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Orbán tightens grip on Hungary

17 June 2022

The country’s Churches helped the PM to secure a fourth term, reports Alexander Faludy


Viktor Orbán is applauded by members of the Hungarian Parliament after taking the oath of office, on 16 May, after winning a fourth consecutive term

Viktor Orbán is applauded by members of the Hungarian Parliament after taking the oath of office, on 16 May, after winning a fourth consecutive...

THE Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, put “Christian identity” centre stage in his recent speech to the country’s parliament, on the occasion of being sworn in to lead his fourth consecutive administration since 2010.

“I am particularly counting on the historic Churches’ communities of believers, the very existence of which is a great asset for Hungary,” he told lawmakers assembled in Budapest, on 16 May, for the parliament’s opening session. “We shall ensure the conditions needed for the proclamation of the gospel.” His speech referred to God or Christianity ten times in 20 minutes.

His speech reached beyond a domestic audience. Before a gathering in Budapest a few days later of America’s Conservative Political Action Conference, a body closely aligned with the former US President Donald Trump, Mr Orbán repeated international alt-Right tropes, warning of the West’s “cultural suicide” and reiterating far-Right conspiracy theories.

“One such attempt at suicide I see is the great European population-replacement programme, which seeks to replace the missing European Christian children with migrants, with adults arriving from other civilisations,” he said.

“An increasing number of people feel Hungary is an island of peace . . . one of the last strongholds of freedom. . . We also want to give hope to others: hope that the Christian outlook on life, love of country, and national pride . . . are not things of the past, but of the future.”

BEFORE his speech, Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party had won an overwhelming victory, on 3 April, over Hungary’s opposition parties (standing together as a united bloc). Fidesz returned to power with a two-thirds parliamentary majority, thereby retaining scope to amend Hungary’s Basic Law unilaterally.

April’s poll was Hungary’s third consecutive election deemed “free but not fair” by observers from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe. During the election, members of the media were denied access to opposition voices, and state resources were used to support the ruling party’s campaigning.

Mr Orbán was helped back to power by active support from the Hungarian Churches, which have become integral to Fidesz’s voter mobilisation. The party’s strategy relies heavily on electors from rural constituencies and ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring states. Christianity is a stronger identity marker for both groups than for voters in Hungary’s urban areas.

Fidesz ran jointly with satellite KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party), which is supported by a vocal minority of Hungary’s Roman Catholic bishops. Influential church figures endorsed the Fidesz-KDNP alliance before the election. Independent media later reported cases of clerics’ using election-day sermons to encourage worshippers to “vote Fidesz”.

The long alliance between Fidesz and Hungary’s Churches has rested both on common policy priorities (for example, family policy) and a mutually advantageous exchange of financial incentives for political support. The relationship may, however, be under strain, at least for parts of the RC intelligentsia who are disturbed by Fidesz’s tendency to apply pressure over the expression of church teaching.

Most visible has been friction around a statement on marriage, issued in December by the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference. This occurred against the background of Fidesz’s campaign for a referendum on LGBT+ issues scheduled for election day (and calculated to energise its core vote).

Impetus for this statement is understood to have originated not from within the Bishops’ Conference, but, rather, from the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister (colloquially known as “the Propaganda Ministry”). The statement far exceeded affirmation of traditional RC teaching on heterosexual marriage, asserting: “The consecration of the relationship between man and woman through marriage is the foundation of human dignity.”

THE statement was criticised by the influential young Budapest-based RC priest Fr András Hodász. He pointed out that it contradicted the Christian conception of human dignity as grounded not in marriage, but in creation in imago Dei, and also the incarnation as “God’s manifestation in Jesus as the Word made flesh”. He warned that the statement undermined Catholicism’s valuation of consecrated celibacy.

These warnings failed to deter 12 historic Protestant and Orthodox Churches from endorsing the statement jointly, together with two Jewish denominations. The process was spearheaded by the Reformed Church in Hungary, whose Presiding Bishop, Pastor Zoltán Balog, is the former Minister for Human Resources.

Fr Hodász, meanwhile, found himself subjected to a sustained campaign of public character assassination, led by the co-founder of Fidesz, Zsolt Bayer. The campaign against him pushed Fr Hodász into a nervous breakdown and a withdrawal from public life, which lasted several months.

No supportive response to the assault on Fr Hodász emerged from Hungary’s RC hierarchy. During the controversy, reference to him, once frequent, disappeared from official RC media. His unease is, however, understood to be shared by many lay RC intellectuals, especially teachers in church high schools.

Breaking his silence on Good Friday in an interview with the news website Válasz Online, Fr Hodász reported a warning rebuke from one of his superiors, in reaction to the marriage controversy: “Keep silent, or subsidies can be terminated.”

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.

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