Tag Archives: freedom of religion

A town council on the Serb-Hungarian border takes care of Muslims and gays

At the end of November a bizarre news item appeared: the council of Ásotthalom, a village of 4,000 inhabitants adjacent to the Serb-Hungarian border, passed a series of ordinances that forbade building mosques, wearing the burka, all activities of muezzins and, for good measure, the “propagation of gay marriage” and any publicity given to “opinions about the family different from the definition in the constitution.” Just to remind readers, the so-called “Fundamental law”–that is, the new Fidesz constitution–states that “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the survival of the nation.”

The mayor of Ásotthalom is the infamous László Toroczkai, who ten years ago led the assault against the headquarters of MTV, Hungary’s public television station. He even has a brief English-language Wikipedia entry in which he is described as “the founder of the far-right 64 Counties Youth Movement (HVIM).” He is, as the name of his organization demonstrates, a Hungarian irredentist, who as a result of his activities in the neighboring countries has been banned from Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia. I wrote several times about Toroczkai and his involvement in a host of far-right, neo-Nazi organizations. His affiliations and activities were obviously not viewed as a political liability in the village, however. He was elected mayor of Ásotthalom in a by-election in 2013.

Once the liberal media recovered from the shock that this man could become a mayor with over 70% of the votes, his name pretty much disappeared from the national press. But then came Toroczkai’s chance for renewed fame/infamy: the arrival of the refugees, whose escape route went through Ásotthalom. Toroczkai was in his element, organizing civic groups that were supposed to help the police and later the military in guarding the fence. I suspect that some of the atrocities against the refugees were actually committed by Toroczkai and his men.

The immediate reaction of the liberal media to Toroczkai’s ban was hilarity. A local ordinance against mosques and gays? One doesn’t have to be a legal expert to know that Ásotthalom’s ordinance is unconstitutional. Article VII of the constitution states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Moreover, “this right shall include the freedom to choose or change one’s religion or other belief, and the freedom of everyone to manifest, abstain from manifesting, practice or teach his or her religion or other belief through religious acts, rites, or otherwise, either individually or jointly with others, either in public or in private life.” It seems that of the six members of the village council two had the good sense to abstain while one had a valid reason to be absent. Thus only three council members voted for the resolution.

The locals learned about the decision from the papers and television and eventually came to the conclusion that these steps had been taken only as preventive measures in case the European Union forces Ásotthalom to accept Muslim migrants. As for the mosques, on TV they can see all those mosques in western cities; it is perhaps a good idea to spell out that no mosque will ever be built in their village. After all, as Toroczkai told Olga Kálmán on ATV the other day, “practically next door there is a mosque already.” It turned out that he was talking about Subotica in Serbia where there has been a mosque since 2007 to serve a community of 22 Muslims, all Serbian nationals.

Interestingly enough, there might actually be two Muslims living in Ásotthalom. One is a man from Kuwait who is married to a Hungarian Christian. After living in Kuwait for a while, they returned to Hungary 16 years ago. When asked, Toroczkai claimed that the ordinance is not directed against this man and his four children, who are Christians. He seemed to be more worried about a shadowy young woman no one really knows who apparently studied abroad and converted to Islam as the result of a romance with an Algerian man.

This incident created quite a headache for Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, who in a surprise move had recently asked Toroczkai to be one of his deputies. Toroczkai’s appointment followed the removal of Előd Novák, a far-right member of the Jobbik leadership who became an unwelcome burden with his radicalism and anti-Semitism. Vona has been trying to transform Jobbik into a right-of-center party that can be seriously considered to lead the country either alone or in a coalition. What no one could understand is why Vona thought that Toroczkai was less of an extremist than Novák. They are cut from the same cloth. When Novák learned about Toroczkai’s ordinance, he wrote on his Facebook page: “Hats off!” But otherwise, the Jobbik leadership didn’t appreciate Toroczkai’s move, about which he hadn’t notified his party. As Toroczkai complained, he had expected severe criticism from Muslims and gays but what surprised him was that “the most vehement attacks came from my own camp, the so-called national (radical) side.”

Gábor Vona, soon after the news of Ásotthalom’s ordinance reached the national media, paid a visit to the border town and had a long conversation with Toroczkai, which apparently led nowhere. Vona told N1 TV, an internet television station with ties to Jobbik, that he considers “the ordinance stigmatizing Muslims and gays irresponsible and unnecessary. Jobbik will guarantee freedom of religion to everyone” once in power.

László Toroczkai and Gábor Vona in Ásotthalom

Meanwhile, two gay organizations, Budapest Pride and the Hungarian LGBT Association, began organizing a trip to Ásotthalom for this afternoon to test Toroczkai’s ordinance. Toroczkai considered the demonstration a “provocation.” The homophobic elements of Toroczkai were considering a counter-demonstration, but the mayor wisely decided against it. He was, however, well prepared. He asked the Szeged police force to be on hand for the occasion and had one of the town employees standing by with a video camera. Toroczkai promised a careful examination of the video to ascertain whether anyone in the group of about a dozen men and women had “propagated gay marriage,” for example. There is the possibility that Toroczkai will consider the poster with the message “egy papa meg egy papa plusz egy gyerek” (one daddy and one daddy plus one child) a violation of the ordinance. If so, Toroczkai wants to fine the owner of the poster 150,000 forints. That’s unlikely ever to happen.

A few locals gathered to look at the spectacle. A yellow van normally used to take workers to the fields came by three times, and its passengers yelled through the open windows “filthy faggots.” One has the feeling that the locals are more preoccupied with gays than with Muslims. Interestingly enough, although the people of Ásotthalom encountered several thousand migrants last year, fewer people voted on the day of the referendum in the village than in the region as a whole.

♦ ♦ ♦

Finally, here is something that might cheer you up. You may recall that in my post on the PISA results I quoted Árpád W. Tóta, who said in his opinion piece that Orbán had managed to create “a school system for sheep.” That reminded Henk, who lives in Hungary and learned Hungarian very well, of a poem by Sándor Weöres (1913-1989) from his volume of poetry for children titled Bóbita (Tuft). Henk translated it into English. I’m very pleased to share his translation with the readers of Hungarian Spectrum.

A birka-iskola

Egyszer volt egy nagy csoda,
Neve: birka-iskola.
Ki nem szólt, csak bégetett,
Az kapott dicséretet.

Ki oda se ballagott,
Még jutalmat is kapott,
Így hát egy se ment oda,
Meg is szűnt az iskola.

The School for Sheep

Once there was a marvel great;
it was called: a school for sheep.
Who didn’t talk, but only bleat,
he was highly praised indeed.

Whoever refused to go,
was rewarded even more.
So, no one went to school of course,
and it had to close its doors.

December 10, 2016

The state of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: An exchange of views

Today I’m republishing an exchange of letters between György Hölvényi, a Christian Democrat who is a member of the Fidesz European Parliamentary delegation, and H. David Baer, associate professor at the Texas Lutheran University. The reason for the exchange was an article that appeared in The Economist entitled “A slippery Magyar slope.” The article was about the “ill-named law on ‘the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations and Religious Communities.’” Hölvényi, who before becoming a MEP was deputy undersecretary in charge of the government’s relations with churches, national minorities and civil society, came to the defense of the much criticized law. Since the article in The Economist was republished by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), Hölvényi sent his reply to that organization, which subsequently included it in its newsletter. Baer, an expert on Hungarian religious affairs, decided to respond. His reply was also published in HRWF’s newsletter. I thought that this exchange of letters, which shines a light on the Orbán regime’s attitude toward religious freedom, was worth republishing.

First a few words about György Hölvényi. He comes from a devout Catholic family. His father was a Cistercian priest who eventually left the order and married. The young Hölvényi became involved with the Christian Democratic movement and in 1989 was one of the founders of the Christian Democratic Union. He spent many years in Brussels serving the parliamentary delegation of the European People’s Party in various capacities. As a result, his name was practically unknown in Hungary. That changed in May 2012 when he was named assistant undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s Ministry of Human Resources.

Prior to that date the post was occupied by László Szászfalvi, who was a Hungarian Reformed minister just like Balog himself. Apparently the Catholics in the Christian Democratic Party raised a stink: two Protestant ministers were at least one too many. A Catholic must be found. Szászfalvi had to depart and came Hölvényi.

In the most recent elections for the EU parliament Hölvényi was number 12 on the Fidesz list. The party had to do very well for Hölvényi to get to Brussels. One reason for his low rank on the list was that certain positions were reserved for ethnic Hungarians from Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. But the size of the Fidesz victory was such that he made it, and now he is a member of the new European Parliament.

The article in The Economist pointed out that “getting recognition as an ‘incorporated church’ required a two-thirds majority in Parliament. So what should be a simple administrative decision was turned into a political one, in which legislators have to assess the merits of a religion…. As a result of the law, at least 200 religious communities, including Methodists, Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists, Reform Jews, Buddhists and Hindus faced a downgrading of their status…. In February 2013, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that 67 groups had been deregistered unconstitutionally. However the government seems to have ignored the ruling. A government ministry rejected the written requests of at least four deregistered bodies to be added to the list of incorporated churches.”

Gábor Iványi, one of the victim's of the Orbán regime's church law

Gábor Iványi, one of the victims of the Orbán regime’s church law

With this introduction here is the exchange of letters. First, György Hölvényi’s letter written immediately after the appearance of the article in The Economist. David Baer’s letter was published only a few days ago in the HRWF newsletter.

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Response to the Erasmus blog post “A slippery Magyar slope,” September 25th 2014

The recent post of The Economist’s blog Erasmus on religious freedom in Central Europe (“A slippery Magyar slope”” by B. C., September 25th 2014) makes several misleading statements and offers a rather personal interpretation of the existing legal regulations on churches in Hungary.

Basic aspects on the registration process of churches have not been detailed in your blog post. Firstly, all associations dealing with religious activities are registered solely by the courts in Hungary. A politically highly neutral system. These communities operate independetly from the state, acoording to their own principles of faith and rituals.

The blog post makes references on “incorporated churches” in Hungary. It is crucial to know that the category of “incorporated churches,” as you call it, does not affect religious freedom at all. It is simply about financial aspects such as state subsidies for churches running social activities for the common good of the society.

It must be pointed out that many European countries apply legal distinctions between different religious organisations for various reasons. Quite often it is the Parliament who is entitled to grant them a special status (e.g. in Lithuania, Belgium). Besides, there are a number of European countries where the constitution itself places an established religion above the rest of the religious communities (e. g. in Denmark, Finland, Greece, Malta). For the record, it needs to be mentioned that the Parliament is involved in special recognition processes of the churches at different later stages also in Austria, Denmark, Portugal or Spain. In general, the European Union leaves the rules on the foundation of churches in the Member States’ competence.

As the post correctly recalls, the original Hungarian regulation on churches of 1990 was probably the most permissive in Europe. Uniquely in the world, more than 300 registered churches operated in Hungary for decades, enjoying the widest range of financial entitlements provided by the state, with no respect to their real social activities. The amended Church Act provides for a complete freedom of conscience and religion in Hungary, at the same time it eliminates errors of the uniquely permissive regulation.

When looking at international commentaries of the issue let us focus on the facts again. The relevant opinion of Venice Commission on the issue of religious freedom in Hungary stated that the Hungarian regulation in place “constitutes a liberal and generous framework for the freedom of religion.” The resolution of the Constitutional Court in Hungary referred to in your blog post did not make any reference to the freedom of religion in Hungary. On the contrary, the government’s intention with the new legislation was widely acknowledged by the Court. The US State Department’s report on religious freedem of 2013 does underline that the Fundamental Law and all legislation in Hungary defends religious freedom. Facts that have been disregarded by the author of your post.

Last but not least, the alliances of the non-incorporated churches in Hungary recognised and declared in a joint statement with the responsible Hungarian minister that they enjoy religious freedom in Hungary.

In contrast to the statements of your article, incorporated churches in Hungary include the Methodists: the United Methodist Church in Hungary is a widely recognised and active community in Hungary, as well as internationally. The fact is that Mr Iványi’s group has not been included in the UMC itself and is not recognised at all by the international Methodist bodies. Describing it as a “highly respected” church is again a serious factual mistake, reflecting a lack of information on the issue.

Coming finally to the issue of the European Court on Human Rights’ decision: some of the member judges formed special opinions to the appeal of the affected churches. Although the Hungarian government is challenging the decision, at the same time it started negotiations with the appealing communities on the remedy process.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend that your blogger B.C. pay wider attention to the facts to better understand regulations on church affairs that have been in place in Europe for decades and centuries.

HÖLVÉNYI György
Member of the European Parliament for Hungary / EPP Group

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H. David Baer’s reply:

Mr. Hölvényi writes to defend a church law that the ECtHR has found to breach the European Convention and which the Hungarian government refuses to amend.  He would thus have us believe that religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom even as they are not protected by the rule of law.

Mr. Hölvényi urges that we stick to the facts. The fact is that in 2011 the government of Hungary retroactively “deregistered” religious communities already recognized as churches under Hungarian law.  The fact is that in 2013 Hungary’s Constitutional Court found this deregistration procedure unconstitutional.  The fact is that after 2013 the government of Hungary blatantly ignored the Court’s decision, refusing to treat unconstitutionally deregistered religious communities as legal churches.  The fact is that in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary’s unconstitutional church law also violated the right of religious freedom and the European Convention.  The fact is that the Hungarian government has still not, as of this day, acted to abide by the European Court’s decision.

Mr. Hölvényi knows these facts, because prior to being an MP in the European Parliament he was the state undersecretary responsible for dealing with the churches in Viktor Orbán’s government.  As undersecretary, Hölvényi worked closely with Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Capacities, to obstruct implementation of the Constitutional Court’s decision so as to deny deregistered religious communities their constitutional rights. Just this past month, Péter Paczolay, the president of Hungary’s Constitutional Court, lamented openly in a public address that the Court’s decision on Hungary’s church law had never been respected or implemented.  Mr. Hölvényi bears direct responsibility for this.  Thus, to listen to him aver that Hungary’s deregistered churches enjoy religious freedom is a little like listening to a man caught stealing his neighbor’s shirt and pants aver that his neighbor has the freedom to wear underwear.

Religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom the way NGO’s in Hungary enjoy freedom of association. Denied equality under the law and subject to opaque regulations, deregistered religious communities, like unpopular NGO’s, are subjected to arbitrary and expensive audits, hindered or prevented from raising money, attacked in the government controlled media, and harassed by local officials.  Mr. Hölvényi, a member of the European Parliament, should know that when citizens aren’t equal under the law they aren’t equally free.

Instead of defending Hungary’s indefensible church law, perhaps Mr. Hölvényi should encourage the government of his country to respect the rule of law, uphold its international commitments, and abide by the European Convention.

David Baer
Texas Lutheran University
USA