While the number of immigrants fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East into Europe has been building for months, the situation has recently become critical enough to attract the attention of the news media in the past few weeks. The main route into Europe from the Middle East is through Hungary, which has recently closed their border.
To understand the reactions of the government of Hungary today, it helps to know something of Hungary’s past. For most of the last 600 years the people of Hungary have known invasion, war, occupation, and rule by other nations and peoples. Much of Hungary is level plains, especially from the central portion to its eastern borders, with hillier, mountainous areas in the north and west.
At the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation in the 1500’s, Hungary was the battleground for the European invasion of the Ottoman Turks, followers of Islam whose armies conquered southeastern Europe all the way to the border Hungary has with Austria. The mountains of western Hungary became the barrier separating Christian Europe from the Muslim Empire for the next century and a half.
After that, Hungary was ruled by the German-speaking Austrian Empire until it gained its independence after the end of World War 1 in 1918. It was then taken over by the Nazis, and the Soviet Union after that. It only again regained independence in the nineties.
Free for less than 25 years, now many in the government see this huge wave of migrants and refugees from the east of their old oppressors, the Muslim nations of the old Ottoman Empire, as history come back to life.
Once again Hungary is the barrier between the Muslim Middle East and Christian Europe to the west. Once again, Hungary is being “invaded”, and all the old nightmares are resurrected. The conservative political leaders are determined that this time will be different: Hungary will not be swallowed up by Islam, even if its forces now are women, children, and men fleeing the wars that have ruined their homelands of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. *
Although the government of Hungary has been hostile to immigrants, our Companion Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary (ELCH), has been working to “promote a culture of mutual respect, inclusion and love” among refugees entering Budapest, according to the Rev. Cindy Halmarson, ELCA area program director for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
The church has collected and distributed clothing, blankets, bandages, sleeping bags and mats to migrants. In cooperation with the Lutheran Student Home, the ELCH is offering 150 daily hot meals to migrants gathered around the main railway station. The Diaconal Service of ELCH is donating medicine to migrant children in need through the Hungarian Association of Family Pediatricians. Information books have been published in Farsi, Urdu, Arabic, French and English and distributed for the orientation of migrants.
The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has sent an assessment team to Hungary which will explore possible support in the European refugee crisis.
In an article on the Lutheran World Federation Blog, Bishop Tamás Fabiny of our Companion Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary, likens the march of thousands of refugees from Budapest to Austria to the struggle for racial equality in the United States or opposition to apartheid in South Africa. “Are we able to have mercy? Do we dare to show empathy? Can we speak words of compassion even if others demand us to demonstrate power?” He asks.
In a letter sent out on September 3, Bishop Fabiny writes:
“As far as the ELCH is concerned, we are doing everything we can to fight anger and harmful preconceptions and to promote a culture of mutual respect, inclusion and love instead. We appreciate your support in our efforts as well as in the specific contributions outlined above. We ask you to continue praying for all those involved in this really complicated and explosive situation.”
*Thank you to Pastor Erma Wolf, of Hawarden Lutheran Church, Hawarden, Iowa, for providing the historical perspective.
Pastor Joelle Colville-Hanson
Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA