Keynote Speeches of the International Consultation On Christian Persecution,
Budapest, 11–13 October 2017*
Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of the discovery of the dead body of the beheaded Syriac Orthodox Vicar, Father Paulos Iskander in Mosul. His kidnappers had demanded 350,000 dollars for his freedom. Yet, two days later it was only his beheaded body that his followers discovered.
His death triggered the start of a new period of Christian persecution, which has since then become prevalent. It was the first moment of an era in which the Middle East has fallen apart through wars, leaving behind destroyed churches, defeated Christian communities, along with murdered, tortured and persecuted families.
The scale of this humanitarian disaster is well substantiated by the opinions of international organisations focusing on the freedom of religion. In their understanding, Christians are the most affected denomination by religious persecution, experiencing negative discrimination. They are exposed to some form of persecution in 80 countries.
We cannot speak about humanity or humanism if we turn away and close our eyes to the largest ever religious persecution in history. Yet, we have to be honest to state that Christian persecution does not only affect others, but it leaves its mark on us too. It is not only against our brothers and sisters in faith, since these tragedies reach far beyond themselves. They are global processes that are threatening the whole of Europe.
They concern Christianity and the existence of Europe and, more specifically, Hungary too. As a matter of fact, it is about the maintenance of the fundamental values of Christianity, its ideology and culture, and that of democracy and diversity.
I would like to draw our friends’ attention from the Middle East to the Paris Statement titled ”A Europe We Can Believe In”. Conservative Christian intellectuals, thinkers and scholars like Roger Scruton or Rémi Brague, and Hungarian philosopher András Lánczi took part in the issuance of a proclamation, saying: “The true Europe has been marked by Christianity. The universal spiritual empire of the Church brought cultural unity to Europe, but did so without political empire. The autonomy of what we call civil society became a characteristic feature of European life. Moreover, the Christian Gospel does not deliver a comprehensive divine law, and thus the diversity of the secular laws of the nations may be affirmed and honoured without threat to our European unity.”
Those attentive to the Gospel will definitely spot some hints of connections with another world religion. Yet, this one considers the religious and civil order, along with the state order, as one. It is interpreted by some of its adherents, unfortunately, as rendering public violence indispensable for the spread and enforcement of its tenets.
The proclamation of Conservative Christian intellectuals continues: “It is no accident that the decline of Christian faith in Europe has been accompanied by renewed efforts to establish political unity – an empire of money and regulations, covered with sentiments of pseudo-religious universalism, that is being constructed by the European Union.” And here special emphasis goes to the part “sentiments of pseudo-religious universalism”.
His Excellency, Ignatius Aphrem II, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch already paid a visit to Hungary in February 2017 to deliver a speech titled “Is There a Future for Christians in the Middle East?”
It was a touching speech that did not let me abandon the question whether indeed there is a future for Christians in Europe either. As the Prime Minister has said, on the one hand, they have to face physical destruction, on the other hand, there is mental and spiritual aggression. And, partly inspired by my religious roots, this is what makes me self-critically speak about mental and spiritual emptiness.
Once we stand by Christians in the Middle East we might as well say – with a pinch of irony or self-irony – that we do so for reasons of pure self-egoism. We do so in our own interest. As a matter of fact, your suffering that makes you come to us also provides us with the opportunity to renew things. To renew the Christian foundations of Europe, whose values so much need to be appreciated here in Hungary, too. Because the freedom of pursuing a lifestyle that has been culturally created by Christianity is a great value as it is. Your situation clearly confirms this. It opens our eyes to see what it means to keep the faith.
Whatever we read about in Europe cannot compare in severity to what you have to face. The University of Oxford which had been founded by a bishop, chose a patron saint for one of its Colleges in 1962. It is Saint Catherine of Alexandria. In one of the dormitories of the College, on the occasion of the regular charity fair, the Christian students’ community was asked not to take part or not to give a mention of their being Christian so as to avoid the provocation of others or hurting their feelings.
This might serve as a historical symbol to us. And let me again stress the patron saint’s name: Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Of Alexandria. The place where Christianity was born.
Fanatics of progressivity and development think that with technological advancement and “a higher level of civilisation” our world will become a better place. They believe that it is us who will make this long-awaited unity possible. However, unfortunately, it is just the other way round. We are destroying and forgetting about the unity, the feeling of belonging that is, for instance, the hallmark of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Great Britain. She was chosen to become the patron saint of a dormitory and university in a remote country in the north.
Yet, where does this self-loathing come from? How did it find its way into the European Christian community? Where does this turmoil in identity come from that causes us to hide our faith so as not to hurt others, and in the meantime turning away when the same beliefs are disgraced elsewhere?
Where does this emptiness – mental and spiritual – come from? What has triggered this false perception of tolerance? I am convinced that people and communities that conceal and hide their identity, by way of referring to neutral ideology, are much more dangerous to other people or communities.
Of course, we might as well say – in practice of self-criticism or, ecclesiastically, self-assessment – that Europe has had its share of religious persecution. Remember, it is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. There were times in Europe when conflicts between Christians were fed in the name of Jesus Christ. And both parties had their role in that. Yet, this is just the thing that should serve as a lesson to learn from. What does it want to teach us? One of the primary missions of all Christians in Europe (be they Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant) is to show credibility in unity. If we have successfully learnt the lesson, then why do we not persuade others, even other countries to recognise that religions can exist in harmony, in the meantime joining our forces to make it better for human communities. There is no doubt that European Christians and Churches have drawn their conclusions from the devastating events of the past. They have recognised that we have to build on what we have in common, on what we can do and achieve together.
Even the private discussion with the Prime Minister made reference to John, the Evangelist and Paul, the Apostle saying, “follow the truth in love”. This is what we should learn. Love is not about hiding the truth. Speaking the truth should not be understood as a weapon to hit somebody on the head with. It is a principle of Christianity that we have to remind ourselves of time after time. Consequently, let me hereby say “thank you” to everyone who supported us on this road, the first station of which was the establishment of the State Secretariat for the Aid of Persecuted Christians. It has been a road whose first cobblestone was laid at our meeting in Frascati, near Rome. That was the place where we were faced with all your sufferings. And it is true indeed that boasting of the help and assistance one provides is not the true way. As the Gospel claims, the right hand should not know what the left hand is doing. And we are not speaking about this for our own sake. We are doing so because the problem must be addressed in Hungary and Europe as well. This is the underlying reason for us to invite here the youth from Africa and the Middle East: to learn solidarity together with them in the framework of a scholarship programme.
We, Hungarians are well-known for our hospitality. May I here ponder on a sentence from yesterday’s dinner speech. Not even the 40 years of Communism had the chance of getting rid of the greeting “Welcome”. It could not expel this expression from the Hungarian language, the literal translation of which is “God has brought you here”. This is a saying with some very strong and deep meaning. Whenever a guest arrives, or whenever we meet somebody, we believe that this is not mere coincidence, but there must be some providence in the background. I do think that it is a matter of providence that we could gather together here and can meet time after time. And I would also like to promise to visit you in your homeland and land of suffering, as has been advised to me so many times.
Thank you for granting us the opportunity to do something good, and we would like to ask for your advice on how we can help you more efficiently. I am sure that, in this way, we will get further down the road that we have started our journey on.
Last but not least, let me highlight one more thing that is of key importance beyond political analysis: this is Hungarian experience. Our nation has been condemned to death on numerous occasions. It would be just as hard to count the times intellectuals claimed that Hungarian is a special language and culture, which is represented in such few numbers that it is prone to disappear sooner or later from the Carpathian Basin and from the world. We, Hungarians have learnt what it is like to swim against the current. Yet, if we join our forces, then one day we might be enough in number to stand strong and even proceed and thrive. My thanks go to you in supporting us in this matter.
* In the November 2017 issue of Hungarian Review, we published the opening address of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.