EU holds up Hungary’s recovery money in rule-of-law standoff

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union’s executive missed its own deadline to sign off on billions of euros in economic recovery aid to Hungary, delaying its decision in an attempt to win rule-of-law concessions from Budapest.

Hungary is set to receive 7.2 billion euros in EU stimulus funds meant to kickstart economic growth mauled by the coronavirus pandemic.

The funds will start flowing once the Brussels-based European Commission accepts national plans on how to spend them to ensure digital and green transitions, among others goals.

However, the Commission is using the money as leverage to push Hungary on its observance of the rule of law, an area where the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has clashed with the EU.

A spokeswoman for the Commission said on Monday it was still analyzing the plan Budapest submitted and might propose a longer delay should it consider “months rather than days” were still needed to decide on it.

While the spokeswoman declined to give detail, the bloc’s Economics Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said last week: “We are working on aspects to do with the respect for the rule of law.”

The Hungarian Prime Minister’s office said in a statement to state news agency MTI that talks with the Commission had been close to completion but that after Hungary’s law banning from schools materials seen as promoting homosexuality was passed, the European Commission came forward with what they said were “absurd demands”.

“The ideologically motivated political attacks obviously slow down the acceptance of the plan which was formulated earlier, in professional consultations,” the PM’s office said.

It added that talks were continuing with the Commission.

The Commission has long wanted Hungary to improve its public procurement process to combat “systemic irregularities” – or fraud.

Orban has also infuriated many of his EU peers in recent weeks with a new legislation that bans from schools materials seen as promoting homosexuality, the latest in a series of laws seen as discriminatory and restricting people’s rights.

Budapest has clashed with the EU on multiple occasions over Orban’s treatment of migrants and gay people, as well as the tightening of curbs around the freedom of media, academics and judges.

Orban portrays himself as a crusader for what he says are traditional Catholic values under pressure from the liberal West.

‘Falling like flies’: Hungary’s Roma community pleads for COVID help

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Coronavirus infections are ravaging Hungary’s 700,000-strong Roma community, according to personal accounts that suggest multiple deaths in single families are common in an unchecked outbreak fueled by deep distrust of authorities.

Data on infections in the community is unavailable but interviews with about a dozen Roma, who often live in cramped and unsanitary conditions, reveal harrowing stories of suffering and death and of huge health-care challenges.

“Our people are falling like flies,” said Aladar Horvath, a Roma rights advocate who travels widely among the community.

When asked by phone to describe the overall situation, he broke down sobbing and said he had learned an hour before that his 35-year-old nephew had died of COVID.

Another Roma, Zsanett Bito-Balogh, likened the outbreak in her town of Nagykallo in eastern Hungary to an explosion.

“It’s like a bomb went off,” she said.

“Just about every family got it…People you see riding their bikes one week are in hospital the next and you order flowers for their funerals the third.”

Bito-Balogh, who herself recovered twice from COVID-19, said that at one point she had 12 family members in hospital. She said she had lost two uncles and her grandmother to the virus in the past month, and a neighbor lost both parents, a cousin and a uncle within weeks.

She says she is now rushing to organize in-person registration points for vaccines and plans to have the network up and running in a few weeks.

Despite the challenges in persuading many Roma to turn to health authorities for medical care and vaccinations, Roma leaders are urging the government to do more to intervene and tackle what Horvath describes as a humanitarian crisis.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said vaccinations would be rolled out to Roma but that the community needed to volunteer for their shots.

“Once we get to that point, the younger Roma should get in line,” Gulyas said in answer to Reuters questions. The Roma community is predominantly young, which means their vaccinations are scheduled later than for older Hungarians.

The government’s chief epidemiologist did not respond to requests for comment.

DECADES OF MISTRUST

Barely 9% of Roma want to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a survey carried out at Hungary’s University of Pecs in January but published here for the first time. It was conducted by Zsuzsanna Kiss, a Roma biologist and professor at Hungary’s University of Pecs.

Kiss said the Roma have mistrusted doctors and governments for decades because of perceived discrimination.

However, gaining Roma trust is not the only challenge.

Hungary’s 6,500 general practitioners are leading the vaccine roll-out, but 10% of small GP clinics are shut because there is no doctor to operate them, mostly in areas with high Roma populations, government data shows.

Although the government has deployed five “vaccination buses” that tour remote areas, people must first register for inoculations.

“The rise in cases (among the Roma) is clearly proportionate to vaccine rejection,” said former Surgeon General Ferenc Falus.

“This more infectious virus reaches a population whose immune system has weakened greatly during the winter months. If they go without vaccines for long, it will definitely show in extra infections and fatalities among the Roma.”

Hungary currently has the world’s highest weekly per capita death toll, driven by the more contagious variant first detected in Britain, despite a rapid vaccination rollout, data from Johns Hopkins University and the European Union indicates.

“We never trusted vaccines much,” said Zoltan Varga, a young Roma also from Nagykallo.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Mark Heinrich)

Hungary to reopen only once past 25% vaccination milestone

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – A record rise in coronavirus infections and deaths keeps Hungary from loosening lockdown measures, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Friday before his government discussed plans to reopen the economy.

Partial reopening may begin after Easter, once a quarter of the population is vaccinated, the government decided, a senior Orban aide said.

Hospitals are under “extraordinary” pressure in Hungary, a hot spot as the pandemic hits Central Europe especially hard.

Orban, who faces elections in 2022, is balancing the world’s highest daily per-capita coronavirus death rates, according to Johns Hopkins University, with a need to open the economy to avoid a second year of deep recession.

“The next 1-2 weeks will be hard,” Orban told state radio.

Hungary reported a record high daily tally of 275 COVID-19 deaths and 11,265 new infections on Friday. Hospitalizations and people on ventilators are also at an all-time high with doctors comparing the situation to the global pandemic’s worst days.

The premier’s chief of staff said in a televised statement that the government considered business groups’ proposals and decided to wait until first vaccinations reach at least 2.5 million of the country’s 10 million people.

That should come a few days after Easter Monday, Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said.

“We need one last big effort to make it through the peak of the pandemic’s third wave,” Gulyas said.

Once the milestone is passed shops can remain open until 9:30 p.m. and a nighttime curfew will start at 10 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. now, Gulyas said. The number of people allowed at one time will be limited in shops.

Services can reopen partially. Teachers and school staff will be inoculated to allow schools to reopen on April 19.

Two-thirds of those elderly people who registered, and a total of 1.8 million people, had received a first shot already, Orban said.

The Hungarian Medical Chamber warned people earlier this week to observe strict social distancing.

(Reporting by Budapest bureau; Editing by Toby Chopra and Steve Orlofsky)

Doctors in Hungary urge volunteers to join overwhelmed COVID-19 wards

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – An appeal went out on Monday for volunteers to join hospital staff treating coronavirus patients in northwestern Hungary, as doctors said COVID-19 wards were overwhelmed, with the pressure only set to mount during the next few weeks.

New infections are surging in Hungary, hard-hit by the third wave of the pandemic, despite vaccination rates at the top of European Union nations, as a proportion of population.

Hungary was the first nation in the bloc to buy and use Chinese or Russian vaccines, as it said shipments from Western suppliers lagged.

Monday’s call, posted on the Facebook page of the Hungarian Medical Chamber in the county of Gyor-Sopron, came just as the nation reported a record number of 11,276 patients in hospital, with 1,340 of them on ventilators.

“The COVID-19 departments in almost all the hospitals are hugely overburdened, there is a shortage of nurses and they are becoming increasingly exhausted,” Laszlo Szijjarto, the chairman of the county chamber, said in the request.

He called for motivated and reliable volunteers to enroll in a 3 hour to 4 hour training course to join hospital staff and assist in monitoring and caring for patients.

The spreading third wave presents a big challenge for nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who aims to get as many people immunized as quickly as possible to reopen the economy.

Hungary still had plenty of free beds to treat coronavirus patients, Orban said on Friday.

“We haven’t even reached half our capacity yet,” he said, referring to the tally of beds with ventilators, while adding that the number of those free, but without ventilators, exceeded 10,000.

“The question is always whether there are enough doctors and nurses to operate these,” Orban added, saying problems would be resolved.

With just over 1.589 million Hungarians inoculated, Orban said lockdown measures could start to ease once the figure reached 2.5 million, or a quarter of the population.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

‘I have only bad news’ PM warns Hungary, as hospitals face worst weeks yet

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary is entering its toughest period since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and over the next two weeks hospitals will come under strain like never before, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday.

“I have only bad news,” Orban said in a Facebook video. “We are facing the hardest two weeks since the start of the pandemic. The number of infections is rising sharply and will continue to rise due to the new mutations.”

On Thursday, Hungary reported 4,385 new infections, the highest number this year.

Hungary’s government has extended a partial lockdown until March 15, Orban’s chief of staff said earlier in the day.

The next two weeks would be “exceptionally difficult,” Gergely Gulyas told a government briefing, adding that the pace of vaccinations would accelerate after Hungary started to roll out China’s Sinopharm vaccine on Wednesday.

He said Orban was expected to receive a Sinopharm shot next week.

Hungary, with a population of around 10 million, had reported 414,514 cases since the start of the pandemic, with 14,672 deaths.

So far, just over half a million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

All secondary schools have been closed since Nov. 11, as have hotels and restaurants except for takeaway meals, a 1900 GMT curfew has been in place and all gatherings have been banned.

Hungary on Wednesday became the first European Union country to start inoculating people with Sinopharm shots, after rolling out Russia’s Sputnik V as part of its vaccination campaign. The Chinese and Russian vaccines have not been granted regulatory approval in the EU.

These shots are now being administered along with the Pfizer-BioNTech, vaccine and shots developed by U.S. company Moderna and Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca.

According to the statistics office, there is a rising willingness to get a vaccine, with 40% saying in mid-February that they planned to get a vaccine and 26% saying they may.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than and Anita Komuves; Editing by Alison Williams, Nick Macfie, Alexandra Hudson)

For Hungary’s poor it’s wood or food. Trash also burns, creating deadly smog

By Marton Dunai and Marton Monus

SAJONEMETI, Hungary (Reuters) – Zoltan Berki usually wakes up before dawn, as his five small children sleep next door, to feed the old iron furnace that stands in a wall cavity to warm up both rooms. This is the only part of his house that he can afford to heat during winter.

Come rain or shine, Berki, a stocky 28-year-old Roma man, cycles an hour to work to save on the bus fare, so he is up anyway.

But he also has to burn some materials before daylight, to conceal the thick black smoke that billows from his chimney when he uses plastic or rubber. Such household pollution is illegal in Hungary, including in this town near the Slovakian border.

People do it anyway. On a foggy winter’s day, dense smoke of different hues spews from nearly every chimney. It stays low in the air, gradually filling the narrow valleys.

“Firewood is expensive,” Berki said one recent afternoon, as his family played around him, crammed into a small room. “Either I buy wood or food. So I go to the forest, or the junkyard, and if we find plastic or rubber we burn that.”

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled last week that Hungary had breached pollution limits for over a decade in the Sajo river valley, as well as other areas, which could be grounds for financial penalties unless reversed.

The ruling should be seen as “a wake-up call,” European Commission spokeswoman Vivian Loonela said.

The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment.

Although Hungary has reduced its carbon emissions in the past decades and is not the worst offender in Europe, pockets of high pollution persist, and rules are rarely enforced, according to locals and environmental rights groups.

The capital Budapest and the southern city of Pecs suffer too, but the situation in the Sajo valley, where pollution and poverty go hand-in-hand, is especially severe.

In Berki’s home, the hand-sized doors of the furnace open with a creak. Berki starts the flames and throws in a wood plank or two to build heat. Then he burns whatever he can. Plastic bottles, cut-up tires and window frames all work. An old shoe often suffices.

Scavenging for material to burn is common for the poorest people in the small, run-down town of Sajonemeti and those nearby, among the most destitute communities in Europe since Communist-era heavy industry vanished 30 years ago, leaving thousands jobless.

Aware of the rules, Berki avoids burning some fuel by day.

“The neighbors can see, and you can also smell it,” he said. “We throw the rubber and the plastic bottles and such things on at night.”

The valley forms a dead end and prevents winds as cold air settles in, so heavy smog can linger for weeks. Several such areas exist in Hungary, together contributing to thousands of premature deaths every year, according to Europe’s top court.

YEARS OF ALARM

Hungarian environmental groups have been raising the alarm for years.

In 2020 Zsuzsanna F. Nagy, northeastern Hungary’s foremost environmental activist, surveyed locals about their heating practices, and found that while some people burned rubbish, even those who tried to heat homes properly often burned lignite or other coal products that were unfit for home use.

That echoed the assessment of the Clean Air Action Group, a Budapest-based green organization, which said coal types can vary widely, and by using the wrong ones, households could erase gains made by a post-Communist cleanup of industry.

The gap between quality coal and low-grade alternatives can mean a 60-fold difference in particulate emissions, it said.

In Hungary, a country of 10 million people, air pollution causes an annual 13,000 premature deaths, a million people fall sick and billions of euros are lost to economic damage, Clean Air project leader Judit Szego said.

According to the European Environmental Agency, Hungary ranks third in Europe behind Bulgaria and Poland in health damage, losing an annual 1,128 life years per 100,000 residents due to particulate pollution, or small flying dust, alone – compared with about 500 in the UK or 250 in Sweden.

Air pollution can cause allergic reactions, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, the National Public Health Institute said in a 2017 study.

Berki’s five children all use inhalers because they suffer from asthma symptoms, he said. To his father, Zoltan Berki Sr., pollution means chest pain and coughs.

On Sunday, the elder Berki went to dig up leftover coal by hand – a common sight in winter.

The man-made mounds are littered with materials for burning, including logs from the old coal mine rail tracks which are infused with diesel.

“Smokes like hell but burns nicely,” he said as he piled up a few. “We collect what we find and take it home to burn. They heat up nicely, and we can’t afford to buy anything.”

(Additional reporting by Kate Abnett in Brussels; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S. Supreme Court hears World War Two-era Jewish property claims

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The lingering legacy of World War Two reached the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday as the justices weighed two cases involving claims by Jews in Germany and Hungary and their descendants whose property was taken amid persecution that culminated in the Holocaust.

The justices heard arguments in the two cases that hinge upon a federal law called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that limits the jurisdiction of American courts over lawsuits against foreign governments.

In one case, the justices considered Germany’s bid to avoid facing a lawsuit in a U.S. court over medieval artwork that its former Nazi government pressured Jewish art dealers to sell in the 1930’s. The other concerns Hungary’s similar attempt to avoid litigation originally brought by 14 U.S. citizens who survived that nation’s World War Two-era campaign of genocide against its Jewish population.

The justices appeared more sympathetic to the arguments made by Germany than Hungary, while also recognizing foreign policy concerns of allowing such claims to be heard in U.S. courts.

The Germany case focuses upon a 17th century collection of medieval art known as the Welfenschatz that includes gem-studded busts of Christian saints, golden crucifixes and other precious objects. The plaintiffs – heirs of the art dealers – have said they are the rightful owners of the collection.

They sued in U.S. federal court in Washington in 2015, saying Germany owes them either the return of the artwork or more than $250 million in damages.

In 1935, a group of Jewish art dealers in Germany sold the collection to the state of Prussia, then being administered by prominent Nazi official Hermann Goering. The plaintiffs said that the sale was a “sham transaction” made under duress.

The art collection is currently in the possession of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, a German governmental entity.

Germany has said that U.S. courts have no role because the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act does not allow claims over the alleged seizure of a citizen’s property by its own government. Some justices questioned that assumption, with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas among others wondering if “stateless people” who are stripped of citizenship would be left without recourse.

Some justices said the language of the U.S. law seems to be clear that domestic property claims can be permitted if they fall within a broader genocide claim.

“It seems to cover the kind of property-taking that is at issue in this case,” Justice Elena Kagan said.

But Kagan and others also appeared to be worried about a ruling along those lines in part because it might require judges to undertake the contentious task of determining what constitutes a genocide.

A federal judge in Washington ruled against Germany in 2017. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit narrowed the case the following year, saying claims could proceed against the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation but not against Germany’s government itself.

The Hungarian Holocaust survivors filed suit in Washington in 2010 seeking restitution for possessions taken from them and their families when they were forced to board trains destined for concentration camps. A federal judge tossed out the lawsuit in 2017 but the D.C. Circuit revived it a year later, prompting Hungary to appeal to the high court.

Hungary has said that the possibility of “international friction” raised by the lawsuit means it should be dismissed and that the plaintiffs should sue in Hungary first.

The justices appeared reluctant to rule that foreign policy concerns could always be cited as a reason to toss out a lawsuit, but some also seemed reluctant to conclude that such issues should not be taken into account.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham)

No clear link between school opening and COVID surge, study finds

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Widespread reopening of schools after lockdowns and vacations is generally not linked to rising COVID-19 rates, a study of 191 countries has found, but lockdown closures will leave a 2020 “pandemic learning debt” of 300 billion missed school days.

The analysis, by the Zurich-based independent educational foundation Insights for Education, said 84% of those 300 billion days would be lost by children in poorer countries, and warned that 711 million pupils were still out of school.

“It’s been assumed that opening schools will drive infections, and that closing schools will reduce transmission, but the reality is much more complex,” said IfE’s founder and chief executive Randa Grob-Zakhary.

The vast majority – 92% – of countries that are through their first wave of COVID-19 infections have started to reopen school systems, even as some are seeing a second surge.

IfE found that 52 countries that sent students back to school in August and September – including France and Spain – saw infection rates rise during the vacation compared to when they were closed.

In Britain and Hungary, however, infection levels dropped after initial school closures, remained low during the holidays, and began rising after reopening.

Full analysis of these 52 countries found no firm correlation between school status and infections – pointing to a need to consider other factors, IfE said.

“The key now is to learn from those countries that are reopening effectively against a backdrop of rising infections,” Grob-Zakhary said.

The report said 44 countries have kept schools closed.

It found countries are developing strategies for schools during the pandemic – including some, such as Italy, France, which order temporary school closures on a case-by-case basis.

Other measures include policies on masks, class rotations and combining remote with in-school lessons.

“This first real global test highlights what school life looks like in a COVID-world,” said Grob-Zakhary. “Understanding how countries undergoing a massive second wave are dealing with this new reality in the classroom is essential to guide future reopening decisions and to help schools remain open.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Giles Elgood)

In global war on coronavirus, some fear civil rights are collateral damage

By Luke Baker, Matthew Tostevin and Devjyot Ghoshal

LONDON/BANGKOK/DELHI (Reuters) – In Armenia, journalists must by law include information from the government in their stories about COVID-19. In the Philippines, the president has told security forces that if anyone violates the lockdown they should “shoot them dead”. In Hungary, the premier can rule by decree indefinitely.

Across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas, governments have introduced states of emergency to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, imposing some of the most stringent restrictions on civil liberties since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lawyers and human rights campaigners said.

While such experts agree extraordinary measures are needed to tackle the deadliest pandemic in a century, some are worried about an erosion of core rights, and the risk that sweeping measures will not be rolled back afterwards.

“In many ways, the virus risks replicating the reaction to Sept. 11,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the welter of security and surveillance legislation imposed around the world after the al Qaeda attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.

“People were fearful and asked governments to protect them. Many governments took advantage of that to undermine rights in ways that far outlasted the terrorist threat,” he told Reuters.

Roth was speaking about legislation in countries including the United States, Britain and EU states which increased collection of visa and immigrant data and counter-terrorism powers.

Some measures imposed in response to a crisis can become normalised, such as longer security queues at airports as a trade-off for feeling safer flying. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, similar trade-offs may become widely acceptable around issues such as surveillance, according to some political and social commentators.

South Korea’s use of mobile phone and other data to track potential carriers of the virus and impose quarantines has been a successful strategy and is a model that could be replicated around the world to guard against pandemics, they say.

Political consultant Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese minister, said people’s obsession with privacy had made it harder to combat threats like pandemics, when technology to trace the virus could help.

“I am more and more convinced the greatest battle of our time is against the ‘religion of privacy’. It literally could get us all killed,” he added.

EXTRAORDINARY CRISIS

As the virus has spread from China across the world, with more than 1.4 million people infected and 82,000 dead, governments have passed laws and issued executive orders.

The first priority of the measures is to protect public health and limit the spread of the disease.

“It’s quite an extraordinary crisis, and I don’t really have trouble with a government doing sensible if extraordinary things to protect people,” said Clive Stafford-Smith, a leading civil rights lawyer.

The U.S.-headquartered International Center for Not-For-Profit Law has set up a database to track legislation and how it impinges on civic freedoms and human rights.

By its count, 68 countries have so far made emergency declarations, while nine have introduced measures that affect expression, 11 have ratcheted up surveillance and a total of 72 have imposed restrictions on assembly.

EXTRAORDINARY POWERS

In Hungary for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose party dominates parliament, has been granted the right to rule by decree in order to fight the epidemic, with no time-limit on those powers and the ability to jail people for up to five years if they spread false information or hinder efforts to quell the virus.

The Hungarian government said the law empowered it to adopt only measures for “preventing, controlling and eliminating” the coronavirus. Spokesman Zolan Kovacs said nobody knew how long the pandemic would persist, but that parliament could revoke the extra powers.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, an emergency law has been drafted to give additional powers to Hun Sen, who has been in office for 35 years and has been condemned by Western countries for a crackdown on opponents, civil rights groups and the media. The law is for three months and can be extended if needed.

The Cambodian government did not respond to a request for comment. Hun Sen defended the law at a news conference this week, saying it was only required so that he could declare a state of emergency, if needed, to stop the virus and saving the economy.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former coup leader who kept power after a disputed election last year, has invoked emergency powers that allow him to return to governing by decree. The powers run to the end of the month, but also can be extended.

“The government is only using emergency power where it is necessary to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” said Thai government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat.

In the Philippines, the head of police said President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to shoot lockdown violators was a sign of his seriousness rather than indicating people would be shot.

Neither the presidential spokesman nor the cabinet secretary responded to a request for comment.

PUBLIC HEALTH

For Roth and other human rights advocates, the dangers are not only to fundamental freedoms but to public health. They say restrictions on the media could limit the dissemination of information helpful in curbing the virus’s spread, for instance.

Indian premier Narendra Modi, criticised in the media for a lack of preparedness including inadequate protective gear for health workers, has been accused by opponents of trying to muzzle the press by demanding that it get government clearance before publishing coronavirus news, a request rejected by India’s supreme court.

The Indian government did not respond to a request for comment, while the Armenian government said it had no immediate comment. Both have said they want to prevent the spread of misinformation, which could hamper efforts to control the outbreak.

Carl Dolan, head of advocacy at the Open Society European Policy Institute, warned about the tendency for some governments to keep extraordinary powers on their books long after the threat they were introduced to tackle has passed.

Dolan proposed a mandatory review of such measures at least every six months, warning otherwise of a risk of “a gradual slide into authoritarianism”.

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul, Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh, Krisztina Than in Budapest, Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan, Neil Jerome Morales in Manila, Panu Wongcha-Um in Bangkok, Linda Sieg in Tokyo, John Mair in Sydney, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia; Editing by Pravin Char)

Israelis to scour Danube for Holocaust remains with Hungary’s help

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri speaks during an annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of Moroccan-born sage and Jewish mystic Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, also known as the Baba Sali, on the anniversary of his death in the southern town of Netivot, Israel January 9, 2019 REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – An Israeli recovery team will search Hungary’s Danube river for remains of Holocaust victims, with Hungarian permission and assistance, so they can be buried in accordance with Jewish rite, a visiting Israeli official said on Monday.

According to Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, some 565,000 were killed in the Holocaust, the majority of them deported to the Auschwitz death camp between May and July 1944.

In October of that year, when the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party took power in Hungary, thousands of Jews from Budapest were murdered on the banks of the Danube, according to Yad Vashem.

Arye Deri, Israel’s interior minister and an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, said his Hungarian counterpart, Sandor Pinter, had agreed to his request to provide special equipment to forensic experts from the Israeli volunteer Zaka who traveled with him to Budapest.

“I hope that immediately, tomorrow, the righteous men of Zaka will bestow mercy on these highest of martyrs and bring them to Jewish burial,” Deri said in a video posted on Twitter.

The Hungarian Interior Ministry did not immediately respond to emailed questions for comment.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)