Hungarian priest brings migrants in from the cold

Kormend (Hungary) (AFP) –


"Save us before we die from the cold," read the email in Father Zoltan Nemeth's inbox. It was an appeal that this Hungarian priest could not ignore.

The SOS was sent by an asylum-seeker, one of 14 relocated from a refugee camp earmarked for closure near Budapest to what they say are freezing military tents in Kormend close to the Austrian border.

Nemeth, the Catholic parish priest in Kormend, a town of around 12,000 souls some 230 kilometres (140 miles) west of Budapest, quickly offered them shelter in the parish community hall.

"I'm not a hero, it was simply my duty as a committed Christian to help," the bespectacled and portly 61-year-old told AFP in the parish house next door where he lives.

But Nemeth calls his stance a "lonely" one in a country led by the fiercely anti-migrant Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

In 2015 Orban built fences on Hungary's borders to keep out migrants, and changed laws enabling the expulsion and jailing of "illegal border crossers".

Refugee camps are being closed while a government referendum in October urged Hungarians to vote "No" to the EU's plan to relocate migrants around the bloc. The ballot however was declared invalid because of low voter turnout.

"Hungary doesn't need a single migrant," Orban has said, warning that the "poison" of mass migration will destroy Europe's Christian identity.

- 'I follow Jesus' -

According to Nemeth however Orban's referendum campaign, with nationwide billboard posters that linked migrants to terrorism and crime, had an "anti-Gospel message".

"I follow Jesus, not the state's leaders," he told AFP, citing a passage from the Bible: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat... I was a stranger and you invited me in."

The priest says his inspiration is Pope Francis who has regularly defended migrants and called on Europe to keep its doors open to those in need.

Upstairs in the parish hall, priest vestments hang on racks at one end, while mattresses and rucksacks line the walls.

Greeted with bear hugs when he goes upstairs to chat to the asylum-seekers, Nemeth says a three-year period in South America as a missionary taught him to "disregard religion, race, or class, and only see the person".

The group of young men, all awaiting decisions on appeals of rejected asylum claims, is comprised of Iraqi Kurds, Afghans, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Cubans and a Congolese. They include both Christians and Muslims.

- 'Non-Christian' -

But Hungarian Catholic Church leaders have remained silent so far about his gesture, with only two priests nationwide backing him, neither publically, says Nemeth.

During the peak of the migrant crisis last September when thousands were entering through the country each day, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo even said hosting migrants could legally amount to "human-trafficking".

In Kormend some parishioners have accused Nemeth of being "non-Christian" or "anti-Hungarian".

"One even stopped me on the street to warn that the migrants will kill me as a jihadist did Pere Hamel in France," the 85-year-old priest murdered in July, Nemeth told AFP.

In his office though, amid Christmas food packages for delivery to the parish's sick and poor, he points to many messages of support on his computer that he has received from people around the country, churchgoers and atheists alike.

- 'With humanity or not' -

Media have not been allowed into the nearby complex of military tents but several of the migrants showed AFP photographs they took of conditions inside. The only heating is a wood-fired stove, they say.

"One of us had to stay awake all night to keep feeding it with wood to keep warm," said the Cameroonian who wrote the email to the priest, but asked not to be named.

Hungary's Immigration Office told AFP in an email that the conditions in Kormend comply with all EU and international regulations.

A local refugee rights group meanwhile has slammed the tent camp as "inadequate and inhuman".

"The unwelcoming message is clear, it gives asylum-seekers no choice but to leave the country," Aniko Bakonyi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee told AFP.

According to the official data, almost 30,000 migrants sought asylum in Hungary this year, but less than 400 have received some form of protected status.

Nemeth says attitudes in Austria, just a dozen kilometres down the road, have hardened too, especially after attacks like in Paris or Berlin.

"But at least the camp conditions there are dignified. This migration crisis is not over, the question is how we receive people who come, with humanity or not."