The Hungarian Lutheran church opens its doors to refugees
The Lutheran church is the smallest among the traditional denominations in Hungary, yet it is the most vocal in criticising the xenophobic campaign of Viktor Orbán’s government. By organising housing support for refugees, the church has sought to fill in the gaps of the dismantled state services.
At the peak of the refugee crisis, in June and July 2015, religious communities in Hungary were heavily criticised by anti-government circles for their lack of support for the asylum-seekers on the border and around the Keleti railway station in Budapest, where many had gathered before heading to Austria or Germany.
At that time, high-rank clergymen made few public statements and those who did, did not shy away from controversy. Commenting on the legal obstacles that might prevent churches from sheltering the migrants, whose asylum claims had not yet been processed, Cardinal Péter Erdő of the Catholic church had said: “We would become human smugglers if we’d taken in refugees”.
The influx of refugees from war-torn Middle Eastern and African countries to Hungary has since slowed due to the erection of a wired fence on the Serbian-Hungarian border and the introduction of a new, stricter method of handling asylum claims. With the crisis tamed, the activities of various aid organisations have focused on helping those few who have been granted protection in Hungary.
The smallest and the loudest
The Lutheran church in Hungary (full name: Evangelical Lutheran Church) is the smallest among the so-called historical churches in Hungary, yet its organisation, the Evangelical Lutheran Diaconia, has a substantial share in the integration-focused services for refugees. It is also the most vocal against the Orbán government’s xenophobic campaign as they argue it is a Christian imperative to help those who suffer and flee war.
“There were approximately 400 refugees accepted so far this year, and we reached out to 250 people with our housing programme. It shows that we are an important actor in the field,” said Attila Mészáros, the chief co-ordinator of the Lutheran Diaconia Integration Service for refugees. We meet on a rainy autumn day in the community centre of the local parish-where the Integration Service rents its office, in one of Budapest’s poorest but also most diverse neighbourhoods.
Most of the refugees come to Budapest after receiving their documents, as those who are not moving to other countries prefer to settle down in the capital. The 8th District, where the Lutheran Diaconia Integration Service operates, is a popular neighbourhood among refugees due to its multicultural character, which includes Roma people and various migrant communities.
Not only Budapest
As explained by Mészáros who came to work for the church after many years of social work in one of the leading migrant rights NGOs, the Lutheran Church has four different refugee support projects, including three housing-related ones. The last one focuses on education and informing the members of the Lutheran groups in the country and deconstructing some of the myths resonating in society.
“With the financial support of the Lutheran congregations in Bavaria, Germany, the church has been able to obtain a house in the northeastern Hungarian town of Nyíregyháza, where we are able to house one family,” Mészáros said. Hungarian language courses, psychological help and secure employment are also facilitated by the church.
“Initially an Afghan family moved in: a father and his three sons, but they just couldn’t start their life in a remote town like Nyíregyháza, and so they moved back to Budapest,” Mészáros continued. For the past four or five months, an Azerbaijani couple and their teenage son have been living in the house and, according to social workers, they are doing well. “The boy goes to the local high school and his parents have recently received a job offer from a member of the congregation, so they will start working and will move into their new home in a month or two,” Mészáros said.
Refugee in a workers’ hostel
While the project in Nyíregyháza supports families, the lion’s share of the Lutheran Church’s migration-focused activity is focused on providing crisis accommodation in Budapest. In a worker’s hostel in one of Budapest’s suburban districts, five rooms are rented by the church to house freshly accepted refugees who have just left the refugee reception station.
For many, this is the only way to escape homelessness since the government has shut down the “integration support” scheme – financial aid provided by the state to enable refugees to start their lives in Hungary. A limited amount of monthly support and some additional help from social workers was available until a year ago, but as the government escalated its anti-migrant campaign, refugees were now allowed a one-month stay in one of the reception centres only.
“They can only turn to NGOs and us – churches”, said Mészáros and added that the integration service has an active relationship with the staff of the reception centre in Vámosszabadi – a border town in north-western Hungary, where most of the refugees stay while awaiting their asylum documents. “They send people immediately to us and to others who run similar housing programmes, but there are way more people than we are able to help”, Mészáros continued. This project is financed by Diakonien Katastrophenhilfe – a humanitarian aid organisation run by the German Protestant Church.
Hard to house, easy to employ
The third Lutheran-run housing programme, financed by the European Union’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), provides a certain amount of monthly financial support for housing purposes. “We can help 40 people altogether, paying 40,000 forints (130 euros) per month for a year, which is a modest sum, but it is a good supplement to people’s salaries, so they could afford to rent a flat in Budapest, maybe together with some friends”, said Mészáros.
Surprisingly, the Hungarian government is also contributing to this programme, as 25 per cent of the funding comes from the state budget.
With the rent prices doubling in Budapest in the past five years, finding an affordable apartment has been a challenge. At the same time, getting a job as a refugee has become relatively easy. In fact, according to Mészáros, in the past 20 years, it has never been easier.
A recent article published on abcug.hu about refugees in the job market claims that they are mostly employed in the catering, building and manufacturing industries. Labour shortage in these sectors is such that even people not speaking the language and having no work experience in the country are being hired. “Which is our luck because otherwise, these people would have no chance of gaining a foothold here,” said Mészáros.
Churches in Hungary are in a difficult position. The current government treats them as natural allies which is demonstrated by their growing influence in various social fields, but most of all in education. They receive government funding for other projects, too. In return, the government expects churches to keep quiet, especially on matters as important as Orbán’s asylum policy.
At the same time, the general public – or at least the opponents of the government’s campaign – expect the churches to be among the first ones to show solidarity with refugees, fleeing persecution.
Tamás Fabiny, one of Hungarian Lutheran Church’s three bishops is well-known for his critical view of the government’s anti-refugee policies. In June 2017, together with a Catholic bishop, Miklós Beer, they appeared in a UNHCR World Refugee Day video, saying: “We believe, that all refugees deserve to live in peace,” and “We are with the refugees, please, join us!”
“Critical solidarity is our standpoint towards the current Hungarian government since the beginning. Initially, it was more about solidarity, but since the initiation of their anti-immigration campaign in 2015, we have been more critical,” Fabiny told New Eastern Europe. He explained that Christian churches indeed share many common values with the conservative government, but they also have a biblical imperative to accept and support refugees. They also have a moral responsibility to set an example of acceptance and goodwill for church members and the general society.
“The Lutheran World Federation the umbrella organisation of Lutheran churches is taking a strong stance regarding the refugee crises. When we help refugees in Hungary, we take on their position,” Fabiny explained.
Nevertheless, the bishop agrees with the government on the matter of the border fence. “I was criticising it in the beginning, but I had not known that such a massive amount of people would arrive. Since then I realised that without this barrier it is impossible to control the influx of asylum-seekers and check everyone,” he said.
“What the real problem is, is that this barrier is not permeable. Many – among them persecuted Christians – do not get the necessary protection and are pushed back home.”
When asked whether emphasising the help given to persecuted Christians means that his church differentiates between Muslim and Christian refugees, Fabiny said their programmes are for all faiths, but it is easier to get funding if they indicate they are helping Christian people.
“We don’t want to upset our congregation either. This way it becomes easier to make them accept the work we are doing.”
Eszter Neuberger is a journalist writing for Abcúg.hu – a Hungarian online media. She focuses on social issues, education, health-care, housing and minorities.
This article is funded by a grant from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs received via the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.