Zoltán Osztie

A divided Hungary: Two images of Viktor Orbán

I will try to demonstrate, mostly for those who are not familiar with the Hungarian political scene, how controversial a character Viktor Orbán is in his own country.

Some Hungarians absolutely adore him and look upon him as the “Savior of  Hungary.” He occasionally alludes to himself as the light that will lead the whole of  Europe out of darkness. Just as he did Hungary. His detractors are just as passionate. They loathe him and often view him as a common thief.

Yesterday was the prime minister’s fiftieth birthday. To mark the occasion an organization called Lányok és Asszonyok Orbán Viktorért Egyesület (Association of Girls and Women for Viktor Orbán) ordered a mass for him, his family, and the whole nation. Celebrating the mass was Zoltán Osztie, the parish priest of Pest’s oldest church near the Elizabeth Bridge and an ardent supporter of Viktor Orbán and his regime. He has been involved in the organization of the Peace Marches alongside such men as Zsolt Bayer, Gábor Széles, and András Bencsik.

The government decided to downplay the adulatory birthday mass. There are already signs of a growing personality cult in Hungary, and so as not to fan it further (especially in light of EU criticisms of Orbán’s anti-democratic ways) word went out to keep birthday celebrations to a minimum. MTI, the Hungarian telegraphic agency, published only a couple of pictures, no story. Magyar Nemzet made no mention of  the mass.

Not so the opposition papers from which we even learned what gospel passage Osztie chose (excerpts from Mark 11:2-17):

2 On the following day, when they [Jesus and his followers] came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Jesus in the temple

Osztie and the 600-700 people who listened to him obviously look upon Viktor Orbán as a messiah who was sent to Hungary to cleanse the country from the filth the liberals and socialists left behind. To drive the money changers out and to create a country of honesty, decency, and purpose.

By contrast, among those who hate him the general belief is that Viktor Orbán is himself a thief and his inner circle a den of robbers. There are literally hundreds of blogs and thousands of reader comments that refer to him as a mafioso and a common criminal. I picked a blog post that is perhaps the harshest I have ever encountered. It appeared on pupublogja, “blog of the camel.” The blogger is a prolific writer and an Orbán hater. He calls him “the Hibbant” (cracked, a man with a loose screw). According to “pupu,” Orbán is a liar “who steals the country blind.”

People call Orbán “talented” because “he managed to survive all his friends and adversaries and destroy all his enemies.” But for “pupu” he is “the leader of a shoddy, trashy band of robbers.” The author of the blog compares him to László Moré, a sixteenth-century soldier of fortune who took advantage of the chaotic political situation that developed after the Battle of Mohács (1526) in which King Louis II died without issue. At times Moré supported Ferdinand and at other times János Szapolyai, the two contenders for the Hungarian throne, but while they fought each other Moré managed to rob practically the whole Transdanubian area until the two finally got rid of him by defeating his forces in Palota (today Várpalota) in 1533.

An increasing number of people suspect, just like “pupu,” that Orbán’s wealth is enormous and that what we see is “only the tip of the iceberg.” “Pupu” is certain that 90% of Orbán’s wealth is hidden. Moreover, not only is he a crook; he is also an untalented prime minister. His first premiership was a disaster: empty coffers, alienated neighbors, and his reputation abroad was such that every politician west of Hungary was relieved when he was defeated. And what is he doing now? “No more democracy, no sustainable economic growth, national debt is as high as before, people’s mood is rotten… Azeri murderer, stolen pension funds, Simicska, Lázár, Semjén, and a deal with Gábor Vona perhaps still to come. Stadiums, five million citizens under the poverty line, hungry children, and the plundering of the country. Yesterday tobacconist shops, today forests, tomorrow National Liquor Stores, a narrow-gauge railway for the family, and a stadium for son Gazsi.”

“On the list of the casualties are democracy, youth, education, healthcare, Hungarian agriculture, modernization, our lives…. Is this man talented? I don’t even know whether I should question the ‘man’ or the ‘talented.’ Perhaps both together and also separately.”

Yet there remain those in whose eyes Orbán is a saint. Cult of personality? During the summer the streetcar rails normally get repaired and therefore the Budapest Transit Authority reroutes certain lines. Streetcar #50 was one of those that will be rerouted this year. Index decided to make a little joke of it, recalling 1948 when Stalin celebrated his seventieth birthday and the servile Rákosi government renumbered one of the Budapest streetcar lines #70. A reporter and a camera man showed up at the current route of streetcar #50 and asked people what they thought about its being rerouted from its lowly position in the outskirts to somewhere closer to parliament.

It seemed that most of the people who commented missed the point of the comparison to Stalin’s 70th birthday. Some of them refused to answer “political questions.” But there was one pugnacious older woman who found nothing wrong with the idea of rerouting streetcar #50 to celebrate the prime minister’s birthday. After all, he is the prime minister of the country and he deserves it. She very much hopes that he will have many years to guide the country. Some people might complain that he didn’t manage to create one million new jobs, but after all it took even God seven days to create the world and in three years he couldn’t fix everything that the communists ruined. Try to explain to this woman that three years ago the Hungarian economy was in better shape than it is today. It would be a hopeless task. Just as “pupu” couldn’t be persuaded that Viktor Orbán is God’s gift to Hungary and the Hungarian people.

Viktor Orbán’s speech at the meeting of the Association of Christian Intelligentsia

Viktor Orbán gave a speech at a round table discussion of the Association of Christian Intelligentsia (Keresztény Értlemiségiek Szövetsége/KÉSZ = Ready). The name of the organization didn’t immediately ring a bell until I read that its president is Zoltán Osztie, a Catholic priest known for his reactionary worldview. Moreover, Osztie is a politically committed man in the service of the current government. He and his organization work hand in hand with László Csizmadia’s CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), which is behind the peace marches and which lately announced plans for a peace march to Brussels. CÖF received billions of forints from the central government, and thus Csizmadia and his friends had no problem footing the rather expensive campaign against Gordon Bajnai. Zsolt Bayer, András Bencsik, Gábor Széles, Ádám Pozsonyi, and László Csizmadia are prominent members of a “defense front” in the service of Viktor Orbán and his policies. Zoltán Osztie belongs to that inner circle of supporters.

I did some research on KÉSZ, which originally I mistakenly thought was just one of the many Christian civil groups. I always get suspicious when a group of people get together in the name of Christianity because in Hungary the adjective “keresztény” normally carries an emphasis on being “non-Jewish.” Otherwise, I see no reason for writers, journalists, and actors to distinguish themselves as Christians. KÉSZ is certainly not a simple gathering place for practicing Christians. Under the leadership of Zoltán Osztie it has become a politically committed organization.

The group was formed by another Catholic priest, Béla Csanád, in 1989 with the mission to spread the word. After years of anti-religious propaganda Csanád and his friends felt that there was a need for a kind of re-conversion of the intellectual elite who could then spread the gospel further. Although Csanád was a Catholic poet, the organization theoretically was open to all practicing Christians; according to the by-laws this is still the case. Osztie, however, often talks about the one and only church, the mysterious body of Christ, about a community in the middle of which lives the Virgin Mary. Well, that is a rather specific worldview in which Protestants wouldn’t be welcome.

kereszteny ertelmisegiek szovetsegeOsztie took over the presidency of KÉSZ after Csanád’s death in 1996. His election was questioned by some of the members and eventually the court found it illegal. Seventeen years later he shows no inclination to leave the position, and most likely his grip on KÉSZ is such that no one could unseat him. There is an excellent article on Osztie that appeared in Magyar Narancs a couple of months ago.

A few interesting tidbits about the man. While he was studying for the priesthood in the 1970s he didn’t seem to be at all attracted to the small group of students who stood up to professors servile to the regime. He especially liked those professors whom most of the students disliked because of their rigidity. And he developed a hatred of liberalism, which he calls the result of “the devil’s destructive fury.” In his eyes, everything that has happened since the Renaissance is an attack on the church. Why was the Catholic Church the target? Because “the church is the guardian of natural communities, the family, the nation, the natural sexual and societal roles.” Society must therefore return to Christianity “because without God life has no meaning and no morality.” As for the appropriate sexual roles, in summer camps for children organized by KÉSZ boys learn to harvest and girls learn home canning. Traditional all right.

As for the role of the church, “Hungary is a Christian country. It is that simple. No other ideology, no other religion, no other messages have any place in this homeland. It is time to say that at last.” Of modern governments, he considers the Horthy regime’s attitude toward the church the most satisfactory. He finds the anti-Semitic Pál Teleki, the extreme right-wing Bálint Hóman, and Ottokár Prohászka, the spiritual father of Hungarism,”wonderful people who with the help of God resurrected the dead, mutilated country.”

As for his ideas on the media, Osztie thinks that its duties include the delivery of the aspirations and the accomplishments of the government. It’s no wonder that Osztie welcomed the much criticized media law.

When we analyze Viktor Orbán’s speech at the round table discussion of KÉSZ in Győr we must keep his audience in mind. The speech is partially transcribed on Viktor Orbán’s website and available on YouTube in its entirety. Here he describes himself as a Christian politician who must answer to God not just every four years but every day. We also learn the reason for the European Union’s intense dislike of Hungary. “While the European Union piles fiasco on top of fiasco it doesn’t want to recognize the success story of Hungary… We have been blacklisted. They want to force the role of black sheep on us.” And why is this so? “Because of our traditional and natural view of the family. In the center of the controversy is the family. Our Fundamental Law defends the family and marriage.”  He added that “for four thousand years the rule was that every marriage consists of a man and a woman. … We don’t have to explain anything; we must ask them why it was necessary to give up a four-thousand-year tradition.” According to Orbán, there is a strong secular and anti-family lobby in Europe that has been very successful. Hungary bucks this trend and receives Europe’s hatred as a result.

And finally, he assured his audience that the government counts on the Christian intelligentsia because without them there is no electoral victory.

At the end, let me mention a Galamus article on this speech by the philosopher Ferenc L. Lendvai. He found a few pieces of nonsense [zöldség in Hungarian] in it. First, Viktor Orbán’s reference to the 4,000-year tradition of marriage between men and women. Orbán specifically mentioned 2,000 years of the New Testament and 2,000 years of the New Testament. Nice, but wrong!  Napoleon talked about 4,000 years of civilization during his campaign against Egypt. And he was right; the pyramids are more than 4,000 years old. But Orbán has a problem with Old Testament chronology. Abraham wasn’t even born 2,000 years before Christ. And where was Moses with his tablets? And where were the priests who wrote down the laws of God? Moreover, even if they had lived four thousand years ago, the good Hungarian Christians wouldn’t be too enamored with the concepts of marriage and family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “If they don’t believe it, I suggest they should read the Bible if they are such good Christians.”

As for Orbán’s reference to good Christian politicians who have to give account to God every day, Lendvai quotes Matthew 7:22-23.

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Gábor Bethlen, prince of Transylvania (1580-1629), was a good Calvinist. In his lifetime he read the Old and New Testaments forty times. Viktor Orbán, who is so proud of belonging to the Hungarian Reformed Church, should follow the example of Bethlen whom he admires. Start reading. And not just the Bible.