St. Louis, Mo., Dec 14, 2022 / 15:44 pm (CNA).
Hungarian President Katalin Novák visited Iraq last week, stopping at a majority-Christian town that has been rebuilt in recent years almost entirely with Hungarian support, following years of occupation and devastation by the so-called Islamic State.
Novák, a Reformed Christian, on Dec. 9 toured St. George Chaldean Catholic Church in Telskuf, a predominantly Christian village about 20 miles north of Mosul in the Nineveh Plains which suffered greatly under ISIS occupation beginning in 2014.
The church’s priest, Father Karam Naguib Qasha, gave a brief explanation of the reconstruction work of the church building and damaged houses in the town, and the role of the Hungarian government in achieving the reconstruction, reported ACI Mena, CNA’s Arabic-language news partner.
Since 2017, Hungary has given an outsize proportion of the aid needed for persecuted Christians in Iraq and around the world to rebuild and sustain their livelihood. The country’s Hungary Helps program says it has enabled some 250,000 Christians to remain in their homelands.
Stephen Rasche, an American lawyer, documentarian, and a fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute who has worked and advocated extensively in persecuted Christian communities in both Iraq and Nigeria, told CNA that Hungary has provided timely, tangible help to persecuted Christians in recent years, and remains one of the only countries to do so.
Hungary’s aid has resulted in entire Christian towns being rebuilt in Iraq, and more recently, Catholic schools in territories previously occupied by Boko Haram being reopened in Nigeria.
“They’re there directly, in a way that other countries which have substantially more resources can’t be found,” Rasche commented.
Hungary’s aid model involves granting funds directly to the local Catholic or other Christian churches for rebuilding and helping Christian communities stay in their ancestral homelands. Iraq is home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities; as recently as 2003, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, but today there are fewer than 250,000. Pope Francis visited the beleaguered Christian community in Iraq in March 2021, to an enthusiastic welcome.
Rasche said Hungary was “really the first government” to provide aid by dealing directly with Iraq’s persecuted Christians. He said aid that trickles down to Iraq’s Christians through channels such as the United Nations is often received far too late to make a difference — if aid takes a few months to a year to arrive, often the Christians of the area have moved elsewhere or left the country entirely, he said.
After ISIS lost control of Mosul in 2017, Hungary provided a direct grant to the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil to rebuild the town of Telskuf. Rasche, who serves as counsel to the archdiocese, said an admirable quality of Hungary’s program is its willingness to trust the local community and to grant them the money to rebuild in a manner that is best for them. The direct aid provided by Hungary allowed the local archdiocese to recover and rebuild the town within two to three months. Many of the hundreds of Christian families who were displaced by ISIS have since returned.
The Knights of Columbus later used the same model as Hungary — granting money directly to the local churches — to do a similar project, rebuilding the majority-Christian town of Karamlesh.
“That aid was tremendously effective for recovering those towns rapidly,” Rasche said, saying the examples of Karamlesh and Telskuf stand out as “singular successes” in terms of recovery, and “prove that the model works.” He said he hopes that wealthier countries such as the United States will take notice of Hungary’s success in this area.
President Novák’s recent visit to Iraq included a meeting with Archbishop Boulos Thabet Habib of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Alqosh, and a visit to a kindergarten run by the Dominican Sisters, which was being reconstructed with Hungarian government assistance. She also visited a model farm — located on a piece of land granted by the Chaldean Church to Hungarian organizations — that seeks to develop agriculture practices to help local farmers.
Finally, Novák visited the ancient Chaldean monastery of Rabban Hormizd, which dates to the year 640 A.D. and is located in the far north of Iraq.
“We hope that this visit will be a reminder to the international community about these people who are in this region, not to be forgotten,” Archbishop Habib told ACI Mena.
“[T]he process of reconstruction and development of this region and the consolidation of Christians on their land will continue.”
Hungary Helps, while providing vital assistance on the ground to the persecuted, also has an explicitly stated goal of eliminating the “root causes of migration,” including migration to Hungary itself. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is known for his hardline stance against immigration to Hungary, which has garnered criticism from his fellow European Union leaders and elsewhere, including from officials at the Vatican.
“The migration and humanitarian policies of the Hungarian government go hand in hand,” Tristan Azbej, State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians, writes on the welcome page of the Hungary Helps website.
“We are not advocating that people in need should leave their homelands. Rather, we are promoting that they should stay in their home countries or return there. It is our firm and consistent principle that help should be provided where trouble is instead of bringing people in trouble to Europe and to our country.”
In Rasche’s view, the aid is making a real difference in Christian communities, regardless of any additional political baggage that may be attached to it.
“Whatever the internal politics within Europe may be, the reality and the effectiveness of these programs can’t be denied,” he said.
“Our focus, always, is with the people who are affected in these situations,” he said, referring to the persecuted Christians.
“And so we do our best to make sure that we keep away from these other political differences, and keep our focus always on the people affected.”