Budapest-“What is happening to us?” asks Maja a Muslim convert, who says “once I was knocked off a bicycle by a driver who said ‘Why don’t you back to the desert!'”
Maja is no immigrant. But in the febrile atmosphere in Hungary ahead of Sunday’s referendum on refugees, she says her religion has made her a target for abuse.
“We Hungarians are normally kind, friendly people. I don’t know what is happening to us, but something is really not right now,” the 33-year-old financial services employee told Agence France Presse.
“People say things all the time,” the mother-of-one said in a phone interview.
Only this week she was assaulted in broad daylight.
The referendum is about whether Hungary will accept one of the European Union’s main responses to the continent’s migrant crisis, that of sharing refugees around the bloc via mandatory quotas.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban is backing a “No” vote and is almost certain to win, inflaming tensions with his western European partners which have heavily criticized his hardline anti-migrant nationalism.
Ignoring this, his government has plastered lampposts and billboards nationwide with posters urging people to “Avoid the Danger and Vote No.”
Zoltan Bolek, head of Hungary’s oldest Muslim group, the Hungarian Islamic Community set up in 1990, said this has further soured the ugly atmosphere.
“State media keeps putting out stories about anything a Muslim has done or is alleged to have done somewhere,” Bolek told AFP.
A letter he sent last week to Orban appealing for physical protection for mosques has gone unanswered so far.
“This is the situation where we have reached, people’s souls have been poisoned,” Bolek said.
Zoltan Sulok, the president of Organization of Muslims in Hungary, the larger of the two main religious groups, said that there are about 40,000 Muslims in the country of 10 million.
“Until now we lived quite peacefully, because we were not a political issue. But now we started to be,” he said.
But support in the referendum campaign sometimes comes from unlikely quarters.
Maher Zaki is a 43-year-old trader who arrived from Syria 25 years ago “with nothing, no money, no knowledge of the language”. He helped organize medical aid for Syrian migrants last year during the peak of the crisis.
He said: “Of course there is huge propaganda against us, but if people come to live in my house, I accept them but I want to check who they are before they come through the door.”
On Tuesday, Amnesty International issued a report slamming Hungary for mistreating refugees and making the asylum procedure too difficult in order to discourage applicants.
However, the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, has said the outcome of the referendum would not affect the quota plan or other EU treaties, despite Orban’s insistence that the rejection of the deal would have legal repercussions for the bloc.