Actually, the official title of the law is a bit longer: "Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Communities." It was passed on Tuesday, July 12, at 1:00 a.m. Zsolt Semjén, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party officially in charge of the fate of the bill and a devout Catholic, called it "a legislative masterpiece." There are others, however, who have a rather different take on it.
The Institute on Religion and Public Policy claimed that "the Hungarian Parliament resurrected the Soviet past with the adoption of Europe's most restrictive religion law." The founder and chairman of the organization, Joseph K. Grieboski, seemed to be surprised. He had worked with Viktor Orbán recently on the new Hungarian constitution and "expected much more from him." Grieboski considers the law "a danger to all Hungarian society and a terrible indication of the state of democracy in the country."
The leaders of evangelical churches think that the new law is "the greatest discrimination against evangelical Christians since the fall of Communism…. During Communism we were oppressed and persecuted, but we didn't expect the same from a so-called 'Christian' government."
So, what happened exactly? The Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), which is an organic part of Fidesz but with a separate parliamentary delegation, received the job of preparing five cardinal laws. Naturally, the law on religions and religious communities was assigned to them. A parliamentary committee was set up with a Christian Democratic chairman.
Ever since January they have been working furiously, and among other things they sent out questionnaires to different churches in Hungary asking them all sorts of questions. One of the questions inquired about the plans of the church in case it is not officially recognized. Which other recognized church would it name to take over its church members and its properties? Gábor Iványi, the head of the Methodist Church in Hungary, didn't answer the question. Soon enough he received a telephone call to the effect that he must answer all the questions, including the one concerning his flock and his church's property. Iványi naturally refused. Mind you, the Methodists didn't make the short list of fourteen recognized churches. The Methodist Church was stripped of its church status. Poor John Wesley and poor Ráchel Orbán, daughter of the prime minister, who was baptized at Iványi's urging as a Methodist in the early 1990s.
Over a hundred churches shared the same fate as the Methodists, the Buddhists, and followers of Islam. These churches have been retroactively stripped of their status as religious communities. Organizations that have been "de-registered" may not use the name "Church."
The original bill that the Christian Democrats put together would have recognized three levels of legal status. On the top would have been thirteen "recognized" churches with full privileges and then two other categories with lesser rights. The list would have been closed. No new churches could have been added to the original list.
About two hours before the final vote, to everybody's surprise, came János Lázár, the leader of the Fidesz delegation, with a practically new bill. Fidesz objected to listing churches in three different categories and to the closed nature of the list. In the original bill a church had to function in Hungary for at least twenty years and needed a minimum membership of 1,000. The time limit remained but the final bill didn't specify the size of the membership. In addition, the Fidesz amendment left the door open for future registration of religious organizations as churches. The most surprising and according to the opposition the most objectionable amendment to the bill was that "the competent authority to recognize a religious organization is … the parliament, with a two-thirds vote, rather than the courts or a ministry." No wonder that János Dési, a journalist at Népszava, wrote a short opinion piece about the bill in which he rather bitterly remarked that "Gods are sitting in parliament" who can decide what is a church and what is not.
Objections to the bill came early. Already in January, twenty-four members of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Committee on the Honoring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States (the Monitoring Committee) signed a motion for a resolution entitled "Serious Setbacks in the Fields of the Rule of Law and Human Rights in Hungary" which included references to the pending bill on religion.
Over the weekend American and European civic organizations published a statement in which they objected to the bill which would discriminate against smaller churches. They pointed out that the bill doesn't meet human rights standards. Moreover, the Hungarian thinking behind the bill–that "de-registered" religious organizations could continue to operate as "civil associations performing religious activities"–doesn't pass human rights scrutiny and ignores precedent from the European Court of Human Rights that ruled that "a tiered system offering an inferior religious status to minority faiths violates the right to religious freedom and the right to be free from religious discrimination." They mentioned the case of Jehovah's Witnesses v. Austria (2008) where the state argued that their tiered law didn't offend religious freedom. This argument was emphatically rejected by the Human Rights Court on the grounds that the status of a "registered religious community" was inferior to that of a "religious society."
It is possible that the last-minute amendments to the original Christian Democratic bill with its three-tiered categorization of churches were introduced in order to avoid the kind of problem Austria faced in 2008 in Strasbourg. Similarly, the decision to allow churches excluded at present to apply at a later date was reached mainly in order to avoid problems in the European Court later.
A last-minute decision of Fidesz concerned the charismatic Assembly of Faith (or Faith Church as Hit Gyülekezete is translated into English). The original Christian Democratic proposal didn't grant church status to this rather large religious community. Perhaps Fidesz wanted to avoid excluding every evangelical church from the list of accepted religions, which surely would have been interpreted as a blanket discrimination against the evangelicals. Thus, instead of thirteen recognized churches originally proposed by the committee the final bill listed fourteen accepted religious organizations as churches. Over one-hundred others were stripped of their status. By including the Assemby of Faith, Péter Hack, a member of the church and a former SZDSZ member of parliament, could give an interview in which he claimed that any accusation that the bill discriminates against the evangelicals is incorrect.
Only time will tell whether with these amendments the Hungarian government will manage to avoid the kinds of problems Austria faced. However, the initial reaction is rather violent.