The new law on churches and the Church of Scientology

One of the most controversial parts of the new law on the churches and religion that was passed last month by the Hungarian parliament is a last-minute change in the wording of the law. In the earlier version, the legal status of a church was to be decided by the courts, but in the final reading that right was entrusted to parliament.

There is an outcry the world over about the new Hungarian arrangement according to which politicians will make decisions concerning church affairs. Whether the new law will remain in its present form or whether there might be such protests and perhaps even legal actions against it by international courts that the Hungarian government will be forced to change it we don't know yet. But whatever happens, this controversial piece of legislation is too high a price for the Orbán government to pay just because the authorities wanted to get rid of the Church of Scientology, which had been one of the accepted churches in Hungary until the new law was passed.

Although it was only a few days ago that Origo, an on-line paper, came out with an article that revealed the role the Church of Scientology played in the birth of the new law, a little research revealed that Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister and chairman of the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), quite openly spoke about the matter shortly after the enactment of the bill.

In a political program called Péntek8 (Friday8) on HírTV Semjén made no secret of the real reason for this last-minute change. The courts would have to approve an application if the formal requirements stipulated in the law were met. And the Hungarian branch of the Church of Scientology does meet these requirements. But parliament will have the right to make a judgment on substantive issues as well. And Semjén added: "It is not a coincidence that this whole question came up in connection with scientology." He also mentioned that the Church of Scientology may pose a national security risk. For good measure, he declared that as long as he and KDNP are in parliament "scientology will not be a church in Hungary." His friends in Fidesz feel the same way.

It seems that Hungary was among the relatively few countries that recognized the followers of scientology as members of a bona fide church. Scientology is recognized as a church in the United States, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, and Taiwan. Other countries such as Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Belgium, and the United Kingdom refuse to grant scientology religious recognition.

In Hungary, the scientologists had a fairly rough time. The Scientologist Church of Hungary was established in the summer of 1991 but two years later, during the Antall government, it was declared to be a "destructive sect" that no longer could receive state subsidies. In 1995 the Horn government lifted the "destructive sect" stigma, but by 2006 the National Security Office (NBH) labeled it "a religious movement that poses danger for society as a whole."  NBH's yearbook intimated the existence of some kind of conspiracy because "their members continually are seeking connections to business circles, foundations, civic organizations…. They regularly try to compete for state tenders."

The most common criticism against the Church of Scientology is that it financially defrauds and abuses its members, charging exorbitant fees for its spiritual services. In Hungary the Church has had an especially bad billing. One reason for its unsavory reputation was a series of books written by two psychiatrists, András Veér and László Erőss, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Scientology is a vocal enemy of psychiatry and hence it is not surprising that the two psychiatrists fought back. They published altogether four books on the Church. I assume that the two authors made their own fair share of money given the sensational titles they came up with: The (Space)ship of Fools: The Secrets of Scientology, Hungary in the Web of Scientology, In the Bog of Scientology,  and Psychobusiness Contra Scientology.

It is an interesting coincidence that a new book, Alternative Religion: Scientology in Hungary, appeared just about the time of the passage of the controversial bill on the churches and religion. The authors are Gábor Dániel Nagy, a sociologist, and András Máté-Tóth, a Catholic theologian and head of the Department of Religion at the University of Szeged.

The two men collected information from about 2,000 members of the Church and had several interviews with its leaders. It turned out that the overwhelming majority of adherents to the Church are city dwellers, highly educated, and make a very good living. Their average age is about 40. Most of them come from Catholic or Protestant families, but about 25 percent of the membership has no religious background whatsoever.

When it comes to "brainwashing," the authors dismissed the charge. In the first place, most religions attract adherents by offering an alternative set of beliefs which the person is supposed to adopt and use to guide his life. The real problem is not so much brainwashing but the shady financial dealings of the Church and the secrecy that surrounds the top leadership's activities. Another criticism levelled against the Church of Scientology is that it strives for world domination, but there is nothing unusual about that either. Most religions want to change the world one way or another. The question is what methods they use. As for the national security issue, although the NBH labelled the Church "a dangerous sect," it never provided any concrete reasons for this description.

All in all, the authors try to give a more balanced description of the Church of Scientology, which by now is generally hated and viewed with suspicion in Hungary. Admittedly, the beliefs of the scientologists are strange, but other religions, including those fourteen churches selected to have special privileges, also have peculiar sets of beliefs. I don't think that I have to provide a laundry list here.

Since the leaders of the Church of Scientology in the past always vigorously defended the interests of the Church, often in the courts, it is likely that litigation is in the offing. I'm not sure whether "defrocking" the Church of Scientology with its few thousand members was worth the trouble.

But more importantly, the authorities' eagerness to get rid of the scientologists got them into hot water with the international religious community that is horrified at the thought of politicians meddling in religious affairs. Churches all over the world are institutions of great influence, and it is very possible that the Hungarian government in the end will lose the battle.

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Member

I read the text of the law again. It’s all about money (or I’m missing something). It seems to me any “organization” which is not in the “Holy 14” will be able to continue on their own, as long as they find a way to be funded. Non-for-profits, Sunday schools, I’m sure there is legal form for everything. They will also be able to gather in a “big building” and do their magic and call the place, well a “church” (in Hungarian the “church”, the building, is different word “templom”).
And this is the shame in this. The state was always trying to buy the support of churches but nobody did it before in such a dumb shameful way like these bozos. Of course it takes two to tango. I despise those churches that accept anything under this law. This will also will make all the outcast Churches a whole lot stronger. Palma sub ponder crescit. Semjén will be very surprised. His law will make thousands of honest people convert.
If the state and the church would be separated (no baksheesh) there would be no reason to go after the Scientologists. It would be just a business. Your money, your soul.

a3t
Guest

I’ve been less diligent than Mutt, and have only read the Origo piece Eva cites.
The legislation only recognises one denomination per faith, except in the case of Christians and Jews. So, while there are 14 recognised Christian churches and three Jewish denominations, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims will only see on denomination recognised. As one charming government politician tells Origo, “they can decide between themselves which denomination gets recognition.”
Can’t wait to see how the Sunnis and the Shias sort that one out.
It’s a definite ECHR case.
I’m not enormously bothered about the status of Scientology – Hungary would be in reasonably good company if it refused to recognise them.

Jano
Guest

Be careful before you give too much credit to this new book:
http://objektivszcn.blog.hu/2011/07/28/kritika_az_alternativ_vallas_szcientologia_magyarorszagon_c_konyvrol
It may have very well been funded by the “church” itself. It wouldn’t have been the first time for them to use this tactics. In the US they also had a rather positive book written about them by seemingly independent authors just to be able to refer to that later.
The sci-s are hate for a very good reason and it doesn’t take much research to find that.
However, this is yet another example of a blatantly incompetent solution for a goal I much agree with.
On the other hand I honestly don’t understand why religious communities should receive any tax cuts or state subsidies in the first place.

Odin's lost eye
Guest

The Church of Scientology is not actually banned in the UK but many of its leaders are ‘persona non gratia’.
It is regarded as a ‘cult’ so it is not entitled to VAT and other tax exemptions as a ‘Charity’.
However in 2000 it was ruled to be a non-profit organisation and was exempted from VAT registration.

MM
Guest

Scientology is not a church but a dangerous money grabbing cult. I can’t believe it is being defended here. It is surely more evil than Orban. Claiming Scientology is the real target of the Church law is a patently obvious bit of retroactive justification for as law that many of Fidesz’s allies at home and abroad regard as highly problematic. This is a propaganda exercise.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MM: “It [ scientology] is surely more evil than Orban.”
That’s doubtful because Orban a thousand times more powerful than scientology in Hungary.

Marton
Guest

Eva writes that “other countries such as Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Belgium, and the United Kingdom refuse to grant scientology religious recognition.” It is clear from these examples that there are perfectly legitimate ways of denying Scientology religious recognition without passing a repressive law on churches. To that extent I suspect that the issue of Scientology may be a red herring here.
Which is not to deny that it is a legitimate concern, however. While I agree that Scientology is probably less dissimilar from some of the ostensibly respectable churches than commonly assumed, there does seem to be a qualitative difference. And that difference has less to do with doctrinal beliefs than with practices. The ranks of every “respectable” church include vicious and power-hungry people, and almost every church has produced some form or another of aggressive fundamentalism, but I can’t think of a commonly recognized church that is as systematically greedy, deceitful and manipulative as Scientology.

a3t
Guest

Honestly, who gives a flying frizbee about scientology? It’s a nasty organisation, but hardly alone in that. There are many cults out there, quite a few of them will steal your money. It’s difficult to deal with them without infringing religious freedom, but there are laws around for dealing with racketeering, extortion, blackmail and harassment: they should do the trick.
But the law as it stands is a disaster, and that matters rather more. Why on earth should Buddhists be limited to just one recognised denomination? Why should they have to “decide among themselves” which of the various groups should get official recognition and access to all that juicy tax money?
Seriously, sod scientology. It’s a sideshow.

Member
MM: “I can’t believe it is being defended here.” I do not think this is the point here. The point is that just because some organizations try to take advantage of current laws, you cannot create a new “blanket law” in order to weed out those organizations you (government) do not agree with. People should expect more from their government than to come up with something so poorly written and thought out, then this piece of law. This is why they are getting paid. This is their job. Unfortunately more and more examples prove that the elected government is simply incapable to cooperate with opposition parties (and with smarter people) in order to come up with legislations that will not end up as a major controversy for denying basic democratic rights. From my perspective the “church” is absolutely outdated concept. The same time I must admire the work that many of the churches are doing with the homeless and with the less fortunate. As an institution for me as a citizen, the value of the churches are in their outreach, not in their Sunday, Friday prayer. This forum or for that matter the floor of the parliament is no place… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Marton: “I suspect that the issue of Scientology may be a red herring here.”
Maybe you are right, but I suspect that Semjén is not that sophisticated politically and as a good religious Catholic he is telling the “truth.” Perhaps they were not clever enough to come up with some better solution.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

a3t: “Honestly, who gives a flying frizbee about scientology? It’s a nasty organisation, but hardly alone in that.”
That is also my position. If someone is taken in by them it his problem. If what they are doing is illegal there are the courts.
As for different branches of the same religion are entitled for only one group to be recognized is utter nonsense. Your earlier example of the Sunnis and Shiites shows what nonsense this is.

MM
Guest

Eva ‘That’s doubtful because Orban a thousand times more powerful than scientology in Hungary.’
Worldwide Scientology has about 8 million members according to Der Spiegel, which makes it almost as big as Hungary. I wouldn’t want to underestimate the grip the organisation has over its members.
Marton – Of course it is a red herring. Prior to adoption they justified the law by arguing that the number of official religions in Hungary needed weeding out. Arguing that you need a trick to get rid of Scientology might make make the law a bit more palatable to Orban’s religious allies.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MM: “Worldwide Scientology has about 8 million members according to Der Spiegel, which makes it almost as big as Hungary.”
I have the feeling Der Spiegel exaggerates by taking at face value what the Church of Scientology says about its own membership.
Here are a few statistics that seem reliable from a very thorough Wikipedia article:
“In 2005, the Church of Scientology stated its worldwide membership to be eight million, although that number included people who took only the introductory course and did not continue on. In 2007 a Church official claimed 3.5 million members in the United States,but according to a 2001 survey published by the City University of New York, 55,000 people in the United States would, if asked to identify their religion, have stated Scientology. In 2008, the American Religious Identification Survey found that the number of American Scientologists dropped to 25,000.”
In Hungary I don’t think that there are more than a couple of thousand members, if.
I reiterate, the Scientology Church of Hungary poses no danger to the Hungarian people. Viktor Orbán by dismanting democracy and establishing a one-man rule does.

Wondercat
Guest

If VO were to promise eternal life to Fidesz members, would Fidesz be a church?

GW
Guest

I have absolutely no interest in whether Scientology is an official “church” in Hungary or not, but I suspect that the Hungary government may have made a strategic mistake with this legislation because Scientology is notoriously skillful and successful at using the courts to gain the advantages of the status as a recognized religion that it claims. They may well decide that the obvious faults of the Hungarian law make it the perfect target for using litigation to secure tax-free status within Europe at large.

Paul
Guest

A religious organisation disliked because it has strange rules and daft beliefs, and appears to be rather too interested in money and power?
My irony meter is currently well over the 100% mark.

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