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.