The pastor versus the populist: Hungarys new faith faultline

Victor Orbn claims to run a Christian government, but one of his former allies has denounced his hate-filled regime

On the wall of Pastor Gbor Ivnyis study, in the heart of one of Budapests poorest districts, a painting depicts Moses in the wilderness, gazing towards the promised land. A gift from an American visitor, it portrays Moses as a rugged Israelite matinee idol; a Charlton Heston in the desert. It is, Ivnyi smiles, a bit kitsch.

Ivnyi himself has the look of an Old Testament prophet, dressed in black and sporting a splendid biblical white beard. But there is nothing kitsch about him. The president of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship a small Methodist offshoot which played a heroic part in the anti-communist struggles of the 1970s and 80s Ivnyi is a well-known figure in Hungarys religious landscape. Now approaching 70, he is also a controversial one.

On the first Sunday of December, together with other pastors from his church and a few like minds from different denominations, Ivnyi published an extraordinary and furious text.

Modelled on the Barmen Declaration of 1934, which denounced the Nazification of German churches through the Deutsche Christen movement, the Advent Statement rejects the claims of Hungarys prime minister, Viktor Orbn, to be running a Christian government. Orbn likes to boast that his administration, in contrast to secular equivalents in western Europe, is dedicated to a distinctive notion of Christian liberty.

Denouncing his governments centralisation of power and marginalisation of minorities, Ivnyi and his co-authors rebut that claim in passionate prose: We are calling for resistance to an arrogance of power that makes the concept of Christian liberty a slogan for exclusionary, hate-filled and corrosive policy; a power that destroys the social fabric that systematically threatens democracy and the rule of law. TrueChristian freedom is always threatened by a politics that separates and isolates. The authoritarian exercise of power is spreading around the world but especially before our eyes in Hungary. As biblical evidence, the declaration cites the Gospel of Matthew, verse 25: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me.

The European Union has initiated disciplinary proceedings against Hungary over issues relating to its asylum policies, press freedom and judicial independence. This intervention though, is in a different register altogether. And far closer to home.

Ivnyi knows Orbn well from the tumultuous days of communisms collapse, when they were on the same side. He baptised two of the prime ministers children, and when the up-and-coming politician embraced Christianity in the 1990s, he renewed Orbns marriage vows in his church. Relations have soured dramatically since then, as Ivnyi has refused to give cover to his old allys drift to the authoritarian right. In 2011, a year after Orbn was re-elected as prime minister, state funding to the Evangelical Fellowship church was withdrawn. It will certainly remain a pariah organisation after this declaration. But Ivnyi has no doubts that this needed to be done.

Pastor Gbor Ivnyi, once the prime ministers ally, now a fierce critic. Photograph: Tams Kovcs/EPA

We are ringing the alarm bell. Of course there are differences between now and the 1930s but it is the similarities we should focus on. Orbn wants to become the charismatic leader of a nationalist European right. He talks about the restoration of lands Hungary lost at Versailles after the first world war, 100 years ago. Thats dangerous. He is a child playing with something that once made Europe burn.

It is, above all, Orbns determination to present his Fidesz government as distinctively Christian that led to the Advent statement. He is turning the Christian message on its head, says Ivnyi. Is there any other Christian country in the world where it is written in the constitution that you can be jailed for being homeless? Is it a Christian country where asylum seekers are not given the basic resources they need to survive? Is it Christian to use power to abolish media freedoms, the independence of judges and academic autonomy?

In ancient Israel, the prophets spoke out against corruption and wickedness. We are now compelled to speak out. We might not be Isaiahs or Jeremiahs. But we take courage from their example.

Ivnyi is respected far beyond his own congregations by those who remember his courage before 1989. But in challenging Orbn so brazenly, he stands almost alone. Though invited to sign the declaration, the Hungarian Reformed church, the Catholic church and the Evangelical-Lutherans declined.

The other churches should be doing far more, he says. If they stood together for what is right, then Orbn couldnt do the things he does. Refugees starve at our borders. George Soros is demonised with antisemitic overtones. But no one from the churches speaks out. Jesus told his disciples: You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavour, with what shall it be salted? In Hungary, the churches should be the salt of the earth. Preaching the gospel is not a philosophical exercise.

The battle between Ivnyi and Orbn over the meaning of Christianity goes to the heart of Europes culture wars. Serving as a reboot of his original doctrine of illiberal democracy, the idea of Christian liberty is defined by Orbn as a politics of the common good, dedicated to the protection of the nations culture, values and borders. Liberal internationalism and individualism, which uproots citizens from the ties that bind, threaten this vision of warm, rooted and homogenous community. More migration, says Orbn, would destroy Europe, the way we know it today.

This type of thinking has blazed a trail for rightwing populist movements across Europe, as supposedly Christian values have been weaponised. The battlegrounds of choice have ranged from so-called gender ideology to multiculturalism, LGBT rights and abortion. And as politicians such as Orbn claim that God is on their side, liberal parishioners, priests, pastors, bishops, cardinals and ministers have faced a dilemma: speak out or stay silent about the dangers of a domineering politics that demonises minorities and outsiders.

Asurma Arab, from Afghanistan, has been in a Serbian refugee centre for two years. She had hoped to go to Hungary. Photograph: Oliver Bunic/AFP via Getty Images

The proportion of Hungarians who actually go to church each week is small. Only 12% of Catholics, for example, regularly attend services. But given the countrys communist past, the cultural reach and significance of its churches is huge. A year before being re-elected as prime minister, Orbn told supporters that he intended to construct a central political force field to keep the right in power for the coming 15 to 20 years. Part of the plan appears to be transforming Hungary into a power base for ultra-conservative Christianity.

Last year, the duty of the Hungarian state to protect the countrys Christian culture was duly enshrined in the constitution. Such exalted status comes with obligations. A few weeks ago, the new 68,000-capacity Pusks Arna opened in Budapest in November the latest and biggest stadium to be built by the football-mad prime minister. Assembled heads of the Catholic, Lutheran and other churches dutifully blessed the stadium, to the bemusement of churchgoers such as Krisztina Rakoczy, a practising Catholic in her 20s, who wryly comments: These days football is the real religion in Hungary.

November also saw church leaders attend a high-profile Budapest conference on the fate of persecuted Christians around the world. Attended by representatives of faith communities from Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere, it highlighted an issue that Orbn claims, with justification, has been neglected by western media and governments.

Hungary has established a dedicated government ministry for persecuted Christians, and through the charity, Hungary Helps, offers aid and assistance to communities in difficulty funding, for example, the restoration of hundreds of Islamic State-destroyed homes in Bakhdida, Iraqs largest Christian town.

Those deemed outside Orbns ideal community are treated with far less charity and sometimes with outright cruelty. Speaking to the conference, Orbn banged the drum on Muslim migration yet again, stating that the kind of persecution of Christians taking place in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria was closer to happening in Europe than many people think. With that in mind, Fidesz continues to resist mandatory EU migrant quotas and make life as difficult as possible for asylum seekers and refugees detained on the countrys borders. Food has allegedly been illegally withheld from asylum seekers whose claims are pending. Legislation to criminalise the act of offering assistance to asylum seekers with their applications was passed last year.

In the wake of the migration crisis of 2015, which prompted Orbn to fence off Hungarys border with Serbia, senior church figures from both the Catholic and Lutheran churches made public calls for the compassionate treatment of refugees. More recently, on migration and other social issues such as rising homophobia, the treatment of Hungarys Roma population, and the criminalising of the homeless there has been relative silence. Among liberal Christians, there is a growing sense that a moral duty is being shirked.

Alexander Faludy is a British-Hungarian former vicar who divides his time between London and Budapest. His grandfather, Gyrgy, a well-known poet, was sent to a labour camp by the communist regime. After 1989, Gyrgy returned from exile and received national acclaim as his work was at last published in Hungary. The historical dimension, Faludy believes, helps explain why Hungarys main churches have allowed themselves to be co-opted into Orbns vision.

A migrant transit zone on Hungarys southern border with Serbia, complete with razor wire and childrens play area. Photograph: Sandor Ujvari/EPA

The state funding is important of course, acting as both a carrot and a stick he says. But there has also been a comprehensive instrumentalisation of the churches through the power of prestige. The idea of participation in public life, for people who grew up under communism, when churches were systematically placed at a civil disadvantage, was very tempting. I think that in 2010 [when Orbn was re-elected prime minister] there was a sense of hope in the churches. Church leaders thought: This government may be far from perfect but its a way of getting things done, for example of making sure theres a Christian ethos in the schools. From speaking to people in the churches, I think they thought they could ride the tiger.

After 10 years in which Orbns grip on civil society has been relentlessly strengthened, Faludy says: At best, the churches have chosen quietism rather than prophetic vocation.

Dra Laborczi founded a blog for the Hungarian Lutheran church on public life. Disillusioned with the churchs timidity, she now edits an independent one called Christian culture, which attacks the intrusion of rightwing populism into Hungarys religious life. It gets exasperating dealing with all the stock phrases, she says. The aggressive polemics against refugees, the homeless, the poor, NGOs, same-sex marriage and any gender issues. The references to a Bible of Death when discussing homosexuality. Constant reference to murder when abortion comes up.

In the Lutheran church, she says, as in others, there is a fear of stepping out of line. They try to say nothing because they fear the trouble it will cause and the members they will lose. Ten years ago, the Lutheran church could have a debate about gay peoples place in the church. That wouldnt happen now. Rightwing populism dominates the church, and secular liberals are ferociously anti-religion. Christians like me often feel isolated and alone.

Laborczis husband used to be a Lutheran pastor. He works in IT now, she says. Laborczi often thinks back to a conversation with her father when she was young and Hungarys post-communist democracy was in its infancy.

Women in traditional folk dress at Christmas mass last week. Photograph: Pter Komka/EPA

My father said I was going to grow up in a free democratic society, she says. But I feel on some level Im living something similar to what he experienced when it comes to the silence and self-censorship that goes on, even if there arent any black cars arriving on doorsteps.

A 15-minute drive from the heart of Budapest, on the ragged northern periphery of the city, the House of Reconciliation has almost filled up by 9am on the second Sunday of Advent. This compact red-brick church is the centre of worship for the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship. It is a remarkable building, designed to express solidarity between the Christian and Jewish faiths. On each larchwood pew, a star of David has been carved, and on this sunny December day light streams through a large Menorah-shaped window.

One by one, members of the congregation stand up to dedicate the days service: May my sons broken wrist heal quickly, says one woman. May this lovely sunshine continue, says another to laughter. Then a third woman rises to say: May our theatres be successfully defended from the governments new legislation and may the demonstration against it succeed tomorrow.

The prayer refers to a law giving the state a role in the appointment of theatre directors. Duly passed, it defines the purpose of the arts as the protection of the interests of the nations survival, wellbeing and growth. A well-attended demonstration did take place however, and was addressed by the newly elected liberal mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karcsony. Karcsony has already given positive signals to the homeless shelter that Ivnyis church runs, and there is optimism that the battle against poverty and drug addiction in the city has a new, powerful ally.

After the service, as the congregation chats over cups of tea, a guest is introduced. Judit Rajk is a well-known classical singer and the wife of the late Lszl Rajk, an avant-garde architect who was blacklisted by the communist regime and became, more recently, a critic of Orbn. Rajk died in September and, gently prompted by Ivnyi, his wife tells a few stories about him, before saying sadly: In recent years he wasnt getting any contracts.

Filing out of the reception hall, Abel Tamas, whose wife Petra is a pastor in Ivnyis church, explains why he is also a supporter. In the 1980s, he says, there was a hope that the new Hungary would be a liberal country where human rights were a reality. That liberal tradition survives in enclaves, and this place is one of them. Tamas is Jewish. For Hungarian Jews, this community is important not just for religious reasons. We know it is a place that will stand up for human rights.

Or, as Ivnyis Advent statement puts it: We believe that Gods wisdom is reflected in our diversity and that we were all created in Gods wisdom and likeness. We want this image and likeness to be recognised and honoured in the image of the other person. We are speaking now because we sense the return of perils and shadows of the past.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/29/pastor-v-populist-viktor-orban-hungary-faith-faultline

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