Church in Eastern Europe has a chance to improve its refugee record

Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine has so far forced some two million people, including one million children, to flee the country, and many more have been internally displaced. . The numbers could be far larger than those of the 2015 refugee crisis, in which families fleeing the Syrian civil war left for Hungary and other European countries. But in the current rush to help refugees, countries should learn from past responses. Above all, it is a chance for the Catholic Church of Hungary, whose government has vociferously opposed accepting refugees in the past, to correct its mixed record in the fight against xenophobia.

This is a chance for the Catholic Church in Hungary, whose government has vocally opposed accepting refugees in the past, to redress its mixed record in combating xenophobia.

In 2015, images of exhausted refugees locked in Budapest’s city center train station went viral. The Budapest city government said it was following European Union law in preventing refugees from traveling to Germany, where they hoped to seek asylum. However, the repeated alarmist campaigns of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who claimed that Germany’s liberal stance on welcoming refugees was at the root of the crisis, made it clear that the harsh treatment in Budapest was meant mean that refugees were not welcome in Europe. Consequently, many heard Pope Francis’ words about embracing diversity during his visit to Budapest last year as a veiled criticism of the Hungarian government for not doing more to accommodate the poor and marginalized. Yet almost all of Hungary’s bishops have been silent on the government’s decision to erect an anti-migrant barbed wire fence on its border with Serbia.

There are reports of ordinary Hungarian citizens traveling to the Ukrainian border with food, but Aiski Ryökäs of Hungary’s Migrant Solidarity Group urges people not to travel to crisis areas: “Professionals on the field know what people need and can provide for them. those who need it quickly from local sources. Aid professionals who were on the ground in 2015 also warn of a repeat of the chaos that ensued when well-meaning activists from neighboring countries ended up hampering an effective response in Hungary. (For one thing, they can take up space in hotels, dormitories, and private homes that can accommodate refugees.) Donations to Caritas-Hungary from the Catholic Church, which coordinates with Caritas-Ukraine, will provide help for families at the border, many of whom wait a day or more to cross.

Many heard Pope Francis’ words about embracing diversity during his visit to Budapest last year as a veiled criticism of the Hungarian government for not doing more to accommodate the poor and marginalized.

The Hungarian government is now declaring a commitment to European and Catholic values ​​on welcoming refugees, which has led Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to express hope that there will be a change wider and more sustainable in the treatment of displaced persons. But we shouldn’t be too quick to believe that things have changed: even reports on the refugee crisis can reflect a political agenda. Hungary’s right-wing government has spent a decade buying up media and forcing them to repeat its messages, and in the current crisis it has launched a new strategy to restore its image in Western media.

Alex Faludy, a freelance Hungarian journalist, told me that the Hungarian government had invited freelance and permanent journalists with regular signings in British media like The Spectator and the online magazine UnHerd for one-on-one meetings with senior Hungarian officials. level. Efforts to woo opinion makers in Western Europe are already bearing fruit, swelling coverage of Hungarian refugee aid and its commitment to NATO. But Zalán Zubor, a journalist writing for the independent news site Átlátszó, revealed that the Hungarian state media continued to run articles wrongly calling Ukraine “an aggressor” and even calling on “Hungary to support the division of Ukraine”.

The international community should ensure that the Hungarian government continues to provide assistance to all refugees, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

Alexis Okeowo, writing in The New Yorker, also pointed to the hypocrisy of Hungary’s rapidity in taking in refugees from a country perceived to be white and Christian and asked, “Will the war in Ukraine mean anything? for the other refugee crisis in Europe, for refugees who are not white, maybe not Christian, but who are also in need? But those who flee the fighting are not a monolith. The Roma minority in Ukraine, for example, is also being displaced to countries where Roma have often suffered racial discrimination.

So even if the Hungarian government provides much-needed help, the real test will come in the weeks and months to come. If the conflict continues and the refugees seek asylum in the countries where they have lived (as required by EU law), the international community should ensure that the Hungarian government continues to provide aid, including administrative support for asylum applications, to all refugees, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

It also means that Hungary should ensure the material well-being of Roma refugees, as well as their fundamental right to religious and cultural recognition while they live in the country. Catholics can hold the Hungarian Church accountable for the promises it has made to translate the Mass into the Roma language and to respond to the needs of the Roma community, especially after Pope Francis’ 2019 call for revolutionary action to fight against racism against this community.

The world is discovering that Ukraine mirrors the entire Eastern European region in its ethnic and religious diversity, including a large international population. Catholics should follow Pope Francis’ example in urging the Catholic Church in the region to do everything in its power to celebrate diversity and foster acceptance.