ROME – Here’s a foreign policy pop quiz: Which government recently decided that the protection of Christians in the Middle East is a sufficiently compelling priority to justify the investment of serious resources to support it?
For Americans, alas, the answer is not the United States. Instead, it’s Hungary, which has created a new department with a budget of $3.35 million to assist persecuted Christians worldwide.
The news was first reported by Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register, and confirmed by Crux in a Sept. 6 telephone conversation with Eduard von Habsburg, the ambassador of Hungary to the Holy See.
“Hungary has been silently working in the Middle East for years in the danger spots,” Habsburg said. “This is the prolongation of a policy that’s been in place for a long time.”
Certainly there’s no doubt that Christians can use the help. The statistics are depressingly familiar: In Iraq, a Christian population estimated at over a million before the 2003 war today stands at something like 400,000, and privately many Iraqis churchmen will tell you the real number is probably even lower. In Syria, entire Christian communities have been gutted, including in the city of Aleppo, where scores have died from direct violence and others from the consequences of a long-running siege.
The decision to launch the new department came after Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and its Minister of Human Resources, Zoltán Balog, traveled to Rome in August to meet Pope Francis.
“What’s interesting is that these are both Calvinists,” Habsburg said, “and both are people of faith.” He said their commitment to aiding persecuted Christians has also been reinforced by contacts with leading European churchmen, such as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, and with the patriarchs of the Middle East.
“Hungary considers itself Christian, and is interested in the situation of Christians all around the world,” Habsburg said. “It wants to extend a helping hand.”
Exactly how the new department will go about doing that, he said, isn’t yet clear, and will be worked out in part in consultation with Christians from the Middle East themselves.
Part of the reason for going public now with this initiative, Habsburg said, is to set an example for other European nations.
“Somehow the idea of defending Christians has acquired a bad taste in Europe, as if it means excluding other people,” he said, and the Hungarian initiative is intended to show it doesn’t have to be that way.
Of course, governments rarely do anything for purely noble and humanitarian reasons, and Habsburg acknowledged that there is also a policy interest being served. Hungary, in tandem with Poland, has been one of the European nations most resistant to opening its doors to large numbers of new arrivals amid Europe’s massive refugee crisis, fearing both a loss of cultural identity and also competition in the domestic labor market.
By promoting stability and religious tolerance in the Middle East, Habsburg said, then people will have less reason to flee, and the pressure on Hungary to accommodate refugees from places such as Syria, Iraq and Libya will be reduced.
“This may not be a solution in itself, but the best strategy is to deal with the situation where people are coming from, which will mean less need for fences in Europe,” Habsburg said.
Although he didn’t make the point himself, many foreign policy experts who have no special religious or spiritual stake in the survival of Middle East Christianity nevertheless perceive a clear strategic motive for Western governments to step up, which is that the region’s Christian minority acts as a firebreak against further radicalization and is arguably the best hope for building more democratic and stable societies.
In all honesty, Orbán probably has domestic reasons too for being attracted to the idea of helping persecuted Christians, since his political opposition often argues that his hard-line position on immigration is at odds with other Christian leaders, Pope Francis in particular, and this is a way for him to project concern.
Probably, however, the Christians of the Middle East won’t really care what the political forces may be that would lead governments to get involved. For them it would be enough to get some help, both for immediate humanitarian aid to suffering people, and also longer-term assistance with reconstruction in order to make the Christian presence sustainable.
One hopes that as these projects take shape, they will be worked out both with the Christian leaders of the region and also with organizations that have deep experience of making things work in the Middle East, such as Aid to the Church in Need and also the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
Hungary is acting to set an example for the rest of Europe, and, in a sense, for the entire world. It will be interesting to see if other nations now follow it, including some, such as the United States, with deeper pockets and thus potentially a greater capacity to make a difference.