In Hungary, Churches Are Conspicuously Silent On Migrants

In Hungary, Churches Are Conspicuously Silent On Migrants

11:20am Sep 13, 2015

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A record number of migrants poured across the Hungarian border overnight. They're making a push to cross before Hungary finishes building a 13-foot high fence along its border with Serbia. Pope Francis has called on Europe's Catholics to support and house migrants, but in Hungary, church leaders have been hesitant. One Hungarian bishop was even quoted as saying, "the pontiff is wrong" and that migrants are, quote, "invading his country." Reporter Lauren Frayer attended a Catholic mass this morning. She joins us now from Budapest.

Lauren, were people talking about this? Was the migrant crisis part of the service today?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Well, Hungary's churches are holding a special day of prayer tomorrow for Christians who've been displaced by conflict throughout the world. But at the church I visited in a leafy area of Buda, on the western bank of the Danube, there was no mention of migrants, no canned food drive, no special prayers offered. I did talk to parishioners afterward, including this man. His name is Daniel Nemeti.

DANIEL NEMETI: I feel very mixed. Of course, I think there is no Hungarian who thinks we shouldn't have refugees. But behaviors like not being ready to identify yourself, like leaving a lot of waste after you shows that their socialization is totally different from our own.

FRAYER: And he's reacting to footage he's seen on TV - and you may have seen it, too - of absolutely filthy conditions at migrant detention centers in Hungary. Human rights groups say Hungary is not providing adequate facilities, not enough food and water, not enough sanitation. But Hungarian state TV, which is allied with the right-wing government, has blamed migrants and refugees for the condition of the camps, cast them as uncivilized with dirty habits. And that's what this man seems to believe. Another woman I talked to said, yes, she's heard the pope's call to take in refugees, but she said the pope isn't here. He doesn't understand what Hungary is dealing with.

MARTIN: Houses of worship are usually really quick to mobilize in disasters or humanitarian crises. Do you see that happening there? Are churches volunteering to help?

FRAYER: Actually, church groups have been conspicuously absent from relief efforts here in Hungary. I was at Budapest's Keleti station, where a mosque is providing food for the tens of thousands of migrants streaming through that station. Medical students are providing care. Civilians are organizing on social media to buy train stations and hand them out.

The Catholic charity Caritas is helping on the Serbian border, but, overall, the church has been absent, at least in official capacity. And part of that is the controversy you mentioned - the mixed signals coming from church leaders. Part of it is also the role of churches in Hungary. This was a communist country for more than forty years. It's not very religious. Churches don't play a role in charity the way they do, at least in the United States.

Also, the Catholic church here has been conservative, and many church leaders support the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Now, he's accused migrants of breaking Hungarian law. He talks about an invasion of illegal migrants. He doesn't use the word refugees. And some church leaders have done the same.

MARTIN: There are new laws that are supposed to take effect in Hungary this coming week, I understand. And the very act of being a migrant or helping migrants will be made into a law - criminalized. Can you tell us about those?

FRAYER: Yeah. So on Tuesday, new laws go into effect that make it illegal to enter Hungary without a visa. So migrants from the Middle East or Africa won't be allowed to enter, and if they do - scrambling over a barbed wire fence, say - they'll be arrested. And that's even if they do intend to ask for asylum. Now, already it's illegal to house migrants in your home or transport them - so give them up to the border, for example. And those laws are meant to target smugglers, but they're also discouraging civilians from helping. So people who would otherwise be charitable and want to help, it makes them think twice because they could be persecuted. Some say that's what the government here wants. And for churches, in particular, these laws leave them in a bind because they could risk their nonprofit status if they're prosecuted for aiding and abetting criminals.

MARTIN: Reporter Lauren Frayer from Hungary. Thanks so much for talking with us, Lauren.

FRAYER: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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