Aiding Persecuted Christians a Major Focus of Hungary’s Aid Program, Official Says
Tristan Azbej also discussed with the Register Hungary’s work in the Middle East and beyond, during the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington.
Tristan Azbej, the state secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians and the Hungary Helps Program, spoke with the Register July 15 at the Embassy of Hungary in Washington, D.C., following his appearance at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit, which was held July 13-15. Azbej, 42, discussed the country’s focus on helping persecuted Christians and the success they have had in providing aid to Christians in Iraq by focusing on responding directly to the needs of the communities on the ground without intermediaries. He also discussed the challenges that Christians around the world have faced over the past year and how the coronavirus pandemic worsened the situation of persecuted minorities.
What are some of the main accomplishments of the Hungary Helps program for Christians in the Middle East?
The Hungary Helps program is Hungary’s government humanitarian-aid program, and its unique feature is that we have set one of our most important priorities to be the support for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities.
We have been running this program for four years. ... Our first regional focus area was the Middle East, especially because it was a response from our side for the atrocities that were committed by ISIS against Christians, against Yazidis, and against the people of Iraq and Syria. Later, we shifted our geographical focus to sub-Saharan Africa. Regarding the question of the Middle East, we have supported faith-based charity organizations, but more importantly, local churches in Iraq and Syria, to support those communities who are in immediate humanitarian need. And we also supported the refugee communities who had fled from Iraq and Syria into Jordan and Lebanon.
One type of support we provide is basically lifesaving humanitarian fast relief that we provide to communities that have been just victimized by terrorist attacks and other atrocities. Those are generally lifesaving, support for medicine and housing and health care and education.
The other type of support, once security has reached a certain level, we provide aid for reconstruction and rehabilitation of communities, including the infrastructure in these communities, because the whole objective of our program is not only to save the persecuted Christian communities, but save them in their homeland, to save the Christians of the Middle East in the Middle East, which is the cradle of Christianity.
We have carried out major reconstruction projects, reconstructions of housing units of hospitals, of schools and something that not many other Western governments do, the reconstruction of churches.
For example, in Lebanon, we have supported the reconstruction of 63 churches that have been damaged in the Lebanese Civil War in the 20th century. But moving on to the more recent atrocities and genocidal attacks, we have supported many major reconstruction efforts on the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, which since biblical times had been a place where Christians lived. We have worked there with the Chaldean Christians and the Syriac Christians and with the Assyrian Christians to reconstruct those towns and settlements that have been damaged by ISIS when they occupied those areas in 2014.
I could provide a long list of the communities that we have supported, but there is one such mission that stands out because it carries a special message of hope. This project is in the ancient Chaldean Catholic town that is called Teleskov. Like many other Christian towns and villages in the Nineveh Plains, it also had been occupied in 2014. Thirteen hundred families lived here, and they all had to flee from the murderous terrorists and what happened after that in Teleskov; it just shows how evil ISIS as a terrorist organization is. We have been told that the first thing that they destroyed was the cemetery, which has a symbolic meaning that they not only wanted to expel the Christians but they wanted to erase the history and the presence of Christian culture and faith in the area. After that, they used the church of Teleskov as target practice, so they completely destroyed it.
Teleskov was liberated in 2016, and because of the destruction that ISIS imposed on the town and also because of the war, 900 buildings were damaged there. This was one of our first projects, when we tested our unique approach, which is a commonsense approach.
We support the churches directly. We don’t include any intermediary, big international organizations. The donation from the Hungarian people goes directly to, in this case, Iraqi churches, and they use our donation in the most efficient way. They completely reconstructed their towns, and out of the 1,300 families, 1,000 had returned — so three-quarters of the community.
The community basically had been saved. This is a remarkable result because, in the meantime, if you look at the total number of Christians in Iraq, in 2004, there were 1.5 million, and now it’s about 200,000. So they almost disappeared; they went to less than one-fifth. Yet, with direct aid, the whole community was basically saved.
What was deeply touching was that some of the locals since then refer to that town as Teleskov, the daughter of Hungary. It is so wonderful that Hungary and the Hungarian people now have a town for themselves, spiritually speaking, in the Middle East.
We are talking about the message of Teleskov to the world because I think it carries a message of hope. And we want this to serve as an example of other, culturally speaking, Christian countries in the West.
What partnerships have you entered into in this work, and has Hungary partnered with the Vatican on anything related to the Middle East Christians?
Hungary is a small country, and we have only very recently joined those countries who are able to provide larger-scale international aid. The technical term for that is “emerging donor country”; and, of course, we have limited resources, and we are proud of our results because we have supported 250,000 Christians who suffered discrimination all around the world, but there are 340 million Christians who suffer persecution so we can only serve as an example, as an inspiration.
This is why it is very important for us to find other governments and international organizations, and it took some time to explain our concept. We had to overcome a misunderstood sense of impartiality that somehow prohibited many Western governments to work together directly with faith-based organizations and churches.
Even when we support Christian communities and churches, that has to benefit all the other communities living together with them. We had to explain this to other governments and have them accept this way of providing humanitarian aid. But besides the U.S. government, USAID, we have more and more partner governments who are engaging in such activities, like the government of Poland, Greece, Estonia, Slovenia, Croatia. Regarding the Vatican and the Holy See, what we have in this field formally, it’s not a cooperation between the Vatican and the Hungarian government, but we work together with the Catholic Church, in many ways and in many countries.
We are the first government to dedicate our humanitarian priority to supporting persecuted Christians. But I have to mention the Catholic charities and faith-based organizations that have been doing that for decades or even for a century, in some cases.
Giving one example, all of our partners are much respected, and they all deserve a mention, but we are working very much in a coordinated manner with Aid for the Church in Need, which, of course, is a papal foundation.
What are the biggest needs of Middle East Christians today?
All of our donations and everything we engage in is based on careful analysis. At our state secretariat, we have a very strong analytical team always monitoring the situation for each committee. We are working together with research institutions.
I cannot give you a general answer to that question because it varies from region to region, from community to community, as they are facing different type of hardships, but I can give you the example of Lebanon. Lebanon is facing many different challenges: the refugee challenge, economic crisis, financial crisis, political crisis, and then they also suffered the terrible disaster of the Beirut blast last year.
Whenever we start something new, we believe in personal encounters. We do humanitarian fact-finding missions.
I joined those missions many times, and we ask one simple question, “What is the most urgent need?” In the case of Lebanon, just three weeks ago, I had the great honor to talk with his Beatitude, the Maronite Patriarch [Cardinal Bechara Boutros] Rai. I asked the same question, and he explained to me that Lebanese families are in a terrible financial situation, and they don’t have the financial means to pay tuition for their children. Therefore, the Christian churches — I think more than half of the schools in Lebanon are Christian — they cannot operate and function.
In this case, they ask for support for education because if there is a family that cannot provide education for their children, then they will leave the country, and whole communities will disappear. In this case, we start to analyze the most efficient way for us to support this goal. But in the case of Mozambique, where we also work together with the Catholic Church with the Diocese of Pemba, which is in the north of Mozambique, they are suffering jihadist attacks to the genocidal level. Jihadist forces took control of one whole province in Mozambique. They are in urgent need of humanitarian relief for the internally displaced people. In that case, we provide financial contribution for medicine and housing.
What new challenges have arisen this year for persecuted Christians that you serve with the COVID pandemic?
The coronavirus pandemic has made the situation of Christian communities in need or suffering persecution even more severe, in different ways.
First, since all of the world was focusing on fighting the coronavirus and that attracted public and political attention, many terrorist organizations used the lack of attention on other issues to gain ground and commit atrocities. One example would be the aforementioned jihadist terrorist organization in northern Mozambique. Also, in many countries where Christians are faced with minority status, they were portrayed as extremist religious leaders, as the reason for the coronavirus pandemic as a punishment from the deity or God for having infidel Christians in the country.
The very severe effect on minority or threatened Christian communities was that they were suffering economic and social discrimination to begin with, and that was superimposed by the general effect of coronavirus pandemic. In some countries and some communities, the Christian communities were excluded from aid.
In Pakistan, where they are not allowed in many villages and communities to have normal jobs, they work on a daily basis, whatever physical work they can find. Because of the economic effects of coronavirus and the measures against coronavirus, they are under curfew. They couldn’t make a living so, during the first waves of coronavirus, we received heartbreaking cries for help from Christian communities from Pakistan all the way to Burkina Faso and from many countries because this discrimination, together with coronavirus, has resulted in starvation and — many cases — death. They were asking for food, and it is it is incredible that, in this age, in the 21st century, people were starving to death in otherwise [developed] countries.