“Save us before we die from the cold,” read the email in Father Zoltan Nemeth’s inbox. It was an appeal that this Hungarian priest could not ignore.
The SOS was sent by an asylum-seeker, one of 14 relocated from a refugee camp earmarked for closure near Budapest to what they say are freezing military tents in Kormend close to the Austrian border.
Nemeth, the Catholic parish priest in Kormend, a town of around 12,000 souls some 230 kilometres west of Budapest, quickly offered them shelter in the parish community hall.
“I’m not a hero, it was simply my duty as a committed Christian to help,” the bespectacled and portly 61-year-old told a global news agency in the parish house next door where he lives.
But Nemeth calls his stance a “lonely” one in a country led by the fiercely anti-migrant Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
In 2015 Orban built fences on Hungary’s borders to keep out migrants, and changed laws enabling the expulsion and jailing of “illegal border crossers”.
Refugee camps are being closed while a government referendum in October urged Hungarians to vote “No” on the EU’s plan to relocate migrants around the bloc. The ballot, however, was declared invalid because of low voter turnout.
“Hungary doesn’t need a single migrant,” Orban has said, warning that the “poison” of mass migration will destroy Europe’s Christian identity.
According to Nemeth, however, Orban’s referendum campaign, with nationwide billboard posters that linked migrants to terrorism and crime, had an “anti-Gospel message”.
“I follow Jesus, not the state’s leaders,” he told global news agency, citing a passage from the Bible: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat... I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
The priest says his inspiration is Pope Francis who has regularly defended migrants and called on Europe to keep its doors open to those in need.
Upstairs in the parish hall, priest vestments hang on racks at one end, while mattresses and rucksacks line the walls.
Greeted with bear hugs when he goes upstairs to chat to the asylum-seekers, Nemeth says a three-year period in South America as a missionary taught him to “disregard religion, race, or class, and only see the person”.
The group of young men, all awaiting decisions on appeals of rejected asylum claims, is comprised of Iraqi Kurds, Afghans, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Cubans and a Congolese. They include both Christians and Muslims.