Despite his staunch support of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill, the leader of Russia’s Orthodox church, has so far escaped European Union sanctions — thanks to the support of Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.
nxious to defend “Christian values”, Orban’s nationalist government has sought to strengthen ties with the Patriarch of Moscow, who last week assured Russian leader Vladimir Putin that “God put you in power”.
Orban has showered the church with state funds even though just 14,000 of Hungary’s nearly 10 million people are Orthodox.
In the spa town of Heviz in western Hungary, mass is already being celebrated in a new Russian Orthodox church even though it is not yet finished.
Despite the rough concrete floor when AFP visited in June, the faithful have nothing but praise for Orban.
“He understands what is important. Hungary is a model of Orthodox-Catholic relations,” said Russian businessman Alexei Yazikov, 61, from Mytishchi near Moscow, who regularly visits Hungary.
Priest Nikolai Kim said his parish was “immensely grateful” to the generosity of the Hungarian government in supporting the one-million-euro ($1 million) chapel, which sits beside the shores of a small lake.
“Thanks to them we (have) built such a wonderful church… But it is not only us, our small parish, who feel this gratitude, it is the whole Russian Church,” he told AFP.
Patriarch Kirill made headlines last week when he said Putin’s reign had been mandated by God as he wished the Russian leader a happy 70th birthday.
The EU stopped short of blacklisting Kirill in June after Hungary objected to sanctions on “religious freedom” grounds.
Orban had earlier earned praise from Kirill after winning a fourth straight term in office in April’s elections, with the patriarch calling him “one of the few European politicians who makes a remarkable effort to uphold Christian values.”
“Orban has made this big pitch that Hungary is a Christian country, and his link with Russia is an aspect of that,” said author and journalist Jonathan Luxmoore of The Church Times newspaper.
“His idea is that if the liberal western neighbours aren’t going to uphold traditional Christian values then at least Hungary can do it,” he told AFP.
More than half of Hungarians identify as Christian, with Catholics making up the bulk and Protestants numbering about 13 percent of the population.
But Orban — who comes from a Calvinist background — says an alliance with Orthodoxy can be a buttress against waning Christianity in the West under Pope Francis, who has been attacked by pro-Orban media for being too liberal and even “anti-Christian” for supporting migrants.
Orban, the self-styled defender of “Christian Europe” from migration, believes he is fighting a “battle… for the soul of Europe”.
“We cannot win this battle without Orthodoxy,” he said last month, after receiving an award from Serbian Patriarch Porfirije for his efforts to protect Christianity.
Hungarian government officials responsible for religious affairs declined to speak to AFP.
According to Janos Reichert, a Hungarian religious affairs journalist, Orban’s support for Russian Orthodoxy “is important for the Moscow connection”.
“He has an eastern-style mentality that has dismantled western-style separation of church and state in Hungary,” he said.
– Stalled plans –
Still, the war in Ukraine has frustrated his approach on the ground.
Orban’s government agreed to allocate 2.4 billion forints (5.7 million euros) for the renovation of three Russian Orthodox churches in 2016 and the construction of the new one in Heviz.
But work on the Heviz church has stalled as funds in the now-sanctioned Russian bank Sberbank are blocked, according to Svyatoslav Bulakh, a priest in the main Russian Orthodox church in Budapest.
“If Sberbank pays back this money, which has been blocked, then we can step further, but we don’t know when it can happen,” he told AFP this week.
Russian tourists thronged Heviz’s spas until the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020.
And they have not returned in large numbers with direct flicks between Russia and Hungary cut since the start of the invasion of Ukraine.