I will spend a little time today and tomorrow talking about topics that in one way or another are connected to religion.
Let me start with a footnote to the relationship between church and state in Orbán’s Hungary. I got so involved with the story of the alleged mummified right hand of Saint Stephen, whom I really should call Stephen I, that I didn’t pay much attention to the mass held in the St. Stephen Basilica and the procession that followed. However, today I noticed a sentence in an article that the grand old man of the 1956 Revolution, Tibor Méray, wrote on Galamus on August 28. The article itself is an indictment of the Hungarian political elite from József Antall to Viktor Orbán. The sentence that caught my eye was that “Orbán had the temerity to lead the Procession of the Holy Hand when he is a Protestant. Not even Horthy dared to do that.” Horthy was also Protestant.
Not only was Viktor Orbán present at the mass but also President János Áder; Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister; Pál Schmitt, former president who had to resign because of plagiarism; Péter Boross, former prime minister (1993-1994); Péter Darák, head of the Supreme Court (Kúria); Antal Rogán, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation; and Mrs. Ferenc Mádl, wife of the former president (2000-2005) whose political sympathies definitely lie with Fidesz. I was somewhat surprised to find Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador, among the dignitaries.
The opening of the school year prompted another round of incredible comments from government officials on religion and specifically on Christianity, but I will leave that topic for tomorrow.
Today I will touch on another topic that has something to do with religion. I’m talking about Mayor István Tarlós’s encounter with the Old Testament.
Erzsébet Gy. Nagy is currently a politician in the Demokratikus Koalíció. Earlier she was one of the leading MSZP politicians in Budapest, best known as the MSZP candidate against the long-time SZDSZ mayor Gábor Demszky in 2002. Recently she wrote an open letter in the name of DK protesting the decision of the Fidesz-KDNP city council to make homelessness a criminal act. After all, argued Nagy, the Constitutional Court found the practice unconstitutional. She reminded “the leadership of the country and the capital whose members claim to be Christians of what the Bible says: ‘Blessed is he who considers the poor! The Lord delivers him in the day of trouble’ (Psalms 41:1).”
That innocent biblical quotation became the center of a political controversy because of an interview Mayor István Tarlós gave on HírTV. I will translate that part of the interview (from 8:25 on) that prompted the upheaval.
Tarlós: I also read today–what is the name of the group around Gyurcsány? Demokratikus Koalíció, isn’t it? Erzsébet Gy. Nagy, former MSZP colleague of mine in the city council, made a statement and began her declaration with “Blessed is he who considers the poor! The Lord delivers him in the day of trouble.” She quoted from the Book of Psalms. Now it is one thing that when they open the Bible on such occasions it always opens at the Old Testament, but I don’t want to say anything about this here.
Reporter: Let’s add to that that another DK member of parliament said that you will have to give account of your actions before the Lord.
Tarlós: It was so because I really believe in the Lord, although it is true that I read the New Testament more often, but we also read the Old Testament. But there is no need for such a hypocritical attitude. They come up with haphazard quotations. This is what happens to those who for a while confirmed.* Or who talk about the Messiah in front of rabbis.** So, these people would be better off if they didn’t lift passages from the Bible, but let that be their problem.
Why was it necessary for Tarlós to make an issue of the quotation that happened to come from the Old Testament? Naturally he denied that he intimated that members of the Demokratikus Koalíció mostly peruse the pages of the Old Testament and said that he finds the accusation “ridiculous and pitiful.”
Erzsébet Gy. Nagy answered in the name of the Demokratikus Koalíció. She decided to give a short lecture on church history to Tarlós who “unlike the children does need religious education.” And she made four points. (1) The First Council of Nicea in 325 declared the Old Testament one of the holy books. (2) The Bible normally opens at the Old Testament because it is much larger than the New Testament. Earlier the Demokratikus Koalíció cited some of the New Testament passages that are applicable. (3) In fact, Jesus put an even greater emphasis on mercy and compassion than the prophets of the Old Testament. Instead of the Book of Psalms they could have cited Matt. 18:33 “and should not you have mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” and (4) A gentleman is not “zsidózik” and for others it is forbidden.
I once tried to explain what this strange Hungarian verb means. The occasion was Zsófia Mihancsik’s article, which I translated as “Antisemitism: A short history of responsibility.” And I added that the word she used, and what I translated as antisemitism, is “zsidózás,” a noun coming from the verb “zsidózni,” which is an untranslatable Hungarian verb. It means talking about Jews (zsidók in pl.) in an unfavorable light. It also implies that the speaker regularly engages in anti-Jewish speech. There is no question in my mind that this is what Tarlós was doing.
*The original makes no more sense than the translation.
** The reference here is to Ferenc Gyurcsány who in 2005 in a speech commemorating the Holocaust got mixed up and talked about the Messiah instead of the Creator before attending a Jewish service.