As Europe’s leaders (minus the UK) meet in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, the voice of the Eastern bloc* leaders is being heard more, even if it’s not always comfortable listening for Brussels’ Eurocrats.
This week, Hungary, which has during the past year come under pressure for its handling of Europe’s mass migration crisis, has become the first government to open an office specifically to address the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Europe.
“Today, Christianity has become the most persecuted religion, where out of five people killed [for] religious reasons, four of them are Christians,” Catholic News Agency (CNA) quoted Hungary’s Minister for Human Capacities, Zoltan Balog, as saying. “In 81 countries around the world, Christians are persecuted, and 200 million Christians live in areas where they are discriminated against. Millions of Christian lives are threatened by followers of radical religious ideologies.”
Today, Christianity has become the most persecuted religion.
The move sets a precedent on the international stage. It comes after Hungary’s right-wing conservative Prime Minister, Victor Orban, drew criticism in the EU by saying Europe should focus on helping Christians, before helping millions of “Islamic people” coming into Europe.
“If we really want to help, we should help where the real problem is… We should first help the Christian people before Islamic people,” Orban said.
Orban’s government has campaigned against an EU plan to spread some of the burden of the influx of migrants and refugees by requiring member states to accept quotas: he’s called a referendum on 2 October at which voters are expected overwhelmingly to back the government and reject any future quotas.
A ‘political war’
The launch of a government office directly concerned with Christian suffering comes at a time when Europe is divided between what Orban calls an “EU elite” and those, like him, who want to hold on to Europe’s Christian roots.
“The political war based on the topic of migration is a great opportunity for both parties. For the [EU elite], it is a great chance to destroy the Europe that is based on the conception of Christianity and nationality; to completely alter the ethnic-based foundations of the EU,” Orban said. “[The elite] know that Muslims will never vote for a party with Christian roots, so with the huge volume of Muslims, the conservative parties will be crowded out of power. But this war is also a great opportunity for the supporters of the nation states with Christian roots.”
Since Germany in 2015 signalled its “open-door” policy (equally driven by Christian teaching) to refugees fleeing warzones in Syria, close to 1.5 million people have arrived in Germany to seek asylum. Many travelled through “the Balkan route”, though Hungary has now erected a fence on its southern borders with Serbia and Croatia.
Hungary’s new office will have a starting budget of US$3.35 million. Minister Balog said it is of the “utmost importance” to help persecuted Christians, to raise international awareness of their “untenable situation” and to coordinate humanitarian efforts.
In Iraq, a Christian population estimated at more than a million before the 2003 war – and considerably more prior to that – today stands at less than 300,000. Many displaced from Iraq’s Nineveh Plains after the 2014 ‘Islamic State’ offensive currently seek a permanent home in the West.
In Syria, a similar situation has developed since the country’s civil war started five years ago. Other countries in the region have seen a haemorrhaging of indigenous Christianity with the resurgence of Islam as a political ideology since the last century.
Iraq ranks second on Open Doors’ 2016 World Watch List, a list of 50 countries where Christians come under the most pressure, while Syria is fifth. In almost 40 of the 50 countries, Islam either predominates or Islamist non-state actors (e.g. militias) are at work.
Somehow the idea of defending Christians has acquired a bad taste.
The Hungarian government will spend the coming weeks working out the exact duties of the new department, though it will have a primarily humanitarian focus, said Eduard von Habsburg, the Hungarian ambassador to the Holy See.
The decision to launch the new department came after PM Orban and Minister Balog travelled to Rome in August to meet Pope Francis.
Part of the reason for going public now with the initiative is to set an example for other European nations.
“Somehow the idea of defending Christians has acquired a bad taste in Europe, as if it means excluding other people,” von Habsburg said, and the Hungarian initiative is intended to show it doesn’t have to be that way, Catholic news sources reported.
Contacts in Rome
Orban and Balog, respectively a Protestant layman and a Calvinist pastor, were the only non-Catholic members of the group whom Pope Francis received in a private audience in August.
Von Habsburg said that government officials’ interactions with leading European churchmen, such as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, and with the patriarchs of the Middle East, also contributed to the decision to form the agency.
Meanwhile, Balog confirmed that he and Orban had met with Christian leaders from the Middle East in Rome. Among the participants were Syriac Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of Antioch, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai of Antioch, Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and Bishop Gabriel of the Coptic Orthodox Church, CNA reported.
“Our interest not only lies in the Middle East but in forms of discrimination and persecution of Christians all over the world,” Balog said. “It is therefore to be expected that we will keep a vigilant eye on the more subtle forms of persecutions (sic) within European borders.”
*The Visegrad group of Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.