It is our moral duty to help – Tristan Azbej to S4C.
Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. Unfortunately, in Western Societies, religious persecution is something we are uncomfortable speaking about because it often remains hidden behind the walls of political correctness. If we want to talk openly about Christian persecution, we must begin by tearing those politically correct walls down.
Tristan Azbej is head of the Deputy State Secretariat for the Aid of Persecuted Christians in Hungary. In the interview that follows he explains to S4C that the Deputy Secretariat’s relief programme part of the ‘Hungary Helps’ initiative for persecuted Christians that helps not only Christians but also people of other religions in need. Azbej says that that aid cannot be discriminative and goes on to point out the programme is efficient and achieves concrete results.
Interview with Tristan Azbej.
After the recent parliamentary elections, the fourth Orbán government is about to take office. What can we expect from the Deputy State Secretariat for the Aid of Persecuted Christians in the future?
“At this time, I do not feel qualified to make an announcement on the proceedings. Forming a government has its own legally structured process that is still in progress. It would be inappropriate for me to comment before everything is in place. One thing is for sure though: the government’s relief programme for persecuted Christians will continue. Given that Hungary is a Christian country with a Christian Democratic government, this programme is so to speak, a badge of honour. This was clearly shown when the very last measure of the 3rd Orbán government, right before elections, was a pledge to reconstruct and enlarge a run-down school in the city of Alqosh, situated on the Nineveh Plains plateau in Iraq. The student body will be composed mainly of children from Christian families who could return there after fleeing from persecution back in 2014. What is equally important is the fact that there will be a number of Yazidi refugees among the students too.
Our flagship project, the reconstruction of Telsqof, a city in Iraq close to Mosul has just finished recently. Most of the buildings there were destroyed by the militant terrorist group Islamic State. Hundreds of houses were reconstructed since ISIS left and so, out of the one thousand and three hundred families who had to flee, one thousand could come back to their rebuilt homes. And by the way, this all cost much less than the integration process of these same people would have cost to European taxpayers had these same one thousand families decided to come to Europe seeking refugee status.”
You mentioned how important you found helping Yazidi children. For those who are not so well informed about this particular topic, could you explain why?
“Let me begin by explaining why we find it so essential to help Christians in the first place.
It is a fact, backed up by extensive research that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. In other words, among those people who are persecuted in the world because of their beliefs or moral convictions, the majority are Christians. Unfortunately, European countries with strong Christian roots, do not take responsibility for their scattered fellow Christian brothers and sisters who live in discriminated minority groups and have to suffer different types of persecution. For this reason, it is imperative that Hungary has the courage to do so. If a Sunni person is persecuted somewhere because of his religious conviction, he can be supported by strong Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia. Or if someone as a Shia is persecuted, the regional Shia superpower, Iran is there to help. It would be logical that the Western world would stand up for Christians, but they did not do so. Hungary was the first who took steps on this matter.
Our priority is Christians, but of course, Humanitarian action cannot be discriminatory, that is why ‘Hungary Helps’, as an umbrella programme tries to bring relief to all those people in need. And this is where I would like to come to the point of why we help the Yazidi people. This group was probably the most severely persecuted people under the reign of terror of the Islamic State. While terrorists in many cases offered Christians the possibility of leaving, Yazidis were immediately killed, because while Christians are considered as “people of the Book”, Yazidis are taken as a “devil worshipper sect”. They, just like Christians do not receive sufficient help, and given that they practice a small, mostly unknown religion in a secluded place, there is no country in the world that they could count on based on the common ground of culture or religion.
Critical remarks about this work come primarily from two directions: one is that there are plenty of people in need here in Hungary and that they should be our priority, not helping people thousands of miles away. And it is true; there is a lot to do at home.
It happened that the same media outlet issued two critical remarks about our programme in twenty-four hours – one completely contradicted the other. First, they said we spend too much on persecuted people then after a couple of hours, they said we spend too little.
Let me give you a concrete example: the Hungarian Government spent one million dollars on the reconstruction of the school in Alqosh. This amount was enough to help hundreds of persecuted families; they could return to their homes knowing that there was a school for their children to attend. If you compare this with the budget of the Hungarian School Development Programme announced last September, you will see that the amount we spent to save an entire community in the Middle East was worth one per thousand compared to the aforementioned School Development Programme of Hungary. I believe this is a just and fair amount.
As a Christian nation, we have a duty to help those that were left alone by everyone, yet it is true that the Hungarian government’s first priority is the well-being of the Hungarian people. Let’s take another example. Within our Iraqi programme, we support a hospital’s medical supplies with a couple of million dollars. Comparing this to the Hungarian spending on health infrastructural development (since 2010 the government spent about two billion dollars) you will find more or less the same ratio. For us, this is a small donation; for them, it is a life-saving remedy.
The other criticism of your work accuses you of hypocrisy. They say it would be better to tear down the border fence and receive migrants into the country.
“We believe that unattended, illegal and mostly economic motivated migration is a phenomenon that is not good for anyone. Instead, it is a threat on the receiving country, the source country and to the arriving migrants. It creates immense social pressure on the receiving countries, it leads to the establishment of parallel societies within the countries and creates strong social tensions. This aside from the reality of those few but highly dangerous people who arrive with the migrants and many times are involved with terrorist organisations and acts as it was proven several times in the last couple of years.
When we ask representatives of persecuted Christians about how we can help them the most, they always emphasise that first and foremost they want to be left on their ancestors’ soil. For that, we need to create security for them and also rebuild their infrastructure. Some people stayed during the rough times while others fled waiting for things to get better so that they could eventually return. In both cases, people ask that we give them immediate help. Not a long time ago I was able to attend a meeting between Prime Minister Orbán and Jean-Clement Jeanbart, Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo. The Archbishop asked that Hungary would do all in its reach to slow down migration. He called attention to the fact that what the Islamic State did not accomplish, migration will, meaning the Aleppo Christian community will lose its youth and that slowly will lead to the extinction of Christian presence in the cradle of Christianity.
Our approach which combines strict migration policies with supportive humanitarian policies is the best for all parties not only because of moral reasons but because of the practical and security reasons as well.”
Could we not say that it is Hungary’s sole task to rebuild infrastructure in these disadvantaged countries and leave the local churches with the task of assisting their own communities?
“We also work together with the local churches in reconstruction projects, but let me stress again, within the framework of the ‘Hungary Helps’ programme, we do not just support the Christians in the region. The humanitarian umbrella provided by this initiative is trying to help all communities -as Péter Heltai Ambassador at Large emphasised many times before. We consider this aid mission as a top priority not just for the causes mentioned above but for another reason: those minority communities are in many cases the most vulnerable.
If we were to follow general aid distribution principles, we would not serve those smaller and more vulnerable communities for the simple reason that they need special help and attention. This aid is carried out by Hungary through its initiatives together with its ecclesial partners. An outstanding example of our contribution is the complete reconstruction of a school in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, which couldn’t have been done without the donations of church members, the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the additional governmental help.”
Based on what features can a decision be made to support a project?
“Our fundamental principle from the outset is to provide support on site where help is immediately needed and is of utmost importance. The survival of Christianity [in these areas] focuses on three principles: survival itself, a place to live and something to live from. At the beginning, Christians have to endure some of the most dramatic times in their lives. It was for this reason that we focused on providing emergency aid to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The next – and the most significant stage – covers the reconstruction projects as was the case in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. We then follow with the final phase-reinforcing the local economy. It is here that we would like to involve Hungarian firms, thus linking together humanitarian aid and economic policy in a win-win cooperation. As petitions for aid are received at the Office of the Deputy State Secretariat some of my colleagues who are researchers and analysts work effectively by presenting the background to these projects, verifying the needs and designing a response methodology based on their expertise.”
The situation of persecuted Christians must primarily be communicated to the Hungarian society, a community of fifteen million people spread over the world. Do you also have a mission to communicate the message of people in need to Western society, that is going beyond Hungarian speaking areas?
“I consider it as an essential task to draw attention to this issue. We are a small country with limited resources, and it is evident that Hungary cannot solve the problems on its own, nor should it be expected to do so. We are therefore striving to present the situations that need resolution at the highest levels making this a public issue. By doing so, we also showcase our [Hungarian] approach which has in many cases already been proven to be effective in the practice.”
Has the feedback to this programme been positive?
“Here I would like to break down the objectives of communicating our mission. The key objective is that of drawing attention to the problem and forming attitudes; the second is engaging in serious diplomatic work. Regarding the first objective, our observation is that in the West, people do not even know the problem exists, moreover sometimes this fact is intentionally hidden or at least covered up, because it does not fit into certain narratives — that Christianity is a persecuted religion. The mission of your website plays an important role by reporting Christian persecution and the atrocities committed, since, behind those stories, there are real, suffering people. It is also important to focus attention on initiatives which try to help with this problem, and for this reason, we are glad to support your efforts.”
What was your latest concrete step to reveal the reality of Christian persecution in a broader scale?
“We organised an exhibition in New York, compiled by the Hungarian National Museum and the Migration Research Institute to display Christian persecution in the present day. The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda also attended this event. After we opened the exhibition together, he delivered a speech indicating the need for action from his audience. What he said about their situation was worth a thousand times more than what we can ever say about the persecution of Christians: our job is to give him and others who are affected the opportunity to speak up. We need to take advantage of this invitation. From a diplomatic affairs angle, we untiringly make efforts to convince Western countries and international organisations that time is of the essence and that we need to act now. In most of the cases, we could not get a consensus, although with some we achieved excellent results and even break-throughs.
The government of the United States is just about to launch its own programme to provide aid for persecuted Christians, which includes certain elements that are identical to those of the ‘Hungary Helps’ programme in particular. However, within the European Union, we could not reach our desired results. This shows in many cases the hypocrisy of Brussels in its relation to migration and humanitarian issues. At the same time, we are making progress in negotiations with the Visegrad Group countries (Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia Hungary) and we also strengthened our relations within the framework of this topic with Italy. I believe it is time for the Western countries with a Christian heritage and culture to be conscientious and act accordingly. A specific number of these countries remain dormant or morally silent. One sure sign of this is when Christian symbols are being taken down locally, and people do not even notice.”
Would you like to raise awareness about what happens in these cases?
“The mission of the Deputy State Secretariat only covers combating physical persecution and serious discrimination of Christian communities; therefore, the previously mentioned cases are outside the remit of the programme since these issues do not present humanitarian challenges of people in real danger. However, as a public figure with a Christian democratic political affiliation, I have my own views.”
Would you share them with us?
“Some ideological trends have become dominant in Western societies, which at the beginning denied the Christian cultural roots, along with the already acquired values of social doctrine and later turned against them. This has led to the next step: the persecution of symbols. There were cases we heard of, in which it was forbidden for governmental officials to wear a cross under pain of demission. Restriction of freedom of conscience also is an issue, and we as European citizens have to raise our voices against this phenomena. I do hope that we, in the Deputy Secretariat will not have to provide assistance to European or American countries because of religious persecution in the future.”
Is it true that unofficially, at informal meetings about Hungarian efforts in this initiative have been recognised and acknowledged by our Western counterparts?
No matter whom you ask in the government, they will tell you the same thing. It has happened many times before that unofficially our policy and results have been acknowledged. In certain cases, others were envious of our courage to speak out about things that political correctness would have elsewhere been silenced. I have witnessed false accusations, that the ‘Hungary Helps’ programme provides aid based on discrimination, at official public meetings, yet after the meeting, the very same colleagues congratulated us for launching this initiative.”
What has to change so that these remarks can be expressed publicly?
“There might be some excuse for our colleagues: they do not have such strong democratic support behind them as our government does; in Hungary the governing parties won the elections with a landslide victory for the 3rd time in a row, giving them a 2/3 majority in the Parliament. It is easier to be forthcoming with such an incredible majority behind us. Our colleagues certainly lack this, so for them, going against fashionable politically correct language is more difficult, that is for sure. In a situation like that we consider that it is our job to show the facts to the Western world, that often lacks information and at other times shows incredible hypocrisy.
We have to talk about the facts over and over again. More than one hundred million Christian people are subject to either discrimination or persecution, and we are obliged to help them through the programmes that have already proved to be working.
In the West, we would like to be the voice of the people who suffer. All those who commit to help the suffering people are welcome and so is the support of the followers of S4C.”