As disputes continue over the mistreatment of refugees attempting the “Balkan route” into Europe, no government has been criticised as harshly as Hungary’s for its razor-wire fences and holding camps.

The country’s 53-year-old prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has defended his tough policies with talk of protecting Europe’s Christian heritage. But what should Western Catholics make of his claims?

Excluding refugees has been only one of many controversial actions by the Oxford-educated Orbán, a Calvinist with a Catholic wife, who started his career as a professional footballer and led his first government aged just 35. Opponents have lampooned his authoritarian catchphrase, “illiberal democracy”, comparing him to Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin for his populist, nationalistic rhetoric.

But Orbán has worked hard to justify his stance, gaining implicit acceptance from Hungary’s Christian churches. When a 110-mile fence was completed in late 2015 on Hungary’s southern frontier with Serbia, and beleaguered refugees were roughed up by police, the Hungarian bishops were unsympathetic, simply recalling in a one-paragraph statement “the right and duty of states to protect their citizens”. Although Hungary’s primate, Cardinal Péter Erdő, blamed “misunderstandings”, little support or shelter was offered to refugees beyond token assistance by Caritas.

With thousands crossing into Hungary every day, opinion polls suggested that most Hungarians backed Orbán’s restrictions. But the Church’s hands-off stance clearly contradicted a call by Pope Francis for all parishes and religious houses to take in at least one refugee family.

Speaking at the time of the Pope’s appeal, Orbán spoke darkly of a Muslim “invasion of Europe”, saying that the continent seemed “barely able to maintain its Christian values”. He has since gone further, making his centre-right government the first in Europe to create a special department for persecuted Christians. The new state secretariat makes Budapest “a world centre” for helping the oppressed, Orbán told the Catholic Magyar Kurír press agency. It will promote exhibitions, documentaries and university studies, and co-ordinate a “humanitarian mission” with established charities.

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