Faith and love are essential cornerstones of any religion. But all too often there is a clash between church and state as churches seek to thrive and minister to their flock. For more than 250 years St. George the Martyr Church, on the Pest side of the Danube River in Budapest, a modest Serbian Orthodox parish works to carry out its mission and attract new members. But changing political climates and pressures from a heavy-handed government in Hungary can make that a challenge.
Throughout history, Hungary’s relationship with religion has been complicated. Her location in Eastern Europe places her in a spiritual vortex of Western and Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But in 1000 A.D. Western Christianity gained primacy when Hungary became a nation and Stephen was crowned king and recognized as the sovereign by Pope Sylvester II. (In 1083 Pope Gregory VII canonized Stephen and he was elevated to a saint.)
Despite the popularity of Christianity in Hungary there were times other faiths had a presence in Hungary. For example, Muslims were active in Hungary from the 11th through 13th centuries, during the 15th Century, and also in the 17th Century. In those latter two periods the Ottoman Empire was ascendant but eventually the Muslim faith waned. Prior to the early 20th Century Jews comprised around five percent of Hungary’s population (and nearly 25 percent of the population of Budapest). The Serbian Christian Orthodox church (which St. George the Martyr practices), has the fewest members in modern Hungary.
To further highlight the complicated nature of religion in Hungary, the tolerance and safety of Jews there was threatened as a result of several major events. In World War I Hungary allied with Germany, and as punishment for losing, the once-sprawling nation of the Magyars was splintered. According to the terms of the Treaty of Trianon, prized assets (a large part of land, direct access to the Adriatic Sea, a significant portion of the population, along with natural resources and manufacturing sectors), were handed over to five other countries. For the hollowed-out nation left behind, economic and social upheaval made persecuting Jews a convenient cudgel. Many Jews fled to places like the United States during this time. In World War II, Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross party was allied and actively collaborated with German Nazis. As a result, the Hungarian Jewish population was decimated from a pre-war cohort of approximately 800,000 down to around 200,000.
But more recent assaults on organized religions would continue during nearly 40 years of Communist oppression in Hungary. Moscow’s rule over the Warsaw Pact nations crumbled and Hungary held free elections in May 1990, declaring itself as the Third Republic. Additionally, the present constitution proclaims Hungary as a Christian nation. A majority of the population claims Christian faith and the majority of them are Roman Catholic, Calvinist, and Greek Catholic. The smallest sect of Christians in Hungary is Orthodox and they comprise about 0.1 of percent of those who claim a faith. (There are dozens of Orthodox faiths throughout the world, including Greek, Oriental, Serbian, Estonian, Polish, Georgian, Albanian, and a number of others.) A few major differences between Eastern Christians and Western Christians (including Roman Catholics), are over the authority and infallibility of the Pope, and the Catholic inclusion of venerating the Son of God – Jesus Christ – as part of the Holy Trinity. Orthodoxy considers that notion undervalues the importance of God, and Catholics suggest it properly values the important of the Trinity. Orthodoxy sees a closer relationship between heaven and earth, and Western Christians see them as a bit further separated, with earth being the mortal plane and heaven being a place to attain for those who have lived a pious life.
Despite the recent upheavals of history, the congregation of St. George the Martyr thrives. The church’s present building was constructed beginning in 1759 and completed in 1761. Surrounded by a high wall, the church is a mixture of baroque and rococo styles with a bell tower 55 meters tall. From the exterior the building is a pleasing, modest work of architecture. But step inside and one is struck by the artistry and dizzying examples of Orthodox Christian symbology. One of the main interior features is a highly detailed and beautiful iconostasis. The interior of the church was reconditioned in the late 2010’s.
Set prominently in the middle of the church floor on a pedestal at St. George the Martyr is a painting in a gold frame of the Virgin Mary with a halo surrounding her head, a swaddled infant, and a bearded man adorned with a golden halo. The common practice is for parishioners to approach the image, bow and gently kiss the glass in devotion. The church service is conducted by a pair of priests wearing beautifully-adorned vestments. The doorway of the iconostasis is opened during the worship service and parts of the service are conducted at an altar normally hidden by the iconostasis, and at a lectern in front. Much of service and delivery of the liturgy by the priests is conveyed to the congregation in the form of chanting and singing. A small cadre of boys serve as attendants to the priests and the congregants. A small choir of men and women offer up hymns during portions of the service. Other elements of worship include processions, taking of communion, the use of candles, bells, incense, and the display of icons and relics.
For many people, religion is a sustenance of faith, hope, love, and charity. Throughout history, the simple act of practicing religion took bravery and showed defiance to intolerant governments. And in a world filled with injustice, those virtues are more important than ever. Thanks to the efforts of churches like St. George the Martyr in Budapest, the nation of Hungary, and the world as a whole is a better, more blessed place.
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