Following Donald Trump’s election, there was hope that the US would aid Christian communities overseas, especially in Iraq where the population of Christians was reduced by over 80 percent since the US invasion. The Obama administration was less receptive to a focus on persecuted Christians, often opting to use euphemistic terms. Christian persecution became known more as a series of sporadic, unrelated incidents rather than a phenomena. The US has invested significantly in helping rebuild Iraq, but the effectiveness of our aid has been limited, and some people on the ground in Iraq claim they never saw the entirety of the aid themselves.
African Christians and Middle Eastern Christians face daily torment and oppression for their faith, and in some countries such as Iraq and Syria, genocide-level persecution that threatens the existence of their communities in the Holy Land itself, where the faith blossomed. The recognition of these religious minorities’ strife has been a point of contention, and western leaders often are stifled by the gag of political correctness.
In Burkina Faso on Sunday, Islamic extremists killed 14 people in an attack on a church. The attack in this small African country is not an aberration; African Christians are facing record-high violence for their Christian faith. In Nigeria, Boko Haram went door-to-door in a Christian village in 2019, killing 25. In Eritrea, some Christians meet in secret following a law that passed shutting down many churches.
Considering the breadth of the persecution Christians face today, saving them from extinction is not an effort one country can take on alone. Often the first hurdle is merely admitting that the deliberate, systematic killing of Christians is ‘genocide’ or ‘persecution’, something Viktor Orbán did with conviction during last week’s International Conference on Christian Persecution in Budapest. ‘Four out of five people persecuted for their faith are Christians and some 245 million Christians around the globe suffer extreme persecution,’ he said during his speech, opening the three-day conference where hundreds of people from across the globe convened to discuss Christian persecution. Many attendants were priests themselves who served these communities, in countries including but not limited to Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia.
Following Orbán’s speech, Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs and trade was equally unapologetic, declaring ‘the Hungarian government rejects the approach that often appears on the part of the international community, according to which Christian phobia and any form of anti-Christian sentiment is acceptable.’
Hungary Helps is the Hungarian government’s aid project that assists people of any faith abroad, but after realizing the extent of Christian persecution and the displacement of Christians from their homelands, the government created the State Secretariat for the Aid of Persecuted Christians in 2017 to make it a government priority to help with the rebuilding the devastated communities that many Christians are forced to flee.
Tristan Azbej is the State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians. Persecuted Christians are a key humanitarian priority, he tells me, because Christian social values encourage Hungarians to defend human dignity, the family unit, and communities. ‘The only thing more important than defending Christian democratic values is defending Christian people who are suffering for their faith,’ he says. ‘The obvious humanitarian argument is that we’re supporting Christians for solidarity, but also because they’re the most persecuted religion in the world. This seems like a sweeping political statement but it’s founded on research and facts.’
Hungary’s program is unlike any other in the European Union, and it is especially unlike the United Nations’, which is multilateral and whose projects in Nineveh, the heart of Iraqi Christianity, were rife with problems. In October 2017, In Defense of Christians, an American nonprofit based in Washington, released a report delineating the problems with the UN’s projects, including poor completion and no adequate auditing mechanism to check work quality. Christians and Yazidis on the ground also reported to IDC that the UN was ‘woefully negligent’ in helping these genocide survivors.
The Hungary Helps program, however, has seen much success, partially attributable to its direct approach. So far, for example, the program has helped reconstruct Tell-Askuf, a town north of Mosul that has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The Hungarian assistance enabled the renovation of 950 damaged homes, allowing 1,000 families to return, along with five schools and a kindergarten. They’ve also launched other projects in Erbil, Alqosh, and Qaraqosh, not to mention their humanitarian projects outside of the Middle East in countries such as Sri Lanka. Azbej also emphasizes the scholarship program component of Hungary Helps, which awards scholarships to study at Hungarian universities to promising potential students from minority groups threatened in their native country. The program aims to equip students with an education with the expectation that they will return to their homes after graduation and take part in reconstruction projects.
‘We are not trying to be smarter than who we support,’ Azbej tells me. ‘We always ask what they need and then provide the support for that objective, and in 99 percent of cases, we ask how we can support them and the answer is that they wish to remain in the homeland, in their ancestral land.’
The Hungarian government has been unapologetic in naming the problem, so much so that it’s a pleasant surprise for people such as Fr. Benedict Kiely, a Catholic priest from London who devoted his entire priestly ministry to aid and advocacy for persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East, where he has traveled several times to witness the conditions Christians face today. ‘The British government has failed miserably in terms of denial of visas even for short visits for Christians from the Middle East — bishops, nuns, and priests have all been denied visas,’ he tells me. Most Iraqi and Syrian Christians have fled their homes, and, for example, the Assyrian diaspora is larger than the population of Assyrians left in their native Iraq. Another essential point of the Hungarian aid, however, is to not bring a wave of migrants to Hungary, especially after witnessing the influx of migrants into Europe in the last few years, which reached crisis levels with no adequate way to manage security and resettlement. As Azbej notes, most Christians prefer staying in their homes, but they rely on foreign aid to help rebuild their communities back into inhabitable conditions so they can stay.
Many of the Christian leaders from the Middle East speaking at the event also expressed their frustrations with the unwillingness of the movers and shakers of world politics to recognize Christian persecution to the existential level it has reached. Media coverage of persecuted Christians was also criticized by advocates of the persecuted, one example being former President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s use of ‘Easter worshippers’ in lieu of ‘Christians’ when expressing sympathies on Twitter following the targeted attack on churches in Sri Lanka, which killed 259 people. ‘Our cries have not been heard by many,’ Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church Ignatius Aphrem II said to the guests at the conference. ‘Very few tangible steps have been taken to ensure our survival in the lands of our fathers.’ The Patriarch mournfully reads the numbers; ‘90 percent of Christians have already left Iraq, 50 percent have left Syria.’
We should all look to Hungary Helps, as it is prioritizing relationship-building with communities that can be trusted, so that the weary do not need to worry about the possibility of hidden agendas or Sisyphean paperwork processes that they don’t have time for, or that often will not guarantee them aid. Azbej notes how small of a country Hungary is, but that they seek coalition-building to achieve results. Certainly, a country seven times smaller than Texas can not save all of the world’s persecuted Christians alone. But it can serve as a model for others to follow and join.
On the last day of the conference, I sat in a room of advocates on behalf of the persecuted; Americans, British, Egyptians, Hungarians, Pakistanis, Syrians, Iraqis, Assyrians. In one last exhortation, they expressed what they believed had to be done in order to remedy the exodus of Christians from the lands of their ancestors: merely recognizing it as such, forthright and firmly, just as the Hungarians have.
The Hungarian approach is unprecedented in its humility; the humility to defer to the persecuted themselves who are more aware of their needs than any IGO, and the humility to not allow oneself to be mired down by the accepted narratives of who and who is not a beleaguered people, narratives which often leaves out the suffering of Christians or downplays it. The fact of the matter is, Christians are among the world’s most persecuted religious groups, and from Burkina Faso to Nineveh, Christian blood is flowing. Should the Christians who defiantly practice their faith even with the looming threat of terror be wiped from the Earth, it is us Westerners who will be guilty for not defending the martyrs.