KÖRMEND, Hungary (RNS) Tucked up near the Austrian border, about 160 miles from Budapest, is a small Hungarian town of 12,000 people. It’s a quiet place about three and a half hours and two trains rides from Hungary’s capital.
But the community has been split by the decision of the local Catholic parish priest, the Rev. Zoltan Nemeth, to allow some asylum-seekers to take shelter in a church building.
The refugee issue is electric in Hungary, with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government taking an increasingly hostile line against those seeking asylum in the country. Last month the Hungarian authorities announced the detention of all asylum-seekers, and state news outlets push a steady stream of xenophobic stories to the public.
When a few months ago Nemeth offered some asylum-seekers shelter, it split Körmend. The asylum-seekers were from Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere, and were sleeping in tents on the outskirts of the town.
Nemeth lives right next to his church, St. Erzsebet’s. He explains how one of the asylum-seekers from Africa emailed, asking for help.
“The main reason we took them in was because they were in life-threatening danger,” he said.
A middle-aged man in a comfy cardigan and glasses, Nemeth looks like an unlikely hero. His handshake doesn’t try to impress, and he’s a little bemused that anyone thinks what he did is newsworthy.
“It came as a surprise to public opinion that we took people in,” he said. While some parishioners have been supportive, others have criticized him for helping the asylum-seekers, about a dozen men he has allowed to sleep in the nearby church building. People have shouted abuse at him on the street; his young chaplain has been sworn at.
Others have accused him of being a lackey of philanthropist George Soros, targeted by the Orbán government for his funding of various academic, rights and charitable causes in Hungary. Or they’ve shouted the name of Jacques Hamel at him, referring to the French priest murdered by two ISIS recruits as he was celebrating Mass in his Normandy church last year.
Nemeth told me he’s encouraged by Pope Francis, who invited a dozen refugees from Syria to the Vatican.
The moral choice was clear for Nemeth when he was asked to help people living in the cold.
“This church doesn’t have a bishop at the moment,” he said. “And for that reason I came to the decision on my own. Among the (church) followers there was division, since the politics surrounding refugees in Hungary is not built on acceptance. That is why our followers became divided. Even among priests we can see the divisions.”
He said that although there had been appeals for parishes to accept refugees, “there was really no reaction, no one took them in, and there was no substantive dialogue within the church between bishops and priests.”
Some of the parishioners help the local asylum-seekers prepare their meals, and Nemeth said the interaction has helped some locals overcome stereotypes about foreigners.
Last year, Orbán’s government organized a referendum aimed at evading the country’s responsibilities on refugees. Although the question “Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?” won a clear “no” from voters, turnout was too low to make the results valid.
While the Budapest government continues to push a dangerous anti-refugee rhetoric across the country, Nemeth has shown what it means to address the clear choice between helping and ignoring those in need. If Hungary is struggling for moral leadership on the issue of xenophobia, the town of Körmend isn’t.
(Brian Dooley is a senior adviser at Human Rights First, where he engages with the U.S. government and other partners to end threats and obstacles to human rights work. Follow him on Twitter @dooley_dooley)