ONE Magazine

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Small Potatoes: Hungary’s Serbian Orthodox

A profile of Hungary’s Serbian Orthodox community.

It was May Day and in the main square of Szentendre, Hungary, a local brass band was entertaining an early morning scattering of residents and tourists. The many shops, restaurants, galleries and museums of this small town on the Danube bend, about 13 miles north of Budapest, were just opening up for the busy weekend.

With a population of about 20,000, Szentendre (pronounced Sen-ten-dreh, which means St. Andrew) – long famed as an artists’ colony – is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hungary. It is easy today to see why artists were charmed by this undeniably picturesque town, with its branching cobblestoned streets, pastel plastered houses and tiled rooftops. Many of these artists were also attracted and inspired by the spiritual and artistic richness of Szentendre’s Serbian Orthodox heritage.

Some of that remarkable culture may be seen at the Serbian Orthodox Museum, located a few minutes north of the main square, on the grounds of the house of the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Buda. I was hurrying there that May morning to meet Bishop Danílo Krístíc, the first bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Buda to be installed officially since 1951. His installation, in 1990, was made possible because of the democratic changes that swept across Hungary that year.

As early as the 15th century, after the last Serbian king was killed by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbian emigrants fleeing Turkish expansion had settled in Szentendre, though dynastic ties forged between Hungarian and Serbian families predated even that seminal moment in modern Serbian history. Many Serbian leaders, including generals and bishops, came to Szentendre in the main wave of Serbian emigration of the late 17th century, when tens of thousands of Serbians settled all over Hungary. In 1557, when the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Buda was established, Szentendre became the northernmost Serbian center in the Danube region of Hungary. All bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Buda have lived in Szentendre.

The Serbian Orthodox Museum has a fine collection of ecclesiastical art, including icons from the 16th to 19th centuries.

“Byzantine Orthodox iconography is called theology in color,” Bishop Danílo, a slight man of joyful mien in his early 70’s, reminded me. Discoursing with passion on the icons around us, he proceeded to give a radiant lesson in that theology.

Whether it was his soft-spoken English, his apparent lack of pretension, or simply his black garb, the Bishop attracted the curiosity of schoolboys touring the museum in groups that morning. He invariably spoke with each who approached, then gave the child a card with an icon printed on it.

Tourists were less hesitant to cluster around, first at the museum, then at the nearby Church of the Dormition with its blazing iconostasis, a wall of icons separating the sanctuary from the nave. Switching from English to German to Italian to Hungarian as needed, the Bishop answered questions and pointed out items of interest, then bade the visitors farewell with a warm “until we meet again in Paradise.”

Renowned for their military skills, Serbian emigrants were welcomed both in Hungary, then a pact of the Austrian Empire, and in the Austrian army, where they were enlisted in the war against Turkish expansion. Leopold, the Austrian emperor, granted important privileges to the Serbian Orthodox patriarch, giving Serbians the freedom to practice their Orthodox faith in Roman Catholic Hungary, to elect their own patriarch and to serve in the Austrian army.

This meant, explained Bishop Danílo, that Serbians in Hungary were not reduced to serfdom. They came as a military force, respected alike by the emperor in Vienna and the Hungarian authorities. While Hungarian, Croatian and other peasant groups were ruled by counts, the Serbians, like the Cossacks of the Russian Empire, had their own land. When Turks attacked, the Serbians went off to fight. The emigrant Serbians were also good merchants. Going between cultures, dealing with the Turks on the one hand and the Austrians on the other, many became wealthy.

On the whole, relations between Hungarians and Serbians, said the Bishop, have been “amazing.” Only once did they clash, and that was in 1848, when Hungarians, caught up in the revolutionary fervor that struck Europe that year, rebelled against Austria and wanted to “Hungarianize” all minorities in the Hungarian nation.

“The most important thing our people – with all their old traditions – know is that dogmatic differences do not hinder brotherly love.” Speaking slowly to emphasize his point, the Bishop added, “Christians should never be fanatics.”

After World War I, when greater Hungary was reduced to its present boundaries, many minorities, including Serbians, returned to their homelands. Today there are between five and ten thousand Serbians in Hungary and 42 Serbian Orthodox churches throughout the country; most are small parishes.

“In Szentendre we have four churches,” said the Bishop, #147;whereas in the last century we had seven. In villages the minority groups are like small islands and not as likely to be assimilated, through marriage and such, as in towns and cities. Here in Szentendre the Serbian population is now in the hundreds.”

Joined by Konstantin Stefanovic, who moved from Belgrade to Budapest in 1984 and now works at a government-run teachers’ training college in Budapest, we started off for the rectory. There, a long dark table was simply set for three, but when Maria, the Bishop’s cook, served a plate of Serbian cheese puffs, the Bishop said they were all for me; he and Konstantin Stefanovic were fasting. All Orthodox adults, he added, abstain from meat, eggs and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays. We sipped peach nectar as we talked.

Bishop Danílo was, in his words, “a monk made in the USA,” having taken monastic vows at a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Chicago. Born in a northern region of Serbia with a prominent Hungarian population, Bishop Danílo learned to speak Hungarian as a boy. He studied theology in Paris at the St. Sergius Institute of Theology, the famous school founded by Russian Orthodox emigrés. When his teacher went to the United States to teach at Harvard University, the student followed on a scholarship and took a doctorate in theology there.

That explained his fluent English. The Bishop, I learned, speaks at least 15 languages.

“It’s not a question of the number of languages one speaks,” the Bishop observed, his voice lilting. “The only universal language, as St. Paul said, is love. The love that shines out of your eyes is the most understandable language there is.”

Serbian is the mother tongue of the Hungarian Serbian community. Celebrating the liturgy in Serbian, said the Bishop, also helps to preserve the language. For children there is always the “temptation” of assimilation. Government funding helps to support Serbian TV, radio and newspapers and people can watch Serbian television at home via satellite.

The Hungarian government has an aggressive program to insure minority rights, noted Mr. Stefanovic, and devotes significant funding to the country’s minorities, which include Germans, Romanies, Jews, Romanies, Bulgarians and others.

“With our population, we’re small potatoes in this big basket, and we don’t get as much money as the bigger groups,” explained Mr. Stefanovic. “Education is, of course, a priority, and we have a very nice Serbian school in the center of Budapest, from kindergarten through secondary grades. It’s bilingual and the quality of education is such that lots of Hungarian kids choose to go to the school.”

When I asked Bishop Danílo about the role of religion in contemporary Hungary, he replied, “It’s a difficult question. Every generation has to pass the same ‘examination,’ to choose between God and Satan. And that is the mystery of freedom, which is in the heart of everyone.”

That the Hungarian Serbian community is in good shape is, Mr. Stefanovic believes, because of its faith and strong families. Also, he says, about 90 percent of Hungarian Serbians are well-educated and many are doctors, professors and writers.

Under Communism, the Serbian Orthodox Church was, like other churches, repressed in Hungary. But because of their numbers, says the Bishop, the Serbians were not seen as much of a problem to the state, which also recognized their creative contributions, as evidenced by the art long created in Serbian Orthodox monasteries. Only one Serbian Orthodox monastery remains in use in Hungary, in Graboc, but the church of another, in Rackeve, a town 45 miles south of Budapest, is a jewel.

Our leave-taking in Szentendre was unforgettable. As we stood outside the rectory saying goodbye, Mr. Stefanovic bent and kissed the Bishop’s ring. I regretted that I had not made a similar gesture. Bishop Danílo suddenly said, as if reading my mind, “I will bless you with the Holy Virgin,” and pressed to my forehead the medallion bearing an image of the Virgin Mary hanging around his neck.

Jacqueline Ruyak is a freelance writer with a special interest in central Europe.

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