Hungarian priest extends lonely offer of help to migrants

Röszke (Hungary) (AFP) - Going against the wishes of local church bosses, and many of his compatriots, one Hungarian priest has extended a helping hand to some of the tens of thousands of refugees pouring across the border.

"In my view, we must help in such a situation. We must give love to these migrants, to these men, these women, these children," said Thomas Liszkai, a Catholic priest, who has offered room in a 30-bed church guesthouse to the refugees.

Liszkai's church is situated in Roszke, one of the main crossing points for the nearly 170,000 migrants that have entered Hungary this year hoping to reach Germany and other wealthy EU countries to the north.

"It's important that these people find a warm place to sleep with their children while it's so cold at night," the 39-year-old cleric told AFP.

Despite the call on Sunday from Pope Francis that every Catholic parish in Europe should take in at least one refugee family, the young priest admitted to feeling "quite alone" in his efforts.

No one from his small town of 3,000 has offered to help, and the police have told him he is not allowed host migrants, who must stay at squalid reception camps next to the border instead.

The hostile attitude of many towards refugees was encapsulated by footage of a Hungarian camerawoman shown tripping and kicking migrants as they fled police.

Journalist Petra Laszlo worked for N1TV, an Internet-based TV station close to the far-right Jobbik party, but state-controlled media also often portray migrants in a negative light.

And local church leaders have also taken a less than clement tone.

Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo last week claimed that providing help to migrants was tantamount to complicity in human trafficking.

The right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has angered European leaders meanwhile by building a heavily fortified fence and threatening to imprison anyone crossing the border without papers.

Liszkai said the government "has not understood" the suffering endured by the crowds of people on the move through Europe.

"It's not important to know who is who," he said. "The pope said that we must see a human being in each of these migrants, without racism."

He recognised, however, that there was still much to be done to convince his parishioners.

"Many are still too scared to really help," he said. "But we must be stronger than our fears."

- 'I don't feel safe' -

A short distance from his small church, making the most of a warm September day, two women smoking in front of the primary school freely admitted their concern about the large numbers of refugees in the area.

"I don't feel safe. They are too numerous. We don't really know who is who. I have to say it: we are scared of terrorists," one woman said, her views reflecting the negative portrayal of Muslim migrants that recurs in public debate in the central European country.

Her friend said she had tried to help some of the new arrivals.

"We are human beings, we are mothers also, we know we must help. But when for example we bring them food, they throw it away," she said.

AFP reporters on the border confirmed that refugees are often provided with more food than they need, which they abandon when fleeing the authorities.

"What should we think when times are hard for us, too?" the woman asked.

The distrust works both ways, admitted Liszkai.

Despite the offer of help from his church, "the migrants did not want to come because they are worried once they are there, they will be (rounded up and) taken back to the camps," he said.

A few kilometres further away near the border, a cluster of tents was littered with garbage and abandoned clothes from waves of migrants that had passed through.

"These people don't want to stay in Hungary, they just want to move on," said Liszkai.

"But any of these migrants only have to say the word, and we will put them up, even if our bishop says we should not."