Bishop of Vác

The plight of the Hungarian Roma: Writings of a Catholic bishop and a Roma activist

Miklós Beer, the bishop of Vác, has been in the news quite a bit lately. He called media attention to himself on September 21 when he asked the priests of the churches in his bishopric to read a letter to his “brethren in Christ.” His circular took as its prompting text the gospel reading for the day, the parable from Matthew 20:1-16 about the householder who hired unemployed workers for his vineyard and gave the same amount of money to all without regard to how much time they spent working during the day. Beer thought it was finally time to talk about the miserable lot of the Roma minority in Hungary.

People were surprised to learn about the circular because until now the Catholic Church has remained quiet about the mass poverty that followed the change of regime in 1990. Gypsies who until then were employed, mostly in the building industry, as unskilled laborers were the first ones to find themselves out of a job, and the integration of Gypsies and non-Gypsies that had begun during the Kádár regime came to a screeching halt. Gypsies today live a segregated existence in villages far from job opportunities, and prejudice against them has grown to new heights.

Beer in this circular was battling prejudice. The Gypsy, he wrote, is also the child of God; “as Christians we cannot pass the responsibility to others.” He emphasized something that few Hungarians accept: “the Gypsies did not seek their misery and cannot raise themselves alone without our help.” What would Christ do today for the Roma in Hungary? The biblical answer is that “although he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Magyar Nemzet decided it was time to interview this would-be social reformer. In the interview Beer said a few things that don’t sit well with the majority of Hungarians. “Let’s not be angry with them when perhaps they take produce from someone else’s property because their children are starving since, despite their efforts, they cannot find employment.” Public works might be a first step, but it is not the answer in the long run. He also criticized some of the efforts of the Orbán government–for instance, the programs that cost billions of forints that gave Gypsy families one-day-old chicks or seed potatoes without teaching them how to take care of the chicks or what to do with the seed potatoes. Above all, he said, “we must strengthen their self-esteem.” Since Beer likes to refer to Pope Francis, some journalists started calling him “our Pope Francis.”

Bishop Beer’s latest was his midnight Christmas sermon broadcast on MTV1, which became available on YouTube two days later. He talked about the darkness that will be followed by light. Darkness is what divides people: jealousy, wickedness, party strife, suspicion, falseness, corruption, lies, political machinations. And he quoted Attila József’s famous poem “My country,” which was an indictment of the Horthy regime. József was right, says Beer, when he talked about the “wily fear that directs us.”* Thus Beer compared the present situation to the 1930s when the poem was written. As I watched the parishioners’ faces I wondered how much of the subtext of Beer’s sermon they understood.

*Unfortunately, this particular poem is not available in English but I found a translation in French. See the link given above.

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Continuing today’s theme, here is a recent article by Aladár Horváth on the plight of the Hungarian Roma community. Horváth is a former member of parliament (SZDSZ) and a Roma activist.

 

PROTEST, FIGHT OR FLIGHT

Next year’s budget has pronounced the death sentence on the poor living in torturous poverty. From next March on, the governing majority will cease state assistance (regular welfare, nursing care and habitation support), waiving all duties connected to welfare to the care of municipal governments in severe lack of resources. It will be subject to restricted local budgets and the will and caprice of local potentates who can get what kind of assistance under what legal title. This will exclude tens or hundreds of thousands more from minimal assistance, while the corrupt elite of billionaires is sentencing at least one million people to death, leaving further three million behind “on the street” – as envisioned by László Bogár, a chief government ideologue.

This cannot merely be looked upon as a further station on the road of a series of bloodsucking measures; these policies already satisfying the criterion of genocide.Especially if you consider them together with the system of public works (“work makes you free”), the political practice of legalizing the segregation of Gypsy children, while depriving the Roma from civil and human rights institutions and ethnic organization, added to the segregated nature of urban Roma ghettos and village “reservations”– in other words, full segregation: you can safely say that apartheid in Hungary has been institutionalized.

As no rational economic argument exists for “saving”this barely 40 billion HUF [about 150 million USD], since “Hungary is performing better”[1]– this is barely the price of three soccer stadiums, a fraction of the cost of the Prime Minister’s planned residence in the Buda Castle, or the annual consignments of Közgép,[2] in other words, it amounts to the salaries of a few CEO’s of any Hungarian company that “performs better” –, only calculated political interest can be behind this decision. This is confirmed by the government communiqué that says the reason for such restrictions are people showing up on welfare payment days at the post office “with large SUV’s.”As much as we know the “natural history” of corrupt post-Soviet or further banana republics,we can safely suppose that this is a strategy of conscious scapegoat creation, an evil and bastardly manipulation cooked up in the witches’ kitchen of Hungarian government policies.

To wit, if there is no money for a family to pay for breakfast, blankets, or, God forgive, medicines for a small child, the parent will face a choice. Starvation, sickness, suffering and early death, or committing criminal acts.The consequence of the latter will be being caught and going to jail. Which leads on to the volunteer spiral of drugs, prostitution and violence.And as the number of criminal cases grows, society itself will demand even tougher measures against criminals, contributing to an even further restriction of civil rights, while “blue-light” [police] news will distract attention from the responsibility of the true culprits.

As no doubt the highest number of criminal acts investigated will be among those who are most oppressed and most monitored: the Roma– they’re the ones that can whip the news media into a frenzy –, you can safely say that the racial hatred stirred against Gypsies will be such a fuel in the hands of the government that riots can be provoked any time, then a state of emergency, and then nothing will matter more to people than to control those who upset the public order.

I suggest two avenues of action to those that do not derive advantages from this regime, unless they want to die in humiliation and live a life of suffering, dying 20 years earlier or spending long and tortuous years in prison: fight of flight.

My dear companions in distress, if you don’t believe in change, in demolishing this corrupt apartheid system and building a livable country in its place, and if you are able, go and find a new home country for a time or for good! A country where your values matter more than the color of your skin, where people count upon your knowledge and your work, where your children can grow up in safety with smiles, where struggling has a purpose, where you can be yourself. If you don’t have a good profession, language skills, funds or the strength to leave your country of birth which has denied you, or if you believe in yourself and in the chance of change, and if you are standing on your feet, struggle and fight for a new system change, for a new republic which can be home to every one of its citizens, and so can for you too!

Either of these decisions are tough, but those that wish to live in dignity will have to decide and take a step. Those of you that choose to stay in Hungary: get in contact with the people’s resistance movements, the new civil organizations, the parties under formation! And please participate in mass demonstrations: make the Roma visible! This promises perspectives because every power built upon evil must collapse once. We can only hope that the coming chaos and the civil war are not going to bury innocent people. A new Republic will be built upon new foundations in the place of the former one,[3] and this time, together with the Roma.

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Published in Népszabadság Online, December 27, 2014

[1] Recent slogan of Prime Minister Orbán – the translator

[2] The largest construction company close to the government, winning all tenders for road constructions and renovations –the translator

[3] Hungary is no longer a republic – the new Constitution in effect since April 2012 only defines the country as “Hungary” – the translator