Hungary's Orban says his anti-immigration stance not rooted in racism after backlash

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian PM Orban takes the oath of office in the Parliament in Budapest

By Krisztina Than

BUDAPEST/VIENNA (Reuters) - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stuck to his anti-immigration stance on Thursday but insisted it was not rooted in racism after his recent remarks that Hungarians did not want to become "peoples of mixed race" drew fire at home and abroad.

Orban has spoken about maintaining "ethnic homogeneity" in Hungary before, taking a hard line on immigration since 2015.

But his comments in Romania on Saturday, when he said that in contrast to Western Europe's "mixed-race world" where people mixed with arriving non-Europeans, Hungary was not a mixed race country - hit a nerve, drawing condemnation from the United States, the European Union, Jewish groups and academics.

"I am the only politician in the EU who stands for an openly anti-immigration policy," Orban told a joint news briefing with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer in Vienna. "This is not a race issue for us, this is a cultural issue," he said.

"It happens sometimes that I say something in a way that can be misunderstood but ...the position I stand for, is a cultural, civilisation (based) stance."

Nehammer earlier said the two discussed the speech, adding:

"It was very important for me to make clear that we in Austria utterly reject any trivialising of racism or even anti-Semitism."

Late on Wednesday the U.S. embassy in Budapest issued a statement in which it did not mention Orban, but said it condemned "all ideologies, policies, and rhetoric that give oxygen to the doctrines of hate and division."

Earlier this week, European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans said on Twitter "poisonous" racism had no place in Europe that drew its strength from diversity.

At home, Jewish groups raised alarm on Monday, calling for a meeting with Orban, on Tuesday one of his aides Zsuzsa Hegedus resigned, calling his speech "a pure Nazi text", and on Thursday more than 60 members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences issued a petition criticizing his "race mixing" remarks.

During the news briefing, Orban echoed his open letter to Hegedus, saying his government had "zero tolerance" for racism and anti-semitism.

But Budapest's chief rabbi Zoltan Radnoti told Reuters any communication "talking about races, pure races, and mixing of races" was unacceptable.

More than half a million Hungarian Jews were systematically exterminated during the Nazi Holocaust in World War Two.

The head of the Association of Hungarian Jewish communities, Slomo Koves, though, while critical of Orban's language, said he did not believe his speech was racist.

"He portrayed a certain, very legitimate conservative view on European and World politics," he said. Concerns about the retreat Western civilization or unchecked mass illegal immigration from the Middle East were part of it, he said.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than and Krisztina Fenyo, Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Anita Komuves in Budapest; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

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