Think of it as one of the tragic (and perhaps ironic) wrinkles of the refugee crisis unfolding in Europe. The country that now seems a testing ground for the continent's liberal values happens to be ruled by one of its most illiberal governments.
Alarmed by the thousands of Syrian refugees and other migrants journeying through Hungarian territory, the right-wing government of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has moved to enact harsh measures to stem the flow of refugees. These include three-year jail terms for people illegally climbing over a new razor-wire fence built along Hungary's border with Serbia, as well as potential punishments for Hungarian citizens who offer aid or shelter to the migrants.
Orban, a right-wing populist, has been one of the most outspoken voices against resettling tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in Europe. He has used this crisis to cast himself as the legionary on the parapets, staring down the alien hordes that threaten to overwhelm European civilization.
"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," Orban wrote in a column printed in a German newspaper Thursday. "That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots," he added.
As WorldViews noted earlier, Orban's embrace of Christian nationalism is a relatively recent turn for a once-avowed atheist. But it is in keeping with Hungary's political present, where critics decry Orban's mixture of strong-man demagoguery and xenophobic rhetoric.
In remarks made later, Orban framed what was at stake in grand historic terms, elaborating on the threat of Muslims settling in Hungary. (Nevermind the fact that Muslims comprise less than 1 percent of the country's population, and that the vast majority of refugees traveling through Hungary have no desire to stay within its borders.)
"I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country," Orban said. "We do not like the consequences of having a large number of Muslim communities that we see in other countries, and I do not see any reason for anyone else to force us to create ways of living together in Hungary that we do not want to see. That is a historical experience for us."
What is that historical experience? The New York Times quotes Orban speaking more directly about it on the sidelines of a meeting with Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and current president of the European Council.
"I have to say that when it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go through that experience for 150 years," Orban said.
The Hungarian prime minister was invoking Hungary's history of conquest under the Ottoman Empire. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the mighty Ottoman war machine ranged over swathes of Eastern Europe. The armies of Suleyman the Magnificent smashed the forces of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary (which was far larger than the country's current size), triggering decades of dynastic feuding and regional warfare. Areas that comprise modern-day Hungary were once the borderlands between the Muslim Ottomans and Christian Hapsburgs to the West.
But it's somewhat bizarre to think this rather distant past of warlords and rival empires ought to influence how a 21st century nation addresses the needs of refugees.
"I want to underline that for me, Christianity in public and social life means a duty to our brothers in need," said a rather stern Tusk, standing publicly next to Orban.
A couple years ago, the Hungarian leader himself didn't seem that eager to confront the Ottoman legacy.
"Turkey is not a state at the edge of Europe anymore but a country that will play an important role in the future," he said in 2013, while opening a Hungarian cultural center in Istanbul, once the seat of the Ottoman Empire. "Being Hungarian in Turkey is a good thing and being Turkish in Hungary is also a good thing," he added.