Tamás Török, the former Hungarian chargé d’affaires to Italy and current head of the Hungarian government’s sub-secretariat for persecuted Christians, spoke exclusively with the Register recently about the latest activities of this unique department. He also shared his perspectives on the current immigration and refugee situation in Europe and the Middle East.
Can you tell the Register about some of the activities (visits, guests and donations, statistics about families helped) carried out since the foundation of the Deputy State Secretariat for the Aid of Persecuted Christians last year?
We have been working hard since the foundation of our department last October on raising awareness of this severe issue, as well as to identify how to best help those affected by Christian persecution. Hungary has long been committed to this job; it has co-financed the building of a school in Erbil, for instance.
Patriarch Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and Father Henri Boulad, an Egyptian Jesuit of world fame from Alexandria, have been hosted by our Deputy State Secretariat and have delivered testimonials to numerous audiences at the Catholic University of Budapest.
It is of utmost importance that there remain Christians in the cradle of Christianity, where they have been present for 2,000 years. Relocation to the West is, therefore, not an option to the Church leaders.
In order to study the situation of the persecuted Churches on the spot, State Secretary Mr. Bence Rétvári and myself visited Iraq in January and had meetings with the leaders of the Chaldean, the Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic Church as well as the Assyrian Church of the East.
Apart from the particular visits, in January we organized an international conference for NGOs dedicated to the research and documentation of Christian persecution. Among the participants were: Aid to the Church in Need, ADF International, International Christian Concern, Open Doors, Observatory, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Christian Solidarity International. A joint declaration was also accepted by a number of participants at the end of the conference.
Recently, 1 billion HUF ($3.9 million) was donated by your department to Catholic and Orthodox charities to help Christians and other religions in Iraq and Lebanon. Why was the money given? Why is it important to help Christians in the Middle East?
As a result of the visits and discussions, the Hungarian government approved a 1 million-euro pledge to each of these two Churches to support their humanitarian activities at home and in Lebanon. Furthermore, Hungary will contribute to the rebuilding of the city of Telsqof in northern Iraq.
As far as your question on why it all is important for Hungary, the answer is simple: It is a duty for us to help our Christian brothers in need. Not only to perform charitable works, but also because of a worry for the overall future of our values and identity.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó has called on the U.N. to establish “administrative zones” in the Middle East, so Christian asylum-seekers can return to the region in safety. Does your department support this idea, and why?
What Mr. Szijjártó says has been confirmed by the Church leaders we’ve met; it is a priority for them to remain in their homelands. The idea of creating these safe zones has, therefore, been backed up by them from the beginning.
Under the U.N.’s resolution on freedom of religion (A/HRC/RES/22/20), these people have the right for effective protection when practicing their religion, also in community and in public. The international community must assure — in line with U.N.’s resolution No. 64/162 — that displaced Middle-Eastern Christians can return safely and with dignity to their homes, once the conflict from which they have fled is over and the area is fully liberated. The establishment of administrative zones can guarantee freedom and security.
Has the Hungarian government requested the International Criminal Court to look at the issue of anti-Christian persecution, in order to bring cases to court?
On Dec. 12, 2016, the Hungarian National Assembly passed a resolution which condemns the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities by Daesh [Islamic State] as genocide. The resolution was voted for unanimously by all five parties in the parliament. We are presenting this to the International Criminal Court, and we would like them to take legal action against the terrorists and perpetrators of this genocide.
What was the reaction from European Union and international leaders to the news that the Hungarian government has established the new department to help persecuted Christians?
There have been many positive reactions. Some politicians in the European Parliament have been trying to keep this topic on the agenda for years. Finally, early last year, the European Union condemned ISIS for committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities.
And, ultimately, Jan Figel has been appointed as the European Parliament’s special envoy for freedom of religion. We have now finally come to a situation in which nobody denies the existence of this problem within the European Parliament. This raises the hopes for possible joint action.
Do you know of other countries who will establish similar departments?
Not to our knowledge, no. Hungary’s initiative has set the example, and we hope that other governments will follow.
Secular and religious human-rights groups agree that Christians are the most persecuted group in the world. Why do you think this is the case?
In many parts of the world, Christians are not only persecuted for their faith, but for being identified with the West. There is a message in targeting Christians — and the message is: “We are targeting the West.” The Western world interfering with the politics of the Middle East is one of the causes that has led to this current situation. At the same time, continuing secularism in the Western world has led to an amnesia of its Christian roots.
Has the new Hungarian Constitution, introduced in 2012, been a motivation for the government to help persecuted Christians?
Yes, our new constitution starts with the first sentence of our national anthem — i.e., “God bless the Hungarians.” It goes on by acknowledging our first king — St. Stephen’s — merits in making Hungary part of Christian Europe 1,000 years ago and reaffirms the importance of the family and the nation, as well as fidelity, faith and love as principal values of our coexistence.
It upholds the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman and the right to life from the moment of conception. It recognizes the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood and also states that we have a general duty to help the vulnerable and the poor. Hungary has had to endure a number of attacks for this pro-life, pro-Christianity constitution, which has but made us stronger and even more determined in our vow to protect Christianity.
Hungary has taken a clear position against allowing people claiming to be refugees from entering the country. Why has the government taken this position?
Hungary is respecting the international law on the refugee question. We, however, need to make a distinction between refugees and economic immigrants. Hungary has a moral obligation to protect its own citizens, and also by European law, it must ensure that no one can enter illegally or in an uncontrolled way the territory of the European Union; which, under the Schengen Treaty, has removed internal border controls. In view of the terrorist attacks committed against civilians in many parts of Europe, this priority has gained even more momentum. An uncontrolled and unregulated form of migration is exposing Europe’s citizens to direct threats.
Do you think it is contradictory to support persecuted Christians in the Middle East but not allow refugees to enter Hungary?
As our prime minister said in a radio interview once, “Help must be taken there, rather than the problems being brought here.” This means that the problems must be medicated on the spot. Besides, Hungary is not the first safe country the refugees enter, regardless if they enter Europe from the Greek Peninsula or Sicily. All requests for refugee status duly submitted in Hungary are assessed, and all those who qualify for refugee status are granted entry separately.
In terms of Christians, however, we are talking of communities that have lived in their ancient homelands for nearly 2,000 years and are now facing eradication for the sole reason of their faith.
Who has caused the “refugee crisis,” and what is the solution?
This, of course, is an extremely complex issue, which cannot be boiled down to one or two factors. There are certainly issues such as climate change and social/economic issues that prompted a lot of people to leave their homelands. And, of course, there are the ongoing civil wars in the Middle East and Africa, which also have a number of different causes.
Do you think President Trump will be supportive of Hungary’s efforts to help persecuted Christians, compared to Barack Obama?
We truly hope that the Trump administration will be more supportive of persecuted Christian minorities. There is already progress in the United States in this matter that indicates this. A bill titled “Save Christians From Genocide Act” was introduced to the House of Representatives on Jan. 13, 2017, by [California] Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, with the aim of achieving recognition for the genocide that plagues Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Iran and Libya.
Do you have any comments to make about the U.K. leaving the EU, in relation to your department’s work? Would Hungary leaving the E.U. make it easier to support persecuted Christians?
Whether being part of a larger community or not, defending the rights of Christians for religious freedom is not an easy task. We fear that Europe may further weaken and become even less able to represent its values. Hungary is committed, as part of the European Union, to defending the values that have shaped Europe’s unique, beautiful but fragile culture — a culture that is deeply rooted in Christianity. May God help us persevere in our efforts to continue acting so!
Daniel Blackman writes from London.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated Aug. 23 to accurately reflect the former role of Török.
He took up ambassadorial responsibilities for a period time, but was not officially the ambassador.