The Catholic and various other Churches are turning a blind eye to the Christian-nativist populist slide in Hungary.

Driving the news

The Guardian denounced over Christmas that ultraconservative Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán is trying to turn capital Budapest “into the capital of rightwing Christian thought, an arch-conservative counterpoint to Pope Francis’s Vatican”.

Orbán has erected himself as the defender of persecuted Christians all over the world, as well as of a ‘Christian Europe’ under threat from Muslim migration.

That’s all while the PM has made homelessness a crime and perpetrated what the Hungarian Helsinki Committee human rights NGO has called “an unprecedented human rights violation in 21st-century Europe” by denying food to asylum seekers in detention camps on Hungary’s border, among other human rights violations.

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But who’s standing up to Orbán and his ultranationalist “illiberal democracy”, now under the codeword of a regime of “Christian liberty”?

Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship pastor Gábor Iványi for one, who earlier this month helped pen an “Advent Statement” against Orbán and his Church supporters modelled on the Barmen Declaration of 1934 that denounced the Nazification of German Churches.

“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”, Iványi and his co-signers deplored.

“True Christian 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”, the Advent Statement decried.

Orbán “is turning the Christian message on its head”, Iványi denounced to The Guardian.

“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”.

Why it matters

But speaking out against Orbán and his regime is precisely what Hungarian Catholic leaders are not doing, along with their Hungarian Reformed and Evangelical-Lutheran counterparts.

All were invited to sign the “Advent Statement” of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, but turned down that opportunity, The Guardian said.

That’s while Hungarian Catholic Church head Cardinal Péter Erdő devoted a Christmas sermon to complaining about how the “burden of bureaucracy weighs on the church’s welfare facilities”, as the pro-Orbán Hungary Today reported.

As that publication noted, Erdő denounced that Church welfare organisations in central and eastern Europe “are obliged to meet ‘sophisticated regulations set up by Western standards’ but without the financing provided in Western countries”.

“Over-regulation” poses challenges that religious institutions cannot meet “purely on a basis of generous helpfulness”, Hungary Today reported Erdő as saying.

But as for Erdő and other Christian leaders’ confusion of priorities, pastor Iványi told The Guardian that “the other churches should be doing far more” against Orbán.

“If they stood together for what is right, then Orbán couldn’t do the things he does”, Iványi said.

“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”.

For the record

Former vicar and British-Hungarian Alexander Faludy, whose father was a victim of Hungary’s communist regime, has a theory on why the Churches are letting themselves be co-opted by PM Orbán.

“The state funding is important of course, acting as both a carrot and a stick”, Faludy, who lives both in London and in Budapest, told The Guardian.

“But there has also been a comprehensive instrumentalisation of the churches through the power of prestige”, Faludy continued.

“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 Orbán 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 it’s a way of getting things done, for example of making sure there’s a Christian ethos in the schools’.

“From speaking to people in the churches, I think they thought they could ride the tiger”, Faludy explained.

To judge, though, from the disciplinary proceedings the EU has begun against Hungary for the country’s asylum policies, press freedom and judicial independence, the Churches aren’t doing a very good job of “riding the tiger” and providing authentic Christian witness in the Orbán era.

“At best, the Churches have chosen quietism rather than [the] prophetic vocation”, Faludy lamented.

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