The Venice Commission on Hungarian law on religion and legal status of churches

This opinion of the Venice Commission, also released on March 19, 2012, is shorter than the one on the judiciary, but it is equally hard hitting. It even questions the necessity of enacting an entirely new law on the freedom of religion and beliefs with new demanding registration criteria only to eliminate abuse of religious organizations. However politely, at the very beginning of the 15-page document the Commission suggests to the Hungarian government that “more tailored actions and regulations … could still be considered.” I don’t think that the Hungarian authorities will take this gentle probing to heart, but the opposition parties heard the Venice Commission’s advice loud and clear. They are demanding the withdrawal of this whole ill-conceived piece of legislation.

Fidesz and Christian Democratic politicians involved in the parliamentary committee’s decisions about the legal status of churches claim that the law has nothing to do with freedom of religion which is guaranteed in the new constitution. However, in the opinion of the Venice Commission “the right to freedom of religion and conscience covers more elements than merely granting privileges, state subsidies and tax benefits to recognized churches. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society. It is so important that it cannot be derogated at all and cannot be restricted on national security grounds.”

Yet this law does restrict religious freedom by mentioning “possible threats of a religious group to the Fundamental Law, any rule of law or the rights and freedoms of others, national security or the right to physical and psychological well being of people, protection of life and human dignity.” The authors of the Opinion consider this to be far too vague. Moreover, it leaves too much discretion to the authorities. Above all, national security is not a legitimate restriction that can justify limiting the freedom of religion or belief.

Another passage of the law states that “a church, denomination or religious community shall be an autonomous organization recognized by the National Assembly consisting of natural persons sharing the same principles of faith; shall possess self-government and shall operate primarily for the purpose of practicing religious activities.” According to the Commission, the wording of this article seems to imply that a church shall not be entitled to be established or to conduct religious activities in Hungary without recognition by the National Assembly. In their view, this constitutes a restriction of the freedom of religion. In addition, registration of religious organizations should not be mandatory and individuals and groups should be free to practice their religion without registration.

According to the European Court of Human Rights, in order to allow a religious group to obtain legal personality, the state must be careful to maintain a position of strict neutrality and be able to demonstrate that it has proper grounds for refusing recognition. However, the Venice Commission found a total absence of procedural guarantees for a neutral and impartial application of recognition of churches. Up to date, 32 churches were recognized as legal entities but it is entirely unclear how and using what criteria and materials the parliamentary committee and members of parliament were able to discuss this list of recognized churches, to settle the delicate questions involved in the definition of religious activites and churches.

The original plan apparently was to ask the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to form a committee that would review the eligibility of religious communities for church status. The president of the Academy very wisely refused. Thus, the great Fidesz-KDNP minds in the Hungarian parliament are alone responsible. The Venice Commission came to the conclusion that decisions have been “more or less based on political considerations.” Motives for decisions are not public. However, according to an MSZP member of the committee, Ildikó Lendvai, the chairman freely admitted that recognition of a religious community as a church is not a right but a sign of benevolence (kegy). And no benevolence was shown to Gábor Iványi, leader of one of the Methodist churches in Hungary. Explanation: he is too political. Translation: he opposes the Fidesz government. Despite the fact that Queen Elizabeth seemed to have recognized Iványi’s church and appreciated the extensive work he and his church did for the homeless and the downtrodden.

 

Queen Elizabeth, Miklós Haraszti and Pastor Gábor Iványi at the Methodist Homeless Shelter (1993)

The Commission also complained about the lack of remedies. Since decisions on registration are taken by resolution of parliament, they cannot be reviewed by ordinary courts. The members of the Commission were assured by the Hungarian authorities that the constitution provides for remedy by being able to turn to the Constitutional Court. I assume they didn’t mention the difficulties the new constitution puts in the way of such a remedy. Individuals cannot appeal to the court. Only a certain number of members of parliament or the ombudsman.

Retroactive legislation raised its ugly head again in Fidesz legislative proceedings. Churches that had been recognized as such before the Act became law can be de-registered. The Commission suggests redrafting the Act in order to avoid a de-registration process unless specific reasons exist to justify it.

Finally there is the troubling problem of equality. Because there is a distinction between recognized and unrecognized churches, the Venice Commission “considers not only the unequal treatment of 32 churches on the one hand and the other religions on the other hand worrying, but also the conditions these other religions have to comply with in order to acquire the status of Churches.” In the Commission’s opinion the Hungarian authorities must provide “an objective and reasonable justification to explain why each of the rights and benefits is only granted to the churches recognized by the National Assembly and why these rights and benefits are not granted to other churches.”

No wonder that MSZP came to the conclusion that this law must go back to the drawing board. What I find difficult to understand is how it is possible that Hungarian legal authorities seem to be totally ignorant of international and European Union laws. The Commission’s opinion often refers to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Did the framers of this law ever read either document? This government’s activities on all levels, notably diplomatic, economic, and legal matters, are below par. It is really embarrassing.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Paul
Guest
Is Hungary alone in having legislation determining what is or isn’t a religion? Do other European countries have anything like this? Coming from the UK, where there had to be an act of parliament in 2000 to amend the census legislation so that revealing your religion wasn’t compulsory, because so many people had put down ‘Jedi Knight’ in the last census, I find all this very puzzling. There are occasionally arguments about a particular religion’s charity status, and the odd debate as to whether a religion is actually a cult, but, by and large, religions are left alone to do their own thing. A drive through most English towns soon reveals just how many religions and denominations there are. Considering we are a largely secular country, the number of churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, chapels, mission halls, prayer rooms, etc is quite staggering. And I’m sure that if (for instance) the Rastafarians (or even the Jedi Knights) ran a successful homeless centre and applied for a government grant, the decision would be based on how worthwhile their centre was, not whether or not they were a ‘real’ religion. I’m not trying to make the UK look like some sort of utopia… Read more »
mouse
Guest

I think the UK is a little different in that in England at least we still have an established Church. Most religious institutions are treated as charities with I think on notable exception Scientology which is recognized in some organizations but failed the charities test as generally it does more good for itself that for it’s members, public good if I recall being one of the criteria for recognition. I don’t think there is a central list of “acceptable” religions, if someone doesn’t think their being treated fairly on religious grounds we have courts for that sort of thing.
I think it is so contentious here as it is seen as an opportunity to reward or punish political behaviour. Churches have tax benefits, some get direct assistance and they have the opportunity of getting the 1% tax allocation from members or supporters.
The status of charities here generally is worth further exploration, I know again they have the chance of getting the 1% tax allocation but have no idea on the criteria for recognition. I would guess if it isn’t politicised now it will be somewhere on a list at Fidesz HQ.

LwiiH
Guest
I was particularly amused by my father-in-laws reaction to our trip to the beach in south Florida on Christmas day. He was surprised, almost shocked at all of the restaurants and other businesses that were open. In fact, he wasn’t so thrilled about spending an hour or two on the beach on Christmas day. But if you put this into context, the only businesses that were open were small and the owners were not christians. So, why shouldn’t they be allowed to go about their own business? Many of these places are closed on their important religious holidays. In larger companies, there are a number of statutory days off and those days can be specified by the employee to align with their religious holidays. So if you want easter, you’ve got it, Chanukah.. it’s yours. The point of the statutory day is so that you have time to practice *your* religion, not the states mandated one. So… I don’t see why the state is involved in defining what is or is not a religion. I ok with them legislating against certain practices such as ritual human sacrifice or honor killings, mutilation practices or more subtlety denial of human rights (mostly… Read more »
Guest

London Calling!
LwiiH – You have a conversion on your hands – but a sub-sect Pizzafarianism!
America is such a funny place as regards religion.
I have problems with the fundamentalists (and the Tea-Party!) who believe that the earth is only 10,000 years old; the creationist’s views of ‘slow bang’; and their intolerance of other religions.
Against all the real evidence of science.
(These are just examples about America – I know I might have set a hare running but I don’t want any long justifications on Eva’s blog please.)
The ‘judgement’ of other religions and the subtle incorporation of the religious element in the constitution is dangerous and ill-advised.

LwiiH
Guest

@Charlie, Were you around 6001 years ago to see the beginning? And further more, in my monotheistic world the Spagetti monster reigns. All you’ve got is a pizza…. and it’s very likely a very thin one at best… Have you seen what the Spagetti monster can do to a thin pizza?

Guest

London Calling!
6001?… It was 10,042 you fundamentalist!
42 is the answer to Life the Universe and Everything ..in the Pizzafanarian perspective.
Regards
Charlie

Odin's Lost Eye
Guest
Professor you wrote ** “This government’s activities on all levels, notably diplomatic, economic, and legal matters, are below par. It is really embarrassing.” * The problem is just that. The present Government has a ‘Super Majority’. This has given it the idea that it can do anything it wishes. Even to ignoring any treaties the Nation has previously solemnly entered into. They may know those treaties but they seem to ignore them. The major defences of the the Viktator and Fidesz are twofold. The first is the idea that Hungarian Sovereignty overrides the nation’s treaty commitments. The second defence is that those who questioning the do not understand the language used. That defence will not ‘wash’ as it is up to them to produce a true definitive translation. We know that during the consultative period the Hungarian Government deliberately obfuscated by omission and mistranslation their true intentions These ideas have brought the Government into conflict with those who have also signed such treaties. At the moment the principle protagonists are firstly the E.U. with the IMF sitting behind them. Also lurking in the background is the Treaty of Paris 1947. This may well proscribe both Jobbik and the various political… Read more »
Guest

London Calling!
Odin
I sent an email to Barroso complaining about the breaches of the treaty by Hungary – as a ‘concerned member of the EU’ – from London!
I believe some on here may have done so too.
But I agree it should be done at a higher level, and more organised – by ‘concerned Hungarians’
Regards
Charlie

Wondercat
Guest

@LwiiH — For your father-in-law, this anecdote. The innocent Christian child asks, on learning that Jews exist and that they don’t believe Jesus was God’s Son, “But what do Jews do on Christmas?” To which the classic answer is, “Eat Chinese food.”

Member

It is not a religion debate. Certainly all of us have their own opinion on all and each religion. THe point is that why do the Hungarian government that (I hat to say), mostly made out of bigots and religious fanatics feel that they have the right to determine based on some adverse criteria, what should be considered a belief that others should follow. How about making a criteria that the only religious institutions that qualify for church status are the ones that in the last five hundred years did not use violence against other religions or to “recruit”? How many religions would be left with? Forcing one’s religious zealot on a whole society is one of the lowest level of misery these so called politicians of Hungary could come up with for who knows what reason.

Kirsten
Guest

some1, I read the following in Romsics, Hungary in the 20th century (p.37 and 39):
“For a long time, the bigger churches were treated differently under the law, but these disparities essentially disappeared with successive legislative acts passed between 1848 and 1895. By then, the state-approved denominations had expanded to include Judaism as well as Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox faiths, which were all accepted in 1848. The approved churches enjoyed full equality before the law and also received state subventions. A second group of “recognised” religions such as those of the Baptists or Muslims, were allowed freedom of organisation but received no state aid. Sects that were not granted official recognition, including Nazarenes, Second Adventists and Methodists, were subject to constant scrutiny and had to seek permits from the authorities for any gathering.”
Perhaps they are bigots but they also do not have any imagination or own ideas, they just look – selectively – in the archives.

Guest

London Calling!
LwiiH
Have you considered registering The Church of the FSM with the National Assembly?
I think you should.
I don’t know how – but you need to get the forms (stamped at least three times) probably.
I think you should send the application through the post and copied to the Venice Commission.
You can use the original Kansas letter translated into Hungarian – it covers everything I think.
(Although I am sceptical about the decay of Carbon-14 by electron emmission to Nitrogen-14 being as high as 75% – but I won’t quibble.)
I’ll countersign the application if you wish​?
(I’m serious! – Their response will be most interesting.)
Regards
Charlie

LwiiH
Guest

@CharlieH, I was wondering what it would take to register the church of the FSM. I’m also a bit afraid of what would happen if they approved the application! It would be a nice challenge to the system though Isn’t the world council of churches all over this one? Most of their members are not recognized on planet Hungary. This about sums things up, damm the experts, full steam ahead!!!

LwiiH
Guest

Gy maybe picking up a terrorism charge for his March 15th speech.. and Moodies is threatening a downgrade (from junk to what???) as a penalty for being in a stand-off with the EC and not being able to land the deal with the IMF.

riviera1
Guest

@wondercat: “what do Jews do at Christmas..”
They bleed little Christians for the first batch of matzoh-

Mutt Damon
Guest

I maybe missing something with this law. Is there anything else at stake besides money? Either direct or indirect (tax breaks) support?
What would happen to us if we would organize the Church of FSM? We would have a congregation, they would pay dues, we erect a huge pasta bowl shaped building and dedicate it to St. Linguine and we would go there to worship and eat pasta with holy meatballs? Would the police stop us? Can you still do every churchy thing without the public money?
“Let the sauce be with you!”

Odin's Lost Eye
Guest
CQ CQ CQ DX London CharlieH Yes emails are ok but they do not have to be actioned. If you look at this website http://www.europarl.europa.eu/aboutparliament/en/00533cec74/Petitions.html It is where you and I can submit petitions to the European Parlimant. If it falls within the rules of acceptability the the E.U. have to have the ‘Drains UP’ to use an English Euphemism. For example one might raise a petition for the European Parliament to examine if the New Magyar Guard, Jobbik blah blah…. contravenes Part 2 (PoliticalClauses), Section 1, Article 4 of the peace Treaty of Paris 1947 Blah blah…. Article 4 in the English Version (which is one of the two definitive versions the other being in Russian) states “Hungary, which in accordance with the Armistice Agreement has taken measures for dissolving all organisations of a Fascist type on Hungarian territory, whether political, military or para-military, as well as other organisations conducting propaganda, including revisionist propaganda, hostile to the United Nations, (and) shall not permit in future the existence and activities of organisations of that nature which have as their aim denial to the people of their democratic rights.” If the treaty is being breached then is current Government also at… Read more »
kormos
Guest
@ Mutt and Paul Unfortunately I do not have lots of time to correspond. Mutt wrote about caring of others. I am sure that even Mutt cannot take care of the entire world, and the circle of others is selected based on personal preference, prejudice, and or historical baggage. Despite its difficulty I may grasp the concept. I care about the environment; I do not hunt and stopped fishing long time ago. I am a law abiding citizen in any country I reside. As you probably noticed I do not call people names; I do not respond with anger to anger; although, I am sarcastic from time to time. I read this blog because I occasionally learn from it. I am not a member of any party, and I am able to see the mistakes of the present Hungarian Government. Yet, I dislike that this blog treats Hungary as if she was an island, isolated from the problems of the world. I dislike the daily articles fueled, by a hatred I cannot comprehend. What is not right in the article? It was written (most likely) by a professional newsman, who makes his living by writing “interesting” embroidered articles. I think… Read more »
GDF
Guest

kormos: “I believe a country cannot borrow money forever”
I think you are wrong. A country can borrow forever, as long as it pays back the lenders on time and with the promised interest.

LwiiH
Guest

@GDF, quite correct and as long as growth in GDP can cover the cost of borrowing.

LwiiH
Guest

posted too quickly.. the problem is that growth in GDP cannot currently cover the cost of borrowing and it’s expected to remain that way for some time. If companies keep drawing back on balance sheets that some time is going to be a looooong time.

GW
Guest
Kormos wrote: “Yet, I dislike that this blog treats Hungary as if she was an island, isolated from the problems of the world. I dislike the daily articles fueled, by a hatred I cannot comprehend.” Hatred is, indeed, one of the big elephants in the room, on all sides, but the hatred is especially to be found in the Hungarian right. The language used by supporters of the Orban government in comment threads throughout the Internet is often fully unmeasured and certainly not conservative. The big elephant in the room during the East block era is the fact of the Soviet Union’s hegemony and the limits in placed on Hungary (as well on the limits to Western intervention on behalf of a Hungary, separated from NATO countries by Warsaw Pact countries, Yugoslavia and a neutral Austria) and, alongside this, the implicit social contract between the Kadar regime and the Hungarian people. Nearly everyone benefit from this contract, whether they now find themselves on the political left, right or center and the handful who protested during that Kadar sleep, often heroically, are now held largely in contempt for their “inadequate patriotism” (and not only by politicians, for example by the philosopher… Read more »
GDF
Guest

LwiiH, I assumed that borrowing is not always intended to cover a deficit but it should be used to bridge the period between the government collecting the taxes (since the tax collection process and the government spending are not two perfectly synchronized processes). In this case, if the total revenue from taxes covers all expenses plus the cost of borrowing (as described above), the country should be in very good shape. Should the expenses exceed the revenue in a given period, either expenses should be cut in future periods or taxes (revenue) should increase, to cover the deficit.
This is how I see that responsible governments should act.

Petofi
Guest

@kormos…re Hando..”I’m sure she is bound by professional ethics..”
You must be an unreconstructed Magyar, right kormos?
What a statement? Do you have an Orban alter in your home?
Gimme a break: if she had any ‘professional ethics’ she would’ve
disqualified herself from the post. If not on the basis of ‘seemingly to be in too close contact with a chief political element (Orban)’, than on the rancid basis of the whole conception underlying the position.
“Professional Ethics!??” Yeah, right.
Here’s a clue, Mr. Black: anyone who still supports Orban after what he’s wrought has no ethics, morals, or self-respect.
Another clue, kormos: you know what Orban is getting from the IMF? What comes out of a szamar’s ass.

Guest

London Calling!
Odin – I’m Game! – And you’re right; at least it will put pressure on the EU/IMF.
Pardon my ignorance though but I thought the 1949 treaty was the one that set up the UN in 1949 after Winston Churchill’s speech? Modern History is not my métier!
This was initiated by the USA? Presumably they are the ones who police it?
The sections you quote are clearly in breach – I thought it laid down democratic principles too – but where are you finding the narrative?
Let us know a strategy? – Do you think it wise, for example, to approach the EU with different petitions? Maybe a co-ordinated approach would be best – and maybe one from, say indigenous resident Hungarians; one from overseas Hungarians (the Diaspora!); and one from concerned Europeans?
I’m sure we could (and should) progress this!
Regards
Charlie

Member

@ kormos, Can I ask you who do you think forces any IMF loan on Orban? I am so sick to hear about this banks and the EU wants to make HUngary a colony. What colony? HWo holds a gun to Orban’s head to take a loan form anywhere? He told the whole world a year ago that the IMF can stick it up (excuse my language). I am not sure what against Hungarians, you, Orban and the rest is protesting against. Do not take the darn money. THis is that simple. He told Hungarians that there are plenty of other ways. I want to hear one from those who support this master of ceremonies so much. Anyone?

Kirsten
Guest

Charlie, the treaty Odin referred to is this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Peace_Treaties,_1947

Paul
Guest

“What is not right in the article?
It was written (most likely) by a professional newsman, who makes his living by writing “interesting” embroidered articles. I think the approach is incorrect. The author assumes that Ms. Hando makes decisions based on the daily color of her blouse. I am sure she has a job description and guide lines to follow. I am sure she is bound by professional ethics. Mutt’s checkmarks are probably right, but she is under constant public “supervision”.”
So, nothing factually wrong with the article then, just your opinion.

LwiiH
Guest

You’d need a technical reading of the text of the Paris treaty but it does appear that by not putting and end to the Guarda, Hungary is in at least a violation of the spirit of that document.

Guest

London Calling!
LwiiH – You are probably correct – we need lawyers!
But if the EU allows any citizen to raise a petition they would be very flexible in their interpretation (one would hope).
Re your last point – I believe that allowing them to congregate to hold their initiations on 15th March; and to allow such a crowd to congregate in such numbers all wearing a version of para-military uniform – is in spirit – AND actual – breach.
In addition I believe that allowing the ‘vigilantes’ to harass the Roma – while the police took no – or ineffectual – action is a sign of institutional racism (and we in the UK know all about that).
I would like the archives opened up fully to enable them to be inspected for any information on Raoul Wallenberg.
Anything else for my ‘concerned European Citizen’ petition?
Regards
Charlie

wpDiscuz