Zoltán Németh is a Roman Catholic priest in the town of Körmend (population: 12,400), located directly on the border with Austria. Fr. Németh did what would not raise a single eyebrow in western Europe, nor in North America: he simply offered basic help to a handful of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, giving them shelter in a building owned by his parish. The refugees were primarily Syrian Christians who had been housed at a nearby refugee camp in damp, cold tents, in the dead of winter. Fr. Németh intervened and decided to provide temporary housing to refugees next to his parish’s rectory. During the summer, the building is used as part of a youth camp, but it sits empty in the winter months. With lay volunteers working on the front line with the refugees, the pastor simply opened up space for a dozen or so asylum-seekers. The laity did the rest.
Three days later, the pastor is mulling whether to resign from the parish, after vicious verbal attacks from some parishioners and non-Catholics alike, and following almost no support from the Catholic Church of Hungary in general. A blog entitled SZEMLélek published an insightful interview with Fr. Németh, who said the following:
“Even those who do not attend church offered different types of assistance, in order to help those in need. At the moment we turn down all offers of financial assistance, as we do not currently need this. A few local teenagers asked to meet with the refugees and this was made possible not too long ago. The fears about the foreigners being sick or contagious are baseless. As I see it, they follow a healthier lifestyle than the average person and they are very careful not to catch something. We are the targets of plenty of criticism, even from churchgoers–some of whom labelled us as Soros-lackeys. The population in the town is divided on this subject and there are some who are slandering us. Our young chaplain for instance was cursed. These are strikes below the belt. We have the task of knocking down terribly high walls. Many of our faithful are harboring immense fear.”
The terribly high walls that Fr. Németh speaks about demolishing were erected by the current Fidesz government. Hungarian society, certainly when compared to other countries in the region, was broadly speaking fairly open to people of different backgrounds until relatively recently. In fact, a study by Tárki noted that in 1992–just two years after the fall of single party rule in Hungary–only 15% of Hungarians were xenophobic. In 2016, this proportion exploded to 58%, due in no small part to a government-sanctioned hate campaign against all refugees. A second study by Závecz Research found that a growing number of Hungarians don’t “only” dislike Muslims and foreigners, but they are suspicious of anyone who is different, or seen as “other.” For instance, 79% of Hungarians would not allow an Arab to move into their neighbourhood, while 65% do not want to live next to a Syrian Christian. Fully 55% would rather not have a homosexual as a neighbour, 53% want to keep the Chinese away and 50% of Hungarians would be unhappy if an American moved in close by. Furthermore, 43% of Hungarians want to keep Jews out their neighbourhood and one fourth of Hungarians would not want Translyvanian Hungarians as neighbours either. The proportion of Hungarians who want to keep the Roma out of their neighbourhoods stands at 68%.
“It is increasingly difficult to defend the claim that we are not xenophobes,” said Fr. Németh, and then added: “Austria is but an arm’s length away, yet the contrast is striking. We were able to engage in meaningful, calm dialogue with the minister responsible for refugees and migrants. I would be very happy to get support and reassurance from the leaders of our Church. But perhaps I am not fulfilling my duties appropriately and if this is the case, then I should consider resigning from the parish.”
Fr. Németh added that there are national and international precedents for church communities leading these grassroots initiatives to help those in need.
“The desire to offer help appeared in 1989 too, when East Germans were fleeing west. At the time, Hungarian authorities turned to us, the Church, for help–but, of course, they did so quietly–in order to support these people. I have been to South America, including to Argentina,and it is now easier for to understand the Pope’s enthusiasm for inclusion. Our hosts were poor people, who went barefoot, yet they roasted a pig for us, in our honour. In Paraguay, during breakfasts, the President of the Republic would show up without any fanfare. Later, he would invite the Hungarian delegation to his offices. It is this culture of inclusion that drives Pope Francis,” remarked Fr. Németh.
And it is this culture of inclusion that has been all but stamped out of Hungary in recent years.