'If we give up our Christianity, we lose our identity,' says Hungarian minister

shutterstock 367955912 Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary. | Shutterstock

Hungary is promoting pro-family policies because its Christian identity is at stake, the country's family minister told CNA in an interview.

"If we give up on our Christianity, then we will lose our own identity, as Hungarians, as Europeans," Katalin Novák, Hungary's Minister of State for Family Affairs, told CNA in an interview on Wednesday.

Novák spoke at the second annual conference on family policy on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, co-organized with the Embassy of Brazil. She joined officials from the Trump administration, members of Congress, and representatives of non-governmental organizations in discussing how governments can promote pro-family policies.

Hungary's birth rate is well below replacement level; the country's central statistics office estimates the total fertility rate at 1.48 births per woman. Every country in the European Union has a sub-replacement level birth rate, Novak said. And according to United Nations data, both Eastern and Western Europe have estimated total fertility rates of 1.657 and 1.683 live births per woman for the years 2015 to 2020-well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

"We have a demographic challenge ahead of us," Novák told CNA. While some countries may rely on immigration, Hungary is trying to reverse the trend with a two-pronged approach: financial incentives for families to have more children, and promoting a culture that is pro-life and welcoming of large families.  

In 2011, Hungary's birth rate stood at just 1.23, Novák said on Thursday, causing the government to ask such questions as "what is the reason behind" the phenomenon, and "how can we help?"

Now, the administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pushed a seven-point family protection action plan with incentives for marriage and children.

Women who marry before their 40th birthday will be eligible for a subsidized interest-free loan of around €31,000 from the state; one-third of the loan can be forgiven if the couple has two children, and the entire loan can be forgiven if they have three or more children. Women with four or more children will be exempted from income tax for life. Families with at least three children are eligible for a grant to purchase a car that seats seven or more people.

Housing assistance is also a key part of the platform. Families with two children will be eligible for mortgage loan reduction that could be increased if they have a third child.

Will the new financial incentives result in more children? Time will tell, but the matter is of utmost importance to the state.

"We are convinced that our future lies in strong families," Novák told CNA.

Perhaps even more critical to strong families than financial incentives is a culture that encourages and normalizes children.

"We speak too much about money, actually," Novák said on Wednesday. "Having children is not about money. Of course, not having children, it can be about money, but having children, it's not your decision because of the financial incentives-it shouldn't be."

The state is aiming to create a culture that is more welcoming of families. It first tried to do this by enshrining certain pro-family and pro-life values in law.

Hungary was historically a Christian country since its first King Stephen, Novák said, and the state's pro-family policies are meant to be a reflection of that in establishing a "strong identity."

"Without a strong identity, you cannot take responsibility for others," she told CNA.

In 2011, the Hungarian Parliament adopted its Fundamental Law that recognized the nation's Christian roots and affirmed "inviolable" human dignity, the "right to life" of everyone and the protection of life from "the moment of conception," marriage as the voluntary union of one man and one woman, the "family as the basis of the survival of the nation," and the protection of persons with disabilities, Novák said.

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In addition, the state is now issuing public messages that "life is a gift" and that having children is a "lifelong adventure."

"Do you really acknowledge those who are taking care of children? Do you really value that stay-at-home mom who is taking care of five, six, seven children and is not playing an active role in the labor market?" Novák asked. "Do we really value them? Do we acknowledge them? Do we protect them?"

Hungary also sees part of its Christian identity in helping Christian victims of persecution in other countries. In Iraq, the government helped resettle Christian genocide victims through its aid program Hungary Helps, providing more than $3 million for the effort.

"For that reason, we see that we have the responsibility to provide help for the brothers and sisters who suffer from persecution anywhere in the world," Novák said. "It's not through international aid organizations with a lot of administration and a lot of costs," she said, but rather "is really direct help, which is addressed to the persecuted ones"

The right to life from the moment of conception is a fundamental part of this identity. While the country's abortion rate is at its lowest-recorded level, more work must be done, Novák said. "Nothing above zero is a good number."

The approach the state is taking to advance the pro-life cause is to "acknowledge the life of the unborn," she said, "by providing family benefits." By the second trimester of pregnancy, women are already eligible for family benefits.

The state also acknowledges the importance of a "family-friendly workplace," she said, and is trying to reward employers with generous family policies.

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While other countries might see immigration as a demographic solution to a declining population, Novák warned against viewing it as a long-term support for the country's future. Orban's seven-point family plan was also rolled out as an alternative to immigration being a solution for the country's future.

Hungary has received international criticism for its strict immigration policies. The UN's human rights chief said its 2018 law criminalizing the assistance of asylum seekers was "blatantly xenophobic." As of early 2018, the UN's refugee agency said Hungary was only admitting around two asylum seekers per day through its transit zones.

The UN's Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, who recently visited the country, said that "migrants are portrayed as dangerous enemies in both official and public discourses."

Novák said that Hungary does not "see immigration as a solution to our demographic problem," and is willing to assist with resettling refugees but is not prioritizing the acceptance of economic migrants seeking a "better life."

"We are, in the first place, responsible for our own people. And if they need more help in order to be able to raise more children and have a family, then we have to provide this help," she said.

Countries with a high outflow of economic migrants won't be helped in the long run, she said.

"I actually do think that the responsible way of thinking is not if you extract the best-educated, the most mobile, and the wealthiest people out of these countries," she said, "and what is going to happen to the others who just stay there?"

Hungary is providing training and free university education for thousands of students from these countries, she said, "to enable them to return to their countries and there to drive real change."

However, in 2018 the Central European University had to stop its program for refugees after a significant tax by the government of Hungary on activities supporting immigration.

Pope Francis, in his message for the 2019 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, said that "our response to the challenges posed by contemporary migration can be summed up in four verbs: welcome, protect, promote and integrate."

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