It is difficult to look back at 2020 without concern for religious liberty. In the first few months of the pandemic, communal worship was prohibited and, in many places, churches still face severe restrictions on gathering and worshipping. At their core, these developments reveal that many governing authorities either view religion as a threat or, worse, as a ‘non-essential’ activity that can be suspended at will. For Americans such as myself, these restrictions represent an assault on religion heretofore unseen in recent history.
This approach toward religion is all-too familiar to those living in ex-communist countries. Only 30 years ago, Christianity in central and eastern Europe faced ruthless persecution by the communist authorities—all in the name of ‘public safety.’ Churches were viewed by the ruling parties as dangerous spreaders of diseases like ‘reactionary thought’ and ‘superstition.’
For this reason, many former communist countries—like Hungary, where I currently reside— today have a far more respectful approach to religion, even now during the pandemic. Places of worship are, in fact, exempt from the current lockdown restrictions and are trusted to implement their own safety measures. Religion is considered so essential to the proper functioning of society that it cannot be suspended by the government—particularly during times of distress like the one today.
Before the Soviet-backed regime took power in the aftermath of World War II, Christianity played a prominent role in Hungarian public life. The country’s founding during the 11th century under King Saint Stephen I entailed the adoption of Christianity and its recognition as an Apostolic Kingdom. It has since had a religiously diverse population: although the majority of Hungarians are Catholic, there is a sizable Calvinist minority, along with Lutheran and Greek Catholic communities. Over the decades, most schools have been church-sponsored and the Christian faith continues to play a central role in the Hungarian public square. Christianity has been, in short, the cultivator and custodian of Hungary’s development as a nation.
But for much of the 20th century, Christianity—with its focus on the afterlife and acceptance of an imperfect world—had no place in the long march toward a Marxist utopia. Furthermore, since the church acted as a separate organizational structure that people could rely on, it was seen as a rival to the communist state, which demanded that it be the sole provider and only source of order in people’s lives. Thus, to the communists, Christianity was a disease that had infected every sector of Hungarian society and had to be either quarantined, co-opted, or simply eradicated.
Once the communists seized power, the new regime immediately attacked the churches in Hungary. On December 26, 1948, authorities infamously arrested and tortured József Cardinal Mindszenty. (His cause for beatification was opened in 1993.) Religious orders were outlawed and church-sponsored schools were nationalized. Church leaders, pressured into resigning their posts, were replaced by communist spies and sympathizers. These actions were intended to eliminate Christianity’s influence from Hungarian society and replace it with socialist ideology. This sort of persecution, it’s worth remembering, while varying in severity, lasted until the regime was overthrown in 1989, with the demise of communism across Europe.
During those 40 years of suffering and persecution, the few who remained faithful to their beliefs faced numerous tribulations. Some defied the state by continuing to go to church, while Christian ministers moved their operations ‘underground’ to continued preaching the Word of God. Everyone who kept their faith during this time were of immeasurable bravery, but the most courageous were those who gave their life in martyrdom. Religious leaders—considered ‘super spreaders’ of Christianity—were the ones most often targeted for death.
The worst period was during the first years of Hungary’s ‘People’s Republic.’ The leader appointed by the Soviets, Mátyás Rákosi, was an avowed Stalinist who excelled in thuggish brutality. Under his reign, as early as 1945, Christian ministers had begun disappearing to pave the way for the new socialist state. The Lutheran minister Gyula Csaba was dragged from his home by communist partisans who murdered him in a fashion that would have made Nero proud: among other abominations, his eyes and tongue were cut out, and his body was dumped in a location that remains unknown to this day.
As the regime tightened its grip across the country, unofficial killings of Christians like Csaba were legalized by the state. In 1951, Father Ferenc Vezér fell victim to this state-sanctioned murder of Christians. Forced to confess to all sorts of charges, he was executed under accusations that he was involved in an attempt to restore the Habsburg dynasty.
Execution, however, was not the only means of killing Christians. Authorities would sometimes merely sentence troublesome ministers to jail—and let their brutal internment system kill off the troublesome prisoners for them. This method was used to silence the Calvinist minister and schoolteacher Mátyás Balogh. He had first run afoul of the regime when he refused to secularize his teaching. But the final straw was said to have been a joke he had made after the death of Stalin. He was promptly arrested and—quite conveniently—died in prison before he could even appear at trial.
While one could say that Stalin’s death in 1953 ushered in a period of ‘softened persecution,’ the failed ‘Hungarian Revolution’ of 1956 put Christianity back in the crosshairs of state authorities. Believing the churches to be responsible for this ‘counter-revolution,’ the regime began a renewed crackdown on Christian communities.
The most famous martyr of this persecution was the Roman Catholic priest, János Brenner. He had firmly resisted pressure to abandon his post before 1956. But the Revolution had sapped all patience from the communists, leaving them impatient and merciless. In December 1957, while traveling to perform last rites in a neighboring town, he was savagely set upon by attackers wielding knives. Instead of protecting himself, Brenner desperately shielded the Eucharist that he was carrying throughout this attack. He was stabbed more than two dozen times.
Although direct killings of priests and Christian ministers ended in the early 1960s, it is impossible to know the full extent of the communist persecution. There are likely many more martyrs that are known only to God. Each of these martyrs—of various denominations and creeds—gave their life for their faith. They resisted the pressure to cease their religious activities and forfeit Christianity’s public role.
The same contempt that the communist regimes had for Christianity is certainly present in society today. A broad rejection of Christianity and its values is gathering force. And while those who argue for a severe crackdown on religion during the pandemic are not technically ‘communist’—though many are ideological cousins—the road on which we now find ourselves is indeed a dangerous one.
The precedent has been established: if churches can be easily shut down for posing a ‘threat’ to public safety, then we should expect the definition of what constitutes a ‘threat’ to broaden in scope. As Christians, we must be prepared for where this may lead.
Persecution and martyrdom—from the stoning of Stephen in the first century to the beating of János Brenner—are a fundamental aspect of Christianity. Though tragic, it is the highest and most glorious expression of faith to Christ. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”