Andrea Simonyi: Well, let me make a little correction here: I am not a “real” Christian Evangelical. I was raised in a Catholic home with vivid echoes of the Jewish people. As strange as it may sound, as a 7-8 year old, I somehow grasped that the names I heard during Mass were connected to the Jewish people – places like Jerusalem, the river Jordan, and Galilee.
I knew that my paternal grandparents had strong affiliations with a Jewish family, survivors of Auschwitz, who later made aliya to Israel. This was a big topic in our home and it captured my imagination and my spirit as well. It created a very strong pull to everything Jewish, without me quite knowing why.
When I was 13-14, I often had tonsillitis and stayed at home a lot from school. I spent this time reading – especially novels and the Bible we had at home. One of the books that had a deep impact on me was a novel by the Austrian-Jewish writer, Franz Werfel: Hearken Unto The Voice. This was an artistic rendering of the life of the prophet Jeremiah. The framework of the story is built around a tourist group’s visit to the Holy Land. And of course, I was then reading the books of the prophets from the Bible. I probably had very little clue of what they really meant, but I was deeply touched by the sense that to hear God’s voice is something we humans can indeed experience. Together, these matters did of course lead me out of the Roman Catholic Church and to encounter the Evangelical movement. But in the Hungary of the 1980s, 90s, it was very much a small and divided movement, and that was not so attractive to my searching soul. In the end, as a young graduate from university, I found work in England and met Evangelical and Charismatic people and churches. There I underwent water baptism, for which I had been longing for a long time. The only thing I regret about it is that I didn’t wait long enough to receive water baptism in Israel!
For a number of years afterwards, I was part of an international Pentecostal church, later a local Baptist church where the pastor was also of Jewish descent. At the moment, I am part of a small Messianic house fellowship and as the years go by in my life, I appreciate my Catholic background a little more than earlier.
P.E.S.:The number of Protestants, as of Evangelicals in particular, is very different in Hungary than in Poland, where I live. Polish Protestants of all denominations amount to only about 1/3 of 1% of the overall population. Approximately 1/3 of those Protestants are Evangelicals.
In Hungary, in turn, Protestants number about 15% of the overall population, with Evangelicals amounting to nearly 1.5%.
A.S.: Hungary has a very interesting history in this regard. When the Reformation swept through Europe, it swept through Hungary, too. According to some sources, 90% of the population turned toward the movement and thus became “Protestant”, which referred to spiritual liberation from Habsburg rule, as well. However, the Habsburg dynasty pressured large parts of the country back into Catholicism. The first decades of the Protestant movement in Hungary were deeply Biblical and had a huge openness to Israel. You can find evidence of this in early Protestant literature. Later, in the fight against Catholic Austria for independence, Protestantism became more and more “nationalistic”. Better to say, it represented national values versus the imperial spirit of the Catholic Habsburg Monarchy.
This past has long influenced things in Hungary. When WWI was over, with Hungary on the losing side, the rightful Habsburg heir to the throne, Charles IV, as he is known here in Hungary, wanted to take Hungary back. However, Miklós Horthy stopped these efforts and set up a strong government, with himself as Regent until 1944, the tragic year of the Hungarian Shoah. His role is very controversial until this day. For many, he serves as a model to look back on, as the leader of a Christian government that withstood communism and did a lot to regain the territories Hungary lost in the infamous Trianon Treaty in the wake of WWI. However, Horthy played just as strong a role in actually losing those territories to the Allied Forces as he did in regaining them later by the help of Adolf Hitler – and at an unspeakably high price: 600 000 Hungarian Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust!
This creates a controversial situation today, as we again have a Christian government, also Protestant in its thrust, that looks for a model in the Horthy era. However, from the perspective of the Jewish people, no era was more detrimental than that one. The present leadership enjoys support mainly from Protestant but also from Catholic Christians who are mostly conservative, yet the issue of deeper honesty in the remembrance of the Shoah and Hungary’s own responsibility is still a burning need. All the mainstream Christian denominations, even at their highest levels of leadership, supported the anti-Jewish laws from 1938 to 1942. These are utterly shameful and degrading laws, ones that should have been deeply repented over the seven decades since the Shoah. But only a few voices have addressed this. The traditional Protestant churches, especially the Reformed (Calvinist) Church of Hungary, held a “repentance conference” right after WWII under the leadership of the very bishop who had been the personal advisor of Horthy during the deportation of the entire Jewish community from Hungary. Bishop László Ravasz, of the Reformed Church, did evince personal repentance when he realized the results of his own antisemitic discourse over the preceding era. Nonetheless, at the repentance conference he is quoted as saying: “We repent before God for what happened in WWII but we do NOT repent to the Jews”. So, until this very day the situation is very difficult and ambiguous within the Reformed Church. The only real life saver and burning light was Joseph Elias, though his amazing legacy is silenced, while bishop Ravasz is revered.
The situation is not much better in the Catholic Church. One of the most antisemitic bishops, Ottokar Prohászka, is revered as nearly a saint, even though his anti-Jewish writings did a lot to demonize Jews in the years 1920-44 in the eyes of Catholics. So, even today there are difficulties in open discussion of the topic of Israel and the Jewish people and the related Biblical issues because of the uneasy feelings about our history.
P.E.S.: From our previous exchange, I understand that Evangelicalism experienced a real awakening in Hungary in the 1970s, one that led in several important directions, including to Faith Church (Hit Gyülekezete), a very robust Evangelical movement long shepherded by Pastor Sandor Nemeth. Please tell us about Faith Church, its markedly pro-Israeli outreach, and its influence on Hungarian politics vis-à-vis Israel.
A.S.: It was one of those moments of grace that renewal in the Holy Spirit reached Hungary then. This was a trans-denominational experience. Some of the key members were from the historic Protestant churches, others came from a Catholic background (like Sandor Nemeth himself), still others from small Pentecostal churches. From what I understand, Pastor Nemeth branched off from this group because he had a strong understanding of the need to be immersed at conversion (as opposed to infant baptism).
His initiative – Faith Church – experienced exponential growth in the 1980s. It was then that the famous Charismatic teacher, Derek Prince, learned of this church and started to teach on the significance of Israel and the Jewish people. Those seeds took root and Prince’s teaching caused a real spiritual revolution in Hungary, with “revolution” being all the more apt considering how burdened Hungarian history was regarding the Jews.
Young and assimilated Jews also flocked to Faith Church, the only church that was open and loud about the need for Christians to bless Israel so that God can bless them. And He indeed did bless this church with huge numerical growth and wealth.
Over the past two decades, Faith Church has single-mindedly supported the Jewish state, protested on behalf of Israel in front of the Israeli Embassy, gathered large crowds for the March of the Living memorial events, and put Jewish cemeteries in order. Today, it is thanks to Faith Church that there is a representation of Christian Zionism from Hungary in the EU (in the lobby group for Israel in the EU). For instance, it is probably thanks to Faith Church that during the latest crisis in Israel, the Hungarian government openly made statements in support of Israel and adopted a very strong pro-Israel stance, often against the majority of other EU countries. You could call it a historic event when the Israeli flag with the Star of David was flying above Budapest’s “Hero’s Square” at a mass demonstration for Israel. Members of Faith Church are well taught about the Biblical significance of Israel and the Jewish people.
P.E.S.: You shared with me that there is, however, a one-sidedness to Faith Church’s approach. Would you elaborate?
A.S.: Yes, as I mentioned above, remembrance of the Shoah and loving Israel, in my view, should never be two separate, much less opposing issues. To my understanding, a much deeper recognition of the corruption of the Horthy government and its collaboration with Nazi Germany should not only be acknowledged, but lessons should be drawn at a much, much deeper and broader level. If deep and humble learning were to take place, affiliation with and support for Israel could gain the depth and authenticity that will be needed in more trying times.
P.E.S.: In closing, when I was in Budapest just a few months before the pandemic, I visited the apartment building containing Theodor Herzl’s family home, where he lived until finishing high school in 1878. I was very surprised, however, that the building has no commemorative plaque whatsoever. Nor did our Hungarian guide to Jewish Budapest know anything about the Herzls having lived there. The building is right beside the river, kitty-corner to the building of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. One would think it could become a pilgrimage site for Israeli tourists.
And of course, Theodor Herzl is not the only Hungarian Jew among Israel’s “founding fathers”. There are also Herzl’s friends Max Nordau and János Rónai. Earlier, there were the outstanding religious Zionists, rabbis Yosef Natonek and Akiva Yosef Schlesinger.
What special efforts are being made to attract Israeli, as distinct from Diaspora tourists to Budapest?
A.S.: This is actually a surprise for me, too, because there is a memorial plaque on Herzl’s birthplace at the Dohány synagogue in downtown Budapest. I myself never knew of the Herzl home you mention. And you know, Zionism is not an unequivocal issue even within the Jewish community in Hungary. As all Jews in the world – except for some of the ultra-orthodox – Hungary’s Jews are happy to know Israel exists. But still, there is ongoing tension between the Diaspora and Israel. Hungarian Jewry, when granted citizenship and equal rights by the Habsburg emperor Joseph II, out of gratitude declared themselves to be “Hungarians of the Faith of Moses”, as opposed to being a national minority. Many Hungarian Jewish families do, however, have members who live in Israel.
Nonetheless, there is, I may say, vibrant tourism from Israel. And with our government’s support of Israel, Hungary will remain a popular destination for Israeli tourists. You can see guidebooks and souvenirs in Hebrew, there are guided tours in Hebrew. And local Jewish restaurants, even kosher hotels and motels, are here to serve religious tourism, as well.
Lastly, I can’t fail to mention the Rumbach Synagogue in downtown Budapest. Having been restored to grandeur over the past few years, it was officially reopened just this month as a Jewish culture center. It’s one of Europe’s very most beautiful synagogues and – it’s important to note – the Hungarian government contributed over 11 million dollars to its restoration.
Philip Earl Steele
Historian, editor, former lecturer at the University of Warsaw. Author of the book The Conversion and Baptism of Mieszko I and many papers, especially ones on religious studies, published in Poland, Israel, the Czech Republic, the US and the UK. His Polish-language book entitled Israel and Evangelical Christians: “A Match Made in Heaven” will be published soon.