Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, has made nationalistic and controversial statements in the past. But with his country emerging as a main gateway for refugees trying to reach richer European nations, his words suddenly carry much heavier weight.
"We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim.... That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots," he wrote.
It is ironic that the man who wants to save Europe's Christian identity used to have no Christian identity himself. "Once an atheist, he now upholds religion as the nation’s backbone," Hungary expert Charles Gati observed in an op-ed last year. Hungary used to belong the Soviet bloc before the fall of the Berlin Wall: Its communist regime tried to restrict all religious tendencies and to create an atheistic society. So, like many of his countrymen, Orban was educated as an atheist.
In many countries, such as the Czech Republic, the effects of these efforts are still predominant: 75 percent of Czechs are atheists, one of the highest ratios in the world, according to a survey of 65 countries conducted by Gallup International and the WI Network of Market Research. Hungary was not included in the study, but the country's census data from 2011 show that more than half the population consider themselves Christian — although that number has declined between 2001 and 2011.
Orban has long used Hungary's Christian past to foster support for his government and to create a feeling of unity among his backers. Amid slightly growing numbers of atheists in the country, a new financing system has allowed church-owned schools to proliferate since 2011. "I am led by the firm conviction that only on the basis of these traditions — these national, Christian and European traditions — can a strong and successful Hungary be built," the prime minister was quoted as saying last year.
Moreover, since 2012, the country's constitution has officially recognized "the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood." The constitution's wording leaves no doubt that Muslims and people with other religious beliefs are tolerated, but not necessarily welcome, in Hungary. According to a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, atheists face severe discrimination in Hungary. But that has not damaged Orban's domestic reputation, as Gati, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, explained in a Washington Post op-ed:
"Untrusted and unpopular as Orbán is in Western chancelleries, he is a much-admired, even revered, hero to many Hungarians, especially outside the country’s larger cities. One secret of his success is his nationalist rhetoric; he understands his countrymen’s need to overcome their perceived sense of victimization and humiliation at the hands of foreigners. Even though Hungary depends on the E.U. for infrastructure investments, he has campaigned vigorously against the E.U.’s 'colonial' mentality."
In his op-ed, published Thursday, Orban made references to his past confrontations with other E.U. member states and institutions regarding the standing of Christianity in society. "[I]s it not already and in itself alarming that Europe's Christian culture is barely in a position to uphold Europe's own Christian values?" he asked, reflecting statements he has made in the past, when he called a lack of recognition for the European Union's Christian roots "an open wound for millions in Europe to the present day."
The Orban government has accepted a small number of asylum requests, but Hungary is among the few nations that offer residency permits to rich foreigners. In 2012, lawmakers adopted an amendment to the immigration law that allowed foreigners to gain Hungarian investment citizenship (comparable to a permanent residency) if they bought at least $322,600 worth of special government bonds, according to the Reuters news agency.