How Viktor Orbán's Son Found God Instead of Politics
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Hungary's faith is being tested.
By Dariusz Kalan
As Gáspár Orbán preaches on stage, he punches his hand, again and again. “Like a boxer. Stronger and stronger,” says Szilárd Szőnyi, a spokesperson for the Hungarian Society of Jesus. In this, Szőnyi suggests, is everything: an impulsive nature, passion, the idealism of youth and, possibly, internal tensions.
The story of Gáspár “is a classic example of how an intelligent and strong-willed young adult tries to escape from his dominant father’s shadow,” says Szőnyi. A former journalist, he met Gáspár during an interview and later chatted a few times privately about God and faith.
Now 27, Gáspár is the only son of Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s powerful prime minister and self-described champion of “illiberal democracy.” He is just one year older than his father was when he burst into Hungary’s national consciousness during the 1989 change of regime: At age 26, Viktor delivered a famous speech denouncing the Soviet Union and demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungary.
As a private person, I often quarrel with my dad.
Gáspár rarely gives interviews, other than about his faith in God, which he has shared as one of the leaders of the religious community Félhaz. Often characterized as Pentecostal by Hungarian sources, the group aims to share the teachings of Jesus with young people and preach morality — eschewing such things as alcohol and premarital sex. Gáspár did not reply to a message sent to his private email. A representative says Gáspár cannot comment publicly because he has taken up a new post with the Hungarian army, a potential sign that father and son aren’t so far apart after all.
Not every member of Orbán’s clan shares his aversion to the spotlight. The oldest of his four sisters, Ráhel, is highly influential in Hungary’s tourist trade. Her husband, 33-year-old István Tiborcz, has long been a member of Orbán’s inner circle. This year, with assets estimated at 108 million euros, he made his debut on the list of the richest Hungarians.
“Unlike Ráhel, who is partly using their father’s political role to develop a career, Gáspár has been seeking to be a self-made man outside the political and economic scene,” Szőnyi says.
Two investigative reporters, who have long been following money around Orbán, agree that Gáspár is not involved in his father’s deals. Multiple sources close to Gáspár indicate he has a difficult relationship with his father. Gáspár once confided to the HVG weekly newspaper, “As a private person, I often quarrel with my dad. … He is very supportive, but I’m not sure he knows what I’m doing.”
Despite today’s self-reliance, Gáspár’s early career was dogged by criticism that he was riding on Viktor’s coattails. Never the most talented player, he joined the youth side of the Videoton, a top-flight soccer team owned by István Garancsi, an oligarch close to Viktor, and stayed in Garancsi’s luxurious Budapest apartment, according to an Orbán biography by József Debreczeni.
“I saw a pressure on him because of his father, but I think he could handle that,” says Károly Nagy, a younger colleague from his next club, Puskás Akadémia FC, and the current leader of the youth organization of the opposition party Momentum. The Akadémia, known as “Fidesz Club,” in reference to Viktor’s political party, is chaired by another pal of the prime minister, Lőrinc Mészáros. For the youngsters, Gáspár was “always kind,” Nagy says, describing his abilities as a midfielder as “not super talented but not bad either.”
Gáspár also followed in Viktor’s footsteps, joining the elite Bibó István College, of the historic Eötvös Loránd University, where Fidesz was founded. A former university colleague, who insisted on anonymity given sensitivities around the Orbán family, describes Gáspár as a “good organizer yet distrustful of politics.” Yet he did establish a self-study course bringing together future lawyers for courses and debates with politicians.
This has so far proven to be the pinnacle of his politics-related activity. Soon he waved goodbye to soccer too, retiring at age 22 because of a leg fracture.
“When I had to give up football, I knew I had to start all over again. I thought I wanted to do it with God’s help,” Gáspár told 24.hu news portal. He was off to Uganda, where he “went to find Jesus and serve him.” As a volunteer for Empower a Child, a small humanitarian aid organization, he taught children soccer. Asked how this move was seen by his relatives, Gáspár replied, “They were terrified.”
Inspired by his African experience, Gáspár brought together like-minded university friends Illés Ember and Donát Prekopa for Bible reading, prayer and debate. This is how Félhaz was born in April 2015.
Over time, as their worship services grew, they set up meetings in popular clubs and large halls, often accompanied by bands. This, along with strong marketing, provoked questions about financing. Eventually, leaders explained publicly that in 2017 they received 34.3 million forints ($115,000) in private donations, with no public funds.
Polls show 67 percent of 16-to-29-year-old Hungarians now reject any religious affiliation. Félhaz offers them something largely missing in traditional churches: a personal, emotional and community-based approach.
Young, well-dressed leaders of Félhaz married the Christian dogma with hipster style. Katalin Lukácsi, a former activist of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (a sister party to Fidesz) and a regular attendee of Félhaz meetings, remembers Gáspár as a charismatic preacher. “He seemed the opposite of his father,” she says. “Humble, kind, unstudied, natural and, the most important, honest. He was like a true believer who seeks God.” Although politics wasn’t discussed there, the community gave her “courage to speak out against the government about its misuse of the name of Jesus.”
But Félhaz has temporarily suspended its activities as it looks for a reinvention. Two other leaders declined an interview, saying they prefer to stay out of the public eye for now.
Gáspár has taken a break from Félhaz too. Without public explanation of the change, in June he completed training in the 2nd Árpád Bertalan Special Brigade in the town of Szolnok — and thus joined the army.
His father took part in the swearing-in ceremony, tucked away in the last row.
- Dariusz Kalan, OZY AuthorContact Dariusz Kalan