Hun­gar­ian pri­est brings mi­grants in from the cold

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Save us be­fore we die from the cold, read the email in Fa­ther Zoltan Nemeth’s in­box. It was an ap­peal that this Hun­gar­ian pri­est could not ig­nore. The SOS was sent by an asy­lum-seeker, one of 14 re­lo­cated from a refugee camp ear­marked for clo­sure near Bu­dapest to what they say are freez­ing mil­i­tary tents in Kor­mend close to the Aus­trian border. Nemeth, the Catholic parish pri­est in Kor­mend, a town of around 12,000 souls some 230 km west of Bu­dapest, quickly of­fered them shel­ter in the parish com­mu­nity hall.

“I’m not a hero, it was sim­ply my duty as a com­mit­ted Chris­tian to help,” the be­spec­ta­cled and portly 61-yearold told AFP in the parish house next door where he lives. But Nemeth calls his stance a “lonely” one in a coun­try led by the fiercely anti-mi­grant Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban. In 2015 Or­ban built fences on Hun­gary’s bor­ders to keep out mi­grants, and changed laws en­abling the ex­pul­sion and jail­ing of “il­le­gal border crossers”. Refugee camps are be­ing closed while a gov­ern­ment ref­er­en­dum in Oc­to­ber urged Hun­gar­i­ans to vote “No” to the EU’s plan to re­lo­cate mi­grants around the bloc. The bal­lot how­ever was de­clared in­valid be­cause of low voter turnout. “Hun­gary doesn’t need a sin­gle mi­grant,” Or­ban has said, warn­ing that the “poi­son” of mass mi­gra­tion will de­stroy Europe’s Chris­tian iden­tity.

‘I fol­low Je­sus’ (PBUH)

Ac­cord­ing to Nemeth how­ever Or­ban’s ref­er­en­dum cam­paign, with na­tion­wide bill­board posters that linked mi­grants to ter­ror­ism and crime, had an “an­tiGospel mes­sage”. “I fol­low Je­sus, not the state’s lead­ers,” he told AFP, cit­ing a pas­sage from the Bi­ble: “For I was hun­gry and you gave me some­thing to eat... I was a stranger and you in­vited me in.” The pri­est says his in­spi­ra­tion is Pope Fran­cis who has reg­u­larly de­fended mi­grants and called on Europe to keep its doors open to those in need. Up­stairs in the parish hall, pri­est vest­ments hang on racks at one end, while mat­tresses and ruck­sacks line the walls. Greeted with bear hugs when he goes up­stairs to chat to the asy­lum-seek­ers, Nemeth says a three-year pe­riod in South Amer­ica as a mis­sion­ary taught him to “dis­re­gard religion, race, or class, and only see the per­son”. The group of young men, all await­ing de­ci­sions on ap­peals of re­jected asy­lum claims, is com­prised of Iraqi Kurds, Afghans, Cameroo­ni­ans, Nige­ri­ans, Cubans and a Con­golese. They in­clude both Chris­tians and Mus­lims.


But Hun­gar­ian Catholic Church lead­ers have re­mained silent so far about his ges­ture, with only two priests na­tion­wide back­ing him, nei­ther pub­li­cally, says Nemeth. Dur­ing the peak of the mi­grant cri­sis last Septem­ber when thou­sands were en­ter­ing through the coun­try each day, Hun­gar­ian Car­di­nal Peter Erdo even said host­ing mi­grants could legally amount to “hu­mantraf­fick­ing”. In Kor­mend some parish­ioners have ac­cused Nemeth of be­ing “non-Chris­tian” or “an­tiHun­gar­ian”. “One even stopped me on the street to warn that the mi­grants will kill me as a ji­hadist did Pere Hamel in France,” the 85-year-old pri­est mur­dered in July, Nemeth told AFP. In his of­fice though, amid Christ­mas food pack­ages for de­liv­ery to the parish’s sick and poor, he points to many mes­sages of sup­port on his com­puter that he has re­ceived from peo­ple around the coun­try, church­go­ers and athe­ists alike.

‘With hu­man­ity or not’

Me­dia have not been al­lowed into the nearby com­plex of mil­i­tary tents but sev­eral of the mi­grants showed AFP pho­tographs they took of con­di­tions in­side. The only heat­ing is a wood-fired stove, they say. “One of us had to stay awake all night to keep feed­ing it with wood to keep warm,” said the Cameroo­nian who wrote the email to the pri­est, but asked not to be named. Hun­gary’s Im­mi­gra­tion Of­fice told AFP in an email that the con­di­tions in Kor­mend com­ply with all EU and in­ter­na­tional reg­u­la­tions.

A lo­cal refugee rights group mean­while has slammed the tent camp as “in­ad­e­quate and in­hu­man”. “The un­wel­com­ing mes­sage is clear, it gives asy­lum­seek­ers no choice but to leave the coun­try,” Aniko Bakonyi of the Hun­gar­ian Helsinki Com­mit­tee told AFP. Ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial data, al­most 30,000 mi­grants sought asy­lum in Hun­gary this year, but less than 400 have re­ceived some form of pro­tected sta­tus.

Nemeth says at­ti­tudes in Aus­tria, just a dozen kilo­me­tres down the road, have hard­ened too, es­pe­cially af­ter at­tacks like in Paris or Berlin. “But at least the camp con­di­tions there are dig­ni­fied. This mi­gra­tion cri­sis is not over, the ques­tion is how we re­ceive peo­ple who come, with hu­man­ity or not.” — AFP

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