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Muslims in Eastern Europe: Hungary

Timea Csányi continues her series with a look at Hungary, her home country.

Early Muslim presence in Europe tends to be grossly overlooked, such as the diverse Muslim tribes coming to the Central-European territory known today as Hungary. In the very last years of the 8th century, we can find more than one Muslim clan who were part and parcel of the conquest of the homeland in the Carpathian Basin. According to descriptions, many of them serving in the army practised Islam openly, while others, who held offices, hid their Muslim identity and were formally baptised, succumbing to the pressure of the Catholic Church. But undoubtedly, Muslims enjoyed great privileges under the kings of Hungary in the 12th century.


Noticing the gradually increasing number of Muslims, the Church launched a cruel campaign against the believers of Islam (and anyone in general who was not a Christian). It increased its pressure on the king of that time, forcing non-Christians to baptise, withdrawing certain rights and destroying the economic strength of Muslims. By the end of the 14th century, Muslims in Hungary had completely assimilated into the Hungarian society and thus Islam basically disappeared. Besides written records and some settlements’ medieval names, not much was left for posterity from this period.


However, the history of Islam in Hungary did not end in such a tragic way: right before occupying Bosnia, the Ottoman Empire annexed Central-Eastern Europe for the next century and a half. Mosques, Qur’an schools and Turkish baths were built, of which only a few have survived intact today. Similar to Bosnia’s diverse society, calls of the muezzin from the top of the minaret were mixed with the chiming of the church bell on the streets where Hungarian, Turkish and Slavic words were heard.


It is important to mention that, though the Ottoman Empire did not force inhabitants to convert to Islam nor did it humiliate them as it is often claimed, history preserved the event of the weakened Empire’s expulsion from the region as victory. Despite the bittersweet past, today there is a tight friendship between Turkey and Hungary based on the similar language and common history and culture.


In 1916, the muezzin’s call for prayer was heard again in the capital city of Budapest after the religion of Islam had been legally accepted in the country and the first Muslim community formed including Bosnians, Albanians, Turks and some Hungarian reverts. At that time, Muslims in Hungary aimed to build a mosque with an Islamic school, but despite all the promises given by leaders of the Muslim world to finance the project (and the struggle with the government for over 10 years), this dream did not come true until just the last few years.


Under the Soviet Union’s communist regime, religion was essentially banned. Christians in high positions were fired or might have been put in jail for going to church, therefore Muslims (reverts in particular) practised their religion secretly. In 1988, the interests of the soviet-backed Hungarian government (hoping to get some financial support from the oil-rich Saudi Arabia) and the aims of Muslims met: the first Hungarian Islamic community was established.


Today, from the population of 10 million, approximately 26,000 are Muslims; 60 % of them have Arab origins, 30% are from different backgrounds like Turkey, Persia or Muslim countries in Africa and only about 10% are native Hungarians. The majority of Hungarian Muslims live in the capital. Though Hungary is a small country in the heart of Europe (as we, Hungarians, describe it), the biggest problem among its Muslim communities is the segregation between Muslims. For example, Arabs go to certain mosques, the Turkish go to others and, sometimes, there is a kind of mistrust between the different groups. Of course, this conflict affects reverts as well whose numbers have been sharply increasing year by year.


Although communities have weekend schools for Muslim kids, organise summer camps and hold lectures for adults, Muslims undoubtedly lack opportunities for proper Islamic education in the native Hungarian language. Living in Hungary as a Muslim, I would say, is certainly challenging, but this is due to the lack of prayer areas and Islamic books, rather than hatred towards Islam. (“You speak Hungarian so well! How do not you have an accent?” or “Are you a nun?” are among the most common questions I receive from average Hungarian people, even in the capital!) As the Muslim community is still small, unlike in France or in the UK, Muslims do not face big organised Islamophobia  yet. More or less, you find non-Muslims being tolerant and rather curious; therefore we can live and practise Islam peacefully while hoping that our biggest dream of a real mosque along with an Islamic school will come true in the near future, insha Allah.


Historical Islamic Sites
1. The minaret of Eger city
The city of Eger is famous for its numerous notable historical places, among which is the minaret of former Kethuda’s Jami (mosque). It is Hungary’s northernmost Islamic heritage site from the 17th century which was built shortly after the Turks’ victory in 1596. When the 150-year rule of the Ottomans ended, the Jami of Kethuda was handed over to the Catholics who converted it to a church, but later on, in 1841, the mosque was demolished. Although Eger was recaptured by imperial forces in 1687 and the people of the town tried to demolish it with 400 oxen, the minaret was strong enough to resist. Thus, the 40-metre-high minaret eventually became the emblem of Eger and an attractive tourist attraction. Climbing its 97 small but high steps is absolutely worthwhile – the unique panoramic view is breathtaking!


2. Pasha Qasim Djami
One of the largest Turkish buildings and the best example of Turkish architecture in Hungary is situated in the southern city of Pécs, named Qasim Pasa’s mosque. It stands in the city centre, thus considered to be the symbol of Pécs; however, its history is a sad one for Muslims. It was built by Pasha Qasim the Victorious in the middle of the 16th century. The Jesuits brought down its minaret two centuries later, but it has been recently rebuilt. Though numerous inscriptions of the Qur’an, the mihrab and other Turkish decorations are found inside the building, it has functioned as a Roman Catholic Church since the fall of the Soviet Union, as do some other Islamic buildings throughout the country. It is truly a heartbreaking feeling to see a cross at the top a mosque instead of the crescent symbol!


3. Jakovali Hassan’s Djami
Just a few steps from Qasim’s mosque stands Jakovali Hassan’s Djami which is the only historical Muslim site of the late 16th century remaining completely intact with its minaret standing tall. Jakovali Hassan’s Djami may be the only Ottoman site functioning as a public museum and a mosque for Muslims at the same time.