church embraces government push against refugees

Hungarian church embraces government push against refugees
Orban has sought the church's blessing for his vicious campaign against refugees
By Blanka Zoldi in Brussels November 18, 2016

Xenophobia has grown to an all-time high in Hungary. Today, 58% of Hungarians say they fear or hate strangers, compared to 39% in July last year, a survey by pollster Tarki released on November 17 showed.

The rise of such prejudice has been especially notable in Central & Eastern Europe compared with the EU average. Hungary, however, stands out from its regional peers not only for the length and depth of the government’s harsh anti-immigrant campaign, but also the ruling Fidesz party's close relations with the Catholic Church in waging the fight against Muslim refugees.

Pope Francis argued in the midst of the height of the influx into Europe in September 2015 that Catholics around the globe have a moral obligation to help those fleeing their homes. The church’s spiritual leader for Southern Hungary, however, was quick to disagree with his boss.

"The pope doesn’t know the situation," Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo told the Washington Post. "They are not refugees, this is an invasion,” he spluttered. The man of faith explained he is “in total agreement” with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has viciously attacked any hint that Hungary could welcome migrants from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan.

The church has issued no official statement or offered any guidelines regarding the topic ever since. It also failed to protest the government’s campaign to spread hate against refugees ahead of a referendum on the EU's migrant quotas that was held last month.

“Fidesz does not want to educate voters. There was some vacillation from the church ahead of the campaign, but finally it only followed and reinforced the sentiment created by politics among believers,” Ambrus Kiss, an analyst at Policy Agenda, tells bne IntelliNews.

Orban – a Calvinist himself – has long sought to leverage religion to help his political career. He founded Fidesz in 1988 as a youthful libertarian and anti-communist party. However, the party soon realised it needed a “pragmatic turn” in order to offer a viable alternative to the Hungarian Socialist Party, which won the elections in 1994, the second free election after the fall of communism.  

“Orban has always been good at political tactics. He realised that the conservative centre-right remained without a leader, and he moved the party there,” suggest Geza Laborczi, a Lutheran pastor and former MP. The Hungarian church was also trying to find its place following the suffocating communist years.

That made it a good match for Orban, he asserts. "From Fidesz’ political point of view, this process is understandable. From a religious point of view, however, it is questionable whether a church can tie itself to a political party. In a liberal democracy, it surely should not,” Laborczi says.

Fidesz consciously chose to cooperate with the church, which helped the party to come to power in 1998. “While the political left was seen as anti-clerical, the political right said that it would protect the church,” Kiss says. The collaboration with the ruling party soon manifested itself in increased financial support from the government for the church, he adds.

Although only 37% of Hungarians belong to the Catholic Church according to a census in 2011, religion has a prime role in Hungary's numerous rural villages. Voters there are the primary base for Fidesz. "Priests are one of the most important opinion leaders,” in such areas, Kiss says.

When Fidesz came to power for the second time in 2010, it formed a coalition with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP). The minor party has a minimal electoral base, but helps enhance the ruling party's religious credentials.

The government has also added a clause in the constitution that emphasizes "the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood,” introduced religious education as part of the curriculum and set up a Deputy State Secretary Office Against the Persecution of Christians around the world. Presenting Hungary as the last bastion defending Christianity during the refugee crisis produces a mixture of religion and nationalism that proves heady in the country that defeated Ottoman occupiers in the 17th century.

However, specific policy has been less successful. The Sunday shopping ban, introduced in 2015 by Fidesz, apparently driven by reasons of faith, was hugely unpopular and scrapped within a year. The party's religious supporters are also increasingly disappointed by the government’s inability to decrease poverty in rural areas, as well as the increasing number of corruption scandals surrounding officials, according to a survey conducted by Republikon Intezet.

At the same time, the government is unlikely to be significantly challenged by the church or its believers, observers suggest.

“The outstretched hands of Fidesz help to maintain the reality it creates,” Kiss says. The refugee crisis has shown that “the word of a local village priest can be stronger than the Pope’s”.

Istvan Gegeny, a catholic religion teacher and chief editor of the blog SZEMlelek, claims the church doesn’t actively support the government's campaign against refugees. “We rather see a mixture of division, fear and passive resignation in its statements and non-statements," he asserts. "If an organization wants to exist and develop in our country, it considers twice whether to voice criticism against a government that concentrates all power.”