Hungary's Catholics Largely Absent From Refugee Drama

Hungary's Catholics Largely Absent From Refugee Drama

11:56am Sep 30, 2015
The Catholic aid organization Caritas set up a tent to provide medical care, food and clothing to migrants and refugees at the Hungarian border with Serbia. But elsewhere in Hungary, church leaders have been hesitant to help.
The Catholic aid organization Caritas set up a tent to provide medical care, food and clothing to migrants and refugees at the Hungarian border with Serbia. But elsewhere in Hungary, church leaders have been hesitant to help.
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
  • The Catholic aid organization Caritas set up a tent to provide medical care, food and clothing to migrants and refugees at the Hungarian border with Serbia. But elsewhere in Hungary, church leaders have been hesitant to help.

    The Catholic aid organization Caritas set up a tent to provide medical care, food and clothing to migrants and refugees at the Hungarian border with Serbia. But elsewhere in Hungary, church leaders have been hesitant to help.

    Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

  • Pope Francis, shown here with Budapest's Cardinal Peter Erdo at the Vatican last year, has called on all of Europe's Catholics to take in refugees. But Erdo has said taking in refugees would amount to human trafficking.

    Pope Francis, shown here with Budapest's Cardinal Peter Erdo at the Vatican last year, has called on all of Europe's Catholics to take in refugees. But Erdo has said taking in refugees would amount to human trafficking.

    Franco Origlia / Getty Images

At a Catholic Mass at the Magyar Szentek Plébánia church, in a leafy riverside area of Budapest, there is no extra collection for refugees. No canned food drive. No charity bake sale.

This church, like many across Hungary, is caught in the middle of a debate on how to help refugees — or whether even to help at all.

Pope Francis has called on all of Europe's Catholics to take in refugees, but in Hungary, a predominantly Catholic country, church leaders have been hesitant.

The Catholic cardinal of Budapest, Peter Erdo, has said that taking in refugees would amount to human trafficking. Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, the church's top official in southern Hungary, where most migrants and refugees enter the country from Serbia or Croatia, was quoted as saying the pope "doesn't know the situation" and that Hungary is under "invasion."

The pastor of Magyar Szentek Plébánia, on the Buda side of the Danube River, echoes those views.

"The pope's guidance is for the whole world, but you have to implement it according to local realities," says the Rev. Gabor Ecsy. "Migrants don't want to live in Hungary. So we have no responsibility to try to keep them here.

"Of course," he adds, "we do follow Christ's teachings."

Ecsy is also the local director of Caritas, the Catholic charity, which for weeks had a tent set up on the Hungary-Serbia border. Caritas volunteers there have provided medical care, food and clothing to some of the tens of thousands of migrants and refugees who've streamed into Hungary in recent months.

Pope Francis, shown here with Budapest's Cardinal Peter Erdo at the Vatican last year, has called on all of Europe's Catholics to take in refugees. But Erdo has said taking in refugees would amount to human trafficking.

Pope Francis, shown here with Budapest's Cardinal Peter Erdo at the Vatican last year, has called on all of Europe's Catholics to take in refugees. But Erdo has said taking in refugees would amount to human trafficking.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

But Ecsy says he hasn't called on his parishioners in Budapest to help. It's a sensitive issue, he says. "There have been cases — a few in number — where refugees refused donations because they came under the sign of the cross," he says, shaking his head.

Many of Hungary's top Catholic officials are allied with the right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban. In recent months, Orban's government has passed new laws criminalizing border crossings and making it illegal to offer transport or certain types of shelter to migrants and refugees. He's also ordered the construction of fences along Hungary's borders with Serbia, Croatia and Romania, to keep out mostly Muslim migrants.

"Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims," Orban wrote in an op-ed in a German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, earlier this month. "This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity."

Meanwhile, Hungarian state TV, controlled by Orban's government, repeatedly airs months-old footage of Pakistani migrants chanting "Allahu akbar" — God is great — recorded at a detention facility near Debrecen, in eastern Hungary.

Across the country, especially in rural areas, church bells toll every day at noon to commemorate a 15th century battle in which Hungarian fighters expelled the Turks — Muslim invaders — from their lands. Today, Muslim migrants are emerging from the cornfields in those same rural areas, asking for refuge on a new continent.

After Mass in Budapest, parishioners discuss their country's relationship with Islam.

"In Hungary, we don't have many Muslims. In Catholic Poland, they don't have them, either," says Daniel Nemeti, 53, who holds a master's degree from the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "In Hungarian history, we were devastated for 150 years by the Ottoman Empire. So it's in our genes to be very cautious about the Islamic faith."

Many here say they take Pope Francis' suggestions to heart. But Nemeti says he has mixed feelings.

"Of course, I sympathize. They are running for their lives," he says of the migrants and refugees. "But on the other hand, I would expect that our guests behave like normal people. Behaviors like not being ready to identify yourself, like leaving a lot of waste after you, shows that their socialization is totally different from ours."

Nemeti is talking about filthy conditions at Hungary's migrant detention centers. Human rights groups say Hungary failed to provide adequate facilities — not enough food, water and sanitation. But some Hungarians blame the refugees themselves, calling them uncivilized and dirty.

The far-right Jobbik party — the second-biggest in Hungary's parliament — has introduced a bill calling for asylum-seekers to be quarantined from Hungarians, because, it says, they carry dangerous diseases. Hungarian police wear surgical masks while working in refugee camps.

As parishioners stream out of church, I ask if anyone is donating money to refugees. Hungarians have been organizing on social media, to buy train tickets for refugees who want to get to Germany.

"No — I try to avoid the train station altogether, since those people invaded the place," says a woman named Cili, who didn't want to give her last name because she says she knows her views are extremist. She's come to church with her two young children.

Another man, Akosh Namash, says he's not donating either.

"I don't think so. Hungarians would also like to work in Germany or England!" he says, rolling his eyes.

Instead of these Catholics, other religious groups are helping where they can. Hungary's small Baptist community has been raising money for refugees. An interfaith group is working in the south. And a local mosque is providing food to migrants at Budapest's train station.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Catholics in Hungary face a challenge. Refugees are flowing into their country and Pope Francis wants all of Europe's Catholics to take them in. But Hungarian Catholics are reluctant to follow the pope. One Hungarian bishop was quoted saying the pope is wrong. Lauren Frayer reports from Budapest.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: At a Catholic church in a leafy riverside area of Budapest, there is no extra collection for refugees, no canned food drives nor charity bake sale. This church, like many across Hungary is caught in the middle of a debate over how to help refugees - or whether to even help at all. The priest here is Gabor Ecsy.

GABOR ECSY: (Through interpreter) The pope's guidance is for the whole world, but you have to implement it according to local realities. Migrants don't want to live in Hungary, so we have no responsibility to keep them here. Of course we do follow Christ's teachings.

FRAYER: Father Ecsy is also the local director of Caritas, the Catholic charity, which has a tent set up on the Hungary-Serbia border. Caritas volunteers there provided medical care, food and clothing to some of the tens of thousands of migrants and refugees who streamed into Hungary before soldiers closed the border. But Ecsy says he hasn't called on his parishioners to help. It's a sensitive issue, he says.

ECSY: (Through interpreter) There have been cases, a few in number, where refugees refused donations because they came under the sign of the cross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Allahu akbar.

FRAYER: Hungarian state TV airs months-old footage of Pakistani migrants chanting Allahu akbar - God is great - recorded at a detention facility near Debrecen in eastern Hungary. The right-wing prime minister says Hungary must protect its 1,000-year-old Christian character under threat from Muslim immigration. Parishioner Daniel Nemeti says Muslim migrants have habits inferior to those of Hungarians.

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 ours.

FRAYER: He's talking about filthy conditions at Hungary's overflow camps. Human rights groups say the government here failed to provide adequate facilities - food and water, sanitation. But some Hungarians blame the refugees themselves, calling them uncivilized and dirty.

The far-right Jobbik party, the second biggest in Parliament, has introduced a bill calling for asylum-seekers to be quarantined from Hungarians because, it says, they carry dangerous diseases. As the faithful stream out of church, I asked if anyone has donated money. Hungarians have been organizing on social media to buy train tickets for refugees who want to get to Germany.

CILI: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "No, I try to avoid the train station altogether since those people invaded the place," says a woman named Cili. She says she knows her views are extremist so she didn't want to give her last name. Another man, Akosh Namash, says he's not donating either.

AKOSH NAMASH: I don't think so. Hungarians also would like to work in Germany or in England.

FRAYER: Instead, Hungary's small Baptist community is raising money for refugees. An interfaith group is working in the south. And a local mosque is providing food to migrants at Budapest's train station. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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