Into the Deep Podcast: A Nation Championing Persecuted Christians (Tristan Azbej)
08/31/2021 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Tristan Azbej is the State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians and the Hungary Helps Program. He talks with Jeff King that while Christianity is facing a humanitarian crisis in persecuted parts of the world, it’s also facing an identity crisis in the West. They delve into the concept of religious freedom and its importance for protecting various other human rights. Once religious freedom fades and intellectual persecution begins, it’s only a matter of time before more blatant forms of persecution emerge.
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Jeff King: Alrighty. Well today we have the State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians and the head of the Hungary Helps Program, Vice President of theKDNP the Christian Democratic People’s Party of Hungary, Tristan Azbej. Welcome, and thanks for being here.
Tristan Azbej: Thank you for having me.
Jeff King: Yeah. Hey, tell us, first of all, what, what is Hungary Helps? What is that?
Tristan Azbej: Hungary Helps is Hungary’s humanitarian assistance program.
Hungary has a very hard history, even in the 20th century. So a few decades ago we were on the receiving end of international aid, but quite recently because of our developing economy and our place in the European Union and because of the hardworking Hungarian people, we got in a position where we could extend our solidarity to the outside world, to the humanitarian crisis zones.
So we are a so-called emerging donor country, but something about Hungarians is that we always try to find new and innovative ways that are in line with our principles and our unique way of thinking. So we specialized in our humanitarian assistance. And since we are a proud Christian nation, and we have been a proud Christian nation for 1000 years, and also because we recognize that Christianity is the most persecuted religious group in the world, we decided to set supporting persecuted Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East, in Africa and other parts of the world as the number one priority for humanitarian aid program. And this is what Hungary Helps is. We started four years ago. I was telling you it’s a young program and we are very proud to support persecuted Christian and later other persecuted faith communities in more than 40 countries of the world.
Jeff King: It’s amazing. I think it was at the opening ceremony, by the way, the opening conference you guys had. I think I came to it.
Tristan Azbej: Oh wonderful. Okay.
Jeff King: Yeah. And so first of all, that is astounding. When you look around the world, that’s an unusual program and it’s refreshing. And first question, I’m sure this has made you very popular in Europe?
Tristan Azbej: Well, think twice about that. So yes, it’s surprising to many. And also we have been told that it is against political correctness. It is against political correctness to support Christians. In fact, it is against political correctness to be Christian. And be vocal about it and be present the Christian values. So, no, actually we are not popular in every political scenes. And in every international [inaudible 00:03:01]. We are the first government unit in the world that has a persecuted Christian in its title, its State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians. And we have been attacked for it. We have been told that it is nothing, just political provocation, naming a unit like this and [crosstalk 00:03:23] a program like this. And for the first few, two or three years, when I was still relatively young in this position and then naive, I was debating that it’s not provocation.
We need to save the persecuted Christians because 340 million innocent people who are suffering because they’re attacked because their Christian faith. So it’s not provocation, but after I gave up or more like I changed my mind. Okay. Yes, it’s a provocation. So we provoking you, western European countries, to do the same, to out-compete us in supporting the innocent communities of persecuted innocent people. So I guess there is a stronger message in it. But I think it is the right message. It’s a message of solidarity and good will.
Jeff King: Oh my gosh. Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, we’re huge fans of what you’re doing. We’re astounded and…
Tristan Azbej: Well, we share the same mission, so all the nice things you say about us, it’s about you as well, and then this important cause.
Jeff King: Well, thank you, sir. Appreciate that. So tell us your story, who is Tristan Azbej?
Tristan Azbej: Yeah, my name is not Hungarian at all, and I’m a patriotic politician of patriotic Hungarian and Christian Democratic Party. So there may seem like there is an inconsistency and I have had a diverse cultural background. I was born in France. My mother is French. My father is Hungarian, but with an Armenian heritage. So that was the first personal thing or family heritage that connected me to the persecuted Eastern Christianity. Later, I was trained as a geologist. I did my studies at Virginia Tech and I lived for years in Blacksburg, Virginia. Those were four happy years, but then after I somewhat, not that I lost my interest in rocks, I gained interest about helping my community and my country and my nation, and I turned to Hungary. So I entered politics and throughout my political and government career by providence, I believe I was called to serve in the holy land.
I was a diplomat at the embassy of Hungary in Israel, or as we said, among us diplomats, the embassy of Hungary to the holy land for four years. And that’s when I met the different cultures and people, the Jewish, the Muslim, but also the Christians of the Middle East, that was my first encounter with the Middle Eastern Christians, understanding the situation and then their culture. And when I returned that’s was exactly the time when the Hungarian government decided to start the first ever governmental program for the aid of persecuted Christians. So everything pointed towards that I might be an okay candidate for this job. And then I got appointed.
Jeff King: Yeah. Now you referenced your family lineage, your heritage and the Armenian part. Is there a significance for that? I think our audience would be very familiar, but does that form anything inside you in terms of the impetus to help and a desire to serve in this way?
Tristan Azbej: Absolutely. My Armenian heritage is, it’s distant. You can see, I don’t have the typical facial features of Armenians, but it was something very important and the cultural identity was passed from generation to generation in my family. So I have been exposed from early age about the culture, about the fact that Armenians first were the first Christian nation in the world. And ever since they are pretty much the eastern most outpost of Christian civilization and Christian culture and also Christian faith. And therefore they have been persecuted throughout their history. And this is something that I learned about in my pre-teens, or beginning of the preteens. So yes, it is definitely adding to the commitment towards the cause.
Jeff King: Yeah. And what else? Talk about your personal faith? Does it bleed into this? This is such a faith-oriented topic. Do these things intersect?
Tristan Azbej: Yes. I’m a Roman Catholic. But I always tell my colleagues that you don’t have to be a believer or faithful to trying to support people who are persecuted innocently for their faith. So it is basically a humanity issue, but being a Christian, a believer, it enables me to gain personal strength from the faith and the testimony of the persecuted Christians. So about half way of our mission, I understood that the title of our program is misleading. The title, that Aid of Persecuted Christians, that we are aiding them. And after awhile, I said, “It is the other way around.” With the testimony, we read that strong faith, even despite all the threats they are facing, is a very strong message to us that we have to understand this message and not lose our identity and faith just out of… Because it’s more comfortable like that. So I’m taking away very strong spiritual gains and understandings throughout this work.
Jeff King: Yeah, that is such a familiar theme, and I am always talking about that fact. It’s a very common occurrence. The people that serve the persecuted. On the one hand, we give, we serve, and we respond to brokenness and need. Yet, the people we are serving are probably the deepest Christians around the world. When I look around and when you meet these people, you see the deepest Christians in the world, and the context is they suffer the most. There’s obviously a connection between that suffering, it weeds out the people who don’t have strong faith and it produces something. It’s the diamond analogy where the great pressure, and the great heat, produces something where people go deep with God. We see this example, and they feed us, they point the way for us, I think, in our faith to say, “Oh my gosh, if that’s a Christian, then what am I?” You see this example. You feel this.
Tristan Azbej: Exactly. It’s such a rewarding service. Isn’t it?
Jeff King: Yes, it is.
Tristan Azbej: Just one example that was very profound and deeply touching to understand. Last year’s Christmas, there was deadly attacks against Christians in Northern Nigeria. They’re always deadly. Any time, they are under such violent prosecution, but especially their culminating in the religious holidays and feasts. There was this church where terrorists jihadist enters with bags and with machine guns, and they murdered all those church goer Christians. And whenever something like that, a terrible attack, happens with the persecuted Christian communities, and in this case, even though so many people died that in the church, on the next Sunday at holy mass, the church is fully packed, even more people than before, because they feel that they are persecuted in the name of Christ. That means that they have to be there and show their belonging to Jesus.
Jeff King: Yeah, that is extremely powerful. And I think that’s not a story that exists on its own, there’s many of these stories, and in fact, I’ve written about this, because I think the body of Christ sees that martyr fall. And instead of, now sometimes people do run away, but other times you see, it’s as in a race and a baton is passed, and they see those people who paid with their lives and they say, “I will take the baton and I will go forward.” And it strengthens the faith. And that’s, I think, something that the dictator and the despite and the terrorist never understand. So often, you look at, I won’t mention some countries, but you look at some countries that are crushing Christianity, and they seem to never understand that the more you press down, the more it spreads. History is pretty clear on this.
Tristan Azbej: Yeah, but to see the really sad thing is that in the East they are blowing up the church, because the terrorists are blowing it up with bombing and things. But in the West, they are closing down the churches because of lack of interest. And they are building even gyms and discotheques in those spaces or libraries, culture centers. So the way I look at it, Christianity is under attack and in the East and the Southeast, it’s a humanitarian crisis, but in the West, it’s an identity crisis.
Jeff King: Absolutely.
Tristan Azbej: And then we are trying to, being a center European nation, Hungary, we are trying to be the island. In the course of the last 10 years in Hungary, which is not a big country, 3,000 churches where renovated or built in the last 10 years.
So we’re trying to understand this score that we need to strengthen Christian civilization. We need this spiritual revival, but that’s not the job of a politician to initiate. That’s nothing we should interfere with, but we as a government and as politicians who are trying to at least support the framework or the financial or infrastructure foundation of the churches hoping and praying for spiritual revival, that needs to come from the people.
Jeff King: You know, it’s interesting because so many governments seem to have forgotten, and even ours seems to be wavering or drifting, but you would think more Western democracies would be more in favor of standing up for and advocating for and pushing for religious freedom. We just came from the International Religious Freedom Summit, and so this is a topic that’s timely, but one thing we think about a lot is that the founders of the United States, this was very clear to them, coming from a place of persecution. They looked at religious freedom and they said, “Look, religious freedom is a gathering of different rights. It’s a gathering of the freedom of speech, of thought, of conscience, of assembly, and it’s this very potent collection of rights and when we push for it, it is such a moderating force in the world. It’s a moderating force. It’s a force for democracy, and it protects everybody.”
So a lot of times people think of religious freedom if in a left-right context and the left will say, “Well, that’s just a wedge for Christianity.” And if you’re a Christian, you’d like to see the growth of Christianity. And yet when we’re in this field, we stand up for all the religions, because we say we have to stand up for each other. And we’re going to take different turns, so we either going to sink separately, or we’re going to survive together. And democracy, it stands right in link with religious freedom. It’s got to be pushed for. And so we’re amazed, at your government and what they’re doing and your heritage and not being ashamed of that. And regardless of what Europe says, to say, “This is our heritage, and we’ll stand up for it, and we want to see the growth of Christianity as well as the growth of religious freedom.”
Tristan Azbej: Yes. Well, I really appreciate this acknowledgement of us being a government of principles and government of Christian heritage and Christian social values. And I agree that religious freedom is important for all. And I usually say, and I mean it, that “I hate the tendency of different types of discrimination or martyrdom competing with each other, like this competition of who is a greater victim.” But there is one thing that I really insist on, and I noticed that it seems like in the Western societies, they treat anti-Christian discrimination as the last acceptable form of social discrimination.
So it is great, and it is important that all of us are combating Islamophobia and antisemitism, but for anti-Christian sentiment, we don’t even have a word. And well, that’s not really the core of the problem that we don’t have a word, the reason behind it, we don’t have a word, because there’s no one studying, no one caring, no one cares about at least on the level of the international organizations. And no one cares about, even though Christianity by the numbers is the most basic religious group in the world. And that’s usually not in Europe and America where there are violent acts against Christians, but they do have anti-Christian sentiment. And we know that every violent persecution starts with the intellectual persecution, denying people of their human dignity because of belonging to one group. And this is what is happening in Europe and in North America. And we are starting to see us so violent attacks against Christians, I heard they were burning down the churches in the U.S. just last summer they were attacking churches. Everyday they are attacking three churches, or there are three vandalizing of religious institutions in France alone, and that’s only one country.
And also we have Islamist terrorism arriving to Europe. There are several tragic atrocities committed against churchgoers, for example, in France, again, in Nice last year, when three faithful were murdered in a church, in Nice. And since you are seeing a rise of violence, I think that those human rights defenders who care about antisemitism and Islamophobia should treat Christian people in the same manner and protect their dignity, protect their freedom of religion and belief. But there is a double standard against Christians and Christianity.
Jeff King: Yeah, that’s so well said and so appreciated. So I’d be very hard pressed to find a politician in the United States to say this, some would, some wouldn’t, but a lot of people know what’s going on. And I think we have to come up with a name. We have to come up with a label for this, to your point. So we’ll have to work on that, because the problem is very clear and it’s very accepted. It’s amazing that it is, but it’s very accepted and I wonder if we would…
I just want to go back to your point that overseas in many places, it’s outright persecution. The problem in the West is the death of the church through materialism, through business, through distraction. I’m thinking of a story someone told me that was another ministry head of a persecution ministry, and he’s an old timer. He had worked around the KGB. He was meeting with the KGB and he said, “Now, why did you guys stop persecuting? Why did you stop trying to get rid of the Bibles?” His English, he said, “Well, look at your own country. We looked at you guys and we finally said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s Bibles everywhere, and the faith’s pretty much dead. The churches are empty.'” There’s a lesson.
What is the lesson? I mean, like you, you mentioned the word revival, but if we’re to think about our faith in the West, what is your call to Christians on this note? What do we need to get back to? What do we need to turn from?
Tristan Azbej: Well, one day when I’m not a politician anymore, then I may or may not criticize the church.
Jeff King: We’re just talking about Christianity, not a church.
Tristan Azbej: I’m afraid I’m not the right person to make such a core to Christianity, but we’re turning to protecting persecuted Christians. I still have a message. Let me make a few steps back.
Tristan Azbej: I came up with the word Christian guilt on the analogy of the so-called German guilt or the white male guilt. This is something I find with many Western church leaders or just members of churches in the West. It’s very interesting. If a Muslim person gets in trouble in the world, there are 57 Muslim countries who run to their help. When ISIS have occupied the [inaudible 00:02:07] and in Iraq and in Syria, started to massacre or persecute Christians, I’ve been talking to those Christians in the Middle East. They were telling me that they have suffered tremendous losses to free their homelands. Their loved ones are murdered, but the greatest grief they had is that they were expecting the Christian countries from the West to come to their aid, but it never happened. They felt completely abandoned. They felt alone. That’s a good question that how come Christians don’t help other Christians who are persecuting?
I found the answer and I found an answer in the West, and it was a very ignorance and horrible answer that when I was explaining to a fellow Christian person, actually it was a clergyman in one Western countries, I’m not going to say which one about the terrible fate of the middle Eastern Christians. The answer was very ignorant. The answer was that, well, if they’re persecuted there, why did they go there? That’s pointing to the very false historical narrative that many Western Christians think that Christianity was the ideology driving colonization.
Therefore, because of this feeling of guilt and also because of inquisition and the crusade, they are not going, coming to the help and aid because of this Christian guilt to this communities who, by the way, are the cradle of Christianity who has been living there for 2000 years. If I can still do a message, as you asked me to. We need to stop. We need to stop this.
Jeff King: It’s interesting, and it makes me think of the familiar narrative where Christianity is seen as the root of all evil, which is amazing. Now, humanity is broken and the church unfortunately is made of humanity. We do lots of dumb things. We’re not immune to that. And yet my favorite example, I say, “Oh my gosh, so you think the church is the source of all evil.” I’m like, “What about communism?” Hungarians may know a little something about this.
You look at now, you look at Stalin and you look at the destruction of freedoms and the hatred of the religious, et cetera, and [Mao 00:04:35] killed 50 to 70 million people, Stalin a similar figure. But I wouldn’t even stop there. Communism is not the problem even. It’s a huge problem. But the big problem is this, it’s in all of us. It’s this thing is broken and it needs to be redeemed by the Lord. That’s our only hope. I think that’s the message. When we look at the evil out there, it’s not us versus them. It’s we are broken and we desperately need a savior. It’s the only hope for humanity. To come to that position of humility, to say, “I am broken and I need something greater than myself to fix me and to fix the world. We have no hope.” It’s such a broken place.
Tristan Azbej: It almost sounds increment to admit.
Jeff King: Well, it doesn’t go with human nature to say, “I am broken.” It’s against the grain of human nature and society. We’re all so puffed up and want to project strength, et cetera.
Last thing, I’m just thinking if you had any comment on this, but what we see creeping in the West, I think, is overseas, so in whatever country want to pick where government is terrorizing those of faith or trying to break the church, they’ll typically have in their constitution, they’ll have guarantees of religious freedom. And yet what happens? Their practice does not measure up to the laws on the books. They’ll say, “Well, we have religious freedom, but that’s for your home or that’s for your private life. You can’t do it in the public square.”
Tristan Azbej: Sometimes it’s only for show.
Jeff King: Yes. Well what’s going on in the West? This parallel, because they’ll say, “Oh, we have religious freedom, but don’t bring it into the public square.” That’s what’s going on. It’s the same thing that the dictator and the despot does overseas. It’s, “Oh, we have religious freedom, but you’re not free to share that in the public square.” This is what’s going on in the West.
Unfortunately, and I think you’re pointing to it, it’s like, look, Christians need, they need to stand up and shout. Now, half the time, I feel like in the Western church, one of the biggest messages that we’re taught and it’s not always taught, but it’s just be nice, above all, be nice. Like that’s going to win the day. Our niceness is not going to help anything. The Lord is the only hope of rescue, but Jesus embodied love. He also overturned the tables. We’re just not used to shouting and we’ve got to get comfortable with shouting.
Because it’s injustice, it’s not just for us, we’re not self-centered, but this is wrong and we need to stand up and start shouting and to say, when something is wrong, to be very comfortable with calling a spade a spade and calling out government officials for anti-Christian behavior and anti-Christian hate.
Tristan Azbej: I agree with you. I would go further. I think that freedom of religion and belief is limited in the West. I think that it is pointed towards and against Christians. Once again, it’s what we see in the world that we respect your religious tradition and any manifestation of it, except you are Christian.
Jeff King: That’s right. That’s right.
Tristan Azbej: It’s a fast sense of respecting minorities, false sense of respecting minorities by basically forgetting and pushing back the original tradition of the Western civilization and culture. It doesn’t look good at all, but I’m glad that we find friends and allies here in the US, all around the world. I hope that there will be more and more rest in governments who will return to their identity and then Christian or Judeo-Christian [inaudible 00:08:28] and values not being exclusive against other traditions that are new to the continent, but at least not being ashamed of our origin selves. We can only do anything if there’s only worth living if you have faith in almost seemingly impossible things, but we do have faith in this seemingly impossible change in the West as well.
Jeff King: Absolutely. As you mentioned before, revival is the need. We have a great need for revival. That means we each personally call out to God and say, “I need revival.” Then to take that and to say, “Flow into me, and then all those around me.” Go out. We need to tell those around us. Everyone’s broken around us. The world is broken. Humanity is broken. We have the answer. We’ve got to tell them about Jesus, that there is a God who is waiting to save you and to revive you and to bring you to life. You’re not alive. Life is waiting for you and you can find it in him.
Tristan Azbej: Amen to that.
Jeff King: All right, my brother. Thank you so much.