Tag Archives: Gábor Iványi

Strasbourg verdict on disenfranchised churches: the Hungarian government dithers

The Hungarian government has had an awful lot of bad news lately coming from various institutions of the European Union. Yesterday I wrote about the veto by Euratom and the European Commission of certain parts of the Russian-Hungarian agreement concerning Rosatom’s supply of nuclear fuel for the two new reactors of the Paks power plant. Today I will look into an older decision of the European Court of Human Rights that the Hungarian government has yet to act on, despite a March 8 deadline. What I have in mind is the infamous law on churches.

The law that Zsolt Semjén called a masterpiece has had some rough sledding. The law stipulated that only churches approved by the Hungarian parliament could partake of the benefits churches usually enjoy in democratic countries. Smaller, less traditional churches or congregations, including some following reformed Judaism, were stripped of their church status. In February 2013 the Constitutional Court, which at that time wasn’t yet packed with Fidesz loyalists, found the law to be discriminative and therefore unconstitutional. The Orbán government’s answer was to change the constitution and to leave the objectionable law unaltered.

Since all remedies at home had been exhausted, sixteen small churches decided to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to seek justice. Nine churches were represented by TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, while Dániel Karsai represented another six. Csaba Tordai represented perhaps the most important church, which was most likely the victim of Viktor Orbán’s personal vendetta: the Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET) led by Gábor Iványi, basically a Methodist church.

Dániel Karsai, who frequently appeared on ATV during 2013, was certain already in late May of that year that their case was so strong that the Hungarian government would suffer another setback in Strasbourg. It took a year, but in April 2014 the verdict was announced. It was in favor of the small churches. The Hungarian government and the churches will have to agree on a financial settlement. If they cannot reach an equitable arrangement, the Strasbourg court will decide on the amount of compensation these churches deserve for the financial loss they suffered as a result of being deprived of their church status. Moreover, the law on churches doesn’t conform to European law and hence must be changed.

It all started rather small

This church started off rather small, after all

Dániel Karsai, the lawyer for some of the churches, was elated. He expressed his hope that “after this great victory the first business of the new government will be to put in order the question of religious freedom.” Well, a year went by and nothing happened. No settlement was reached. Instead of writing a new law, the government decided to appeal the case. I should note that it was the Ministry of Justice and Administration under the leadership of Tibor Navracsics that handled the case in Strasbourg on behalf of the Hungarian government. The same Navracsics who today is desperately trying to distance himself from the Orbán administration and attempting to portray himself as a moderate liberal in his new capacity as a member of the European Commission.

Another five months went by. On September 9, 2014, the Court of Human Rights rejected the appeal of the Hungarian government. The law would have to be changed and the churches in question compensated. The court gave the Hungarian government six months, until March 8, to settle the question of compensation. Well, I just read in Magyar Nemzet that “the government heeds the Strasbourg verdict but does not want to be overhasty.” What an understatement. The government wants to be fair, but at the same time “it doesn’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money” and the sum in question is rather large. According to some estimates, the churches claimed damages amounting to about 20 billion forints. The Magyar Nemzet article indicated that the government finds some of the claims unacceptable. On the other hand, Csaba Tordai, the lawyer for Gábor Iványi’s Methodist church, is optimistic that there will be an agreement within a few weeks. The Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET) originally asked for 1.4 billion forints, but that was in 2012. I assume the current claim is at least double that amount.

As far as the law itself is concerned, the government is again in no hurry. Dániel Karsai might have hoped that the new government would immediately take care of the problem, but today Miklós Soltész, undersecretary in charge of social policy in the ministry of human resources, announced that the government is not planning to write a new law because, after all, they already revised the original law once, in 2013. So, there will be only changes in certain points. And, he continued,”we must guard those values [in the law] that assist the spiritual work of the churches in all facets of their activities,” whatever that means. I have the feeling that this is not the end of the story.

Democratic Round Table’s Manifesto to the People of Hungary

It was on January 16 that four people who are concerned about the fate of Hungary announced the formation of a new Democratic Round Table (Demokratikus Kerekasztal or DEKA). People familiar with the period of the regime change in Hungary will recall that it was at such a round table that the foundations of the new democratic Hungary were laid.

The four patriotic people are Zsuzsa Ferge, a sociologist whose primary interest is social stratification with special emphasis on poverty; Gábor Iványi, the Methodist minister who works with the homeless and the poor; András Horváth, the whistleblower who revealed the rampant corruption within the Hungarian Tax Authority; and Zoltán Lovas, a journalist who was one of the organizers of the long demonstration against the erection of the memorial to the German occupation. They are convinced, as are many others, that Hungary is in a social, political, and economic crisis, and they are trying to stave off a “national catastrophe.” Due to the growing poverty in the country it is possible that people will increasingly be attracted to “radical solutions.” That’s why Hungarian society cannot remain quiet and must begin a dialogue, not just among the political forces of the left but also with those moderate conservatives who might have had high hopes for the Orbán government in 2010 but are by now disillusioned.

DEKA

Their plan is to create several democratic round tables where people will form “working groups” concentrating on different facets of the groundwork that has to be done in preparation for a regime change. Their final aim is, of course, Viktor Orbán’s removal from power by legal means. There will be six working groups: (1) vision,  (2) democracy and law, (3) social policy, (4) economic policy, (5) civilization, education, culture, and (6) foreign policy.

DEKA already has a forum that anyone can join. Although the working group discussions will not be open, they welcome suggestions from everyone who’s interested. I urge all those intelligent readers of Hungarian Spectrum to join this new think tank. So many of you have excellent ideas, and this offers you an opportunity to contribute something for the common good. Here is the link to the DEKA Forum. I’m sure that English-language comments are welcome.

For those of you who know Hungarian, here is a video about the launch of DEKA.

DEKA wants to work with everybody, including parties. For the time being, only Demokratikus Koalíció has said that they will definitely support the initiative, which is not surprising because DK has always been ready to cooperate with all groups that are interested in restoring democracy to Hungary.

Below is the English-language version of DEKA’s manifesto.

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A Manifesto to the People of Hungary

Our nation has reached a crossroads as of early 2015. We are teetering on the brink of an all-pervasive social, political, societal and economic crisis.  Our nation has been fragmented into hostile camps pitted against and unable to communicate with each other. If our fate continues to be shaped by trends similar to those seen over the past years, one likely outcome is that the current regime will become entrenched with an increasingly autocratic profile. Nor can we rule out a scenario where social tensions reach a boiling point and where both the masses living in destitution and the members of the sinking middle class embrace radical solutions.

Concerned and worried about the fate of Hungary, we, therefore, recommend that our fellow citizens who bear responsibility for how things will evolve should enter into a dialogue with each other.  By opening such a dialogue, they should achieve a minimum consensus on the nation’s political, economic and social issues that enables the forces of a now badly divided nation to come to an agreement and find a way out jointly. We recommend that the restoration of the republic and democracy, the reinforcement of Hungary’s orientation towards European values and the remedy of the social injustices caused by the system be deemed such a minimum consensus.

The key to success is engagement in the dialogue by civil society organisations and movements, political parties, employer and employee organisations, the churches and all members of the nation, whether in Hungary or abroad, with a stake in public affairs.

This is likely to require a series of round table talks making way for change. Parties to these round tables may hold different values, however, they should be ready and willing to continue to co-operate. We as politically unattached thinkers believe that at least one round table with liberal left-wing stakeholders committed to the values of Europe and one with conservative right-wing participants need to be put in place.

We do hope that those in support of achieving a shared minimum social consensus will, their differing political or ideological affiliations notwithstanding, contribute to reaching such consensus on account of their commitment to democracy, the republic and fundamental European values. By this spring their co-operation could lead to the emergence of a negotiation forum and scheme that facilitates the forging of a new historic compromise serving the interests of the nation. We recommend that the starting date of the operation of the National Reconciliation Forum (NRF) be 15 March 2015.

Budapest, the 14th of January 2015

This manifesto has been endorsed by

Zsuzsa Ferge
András Horváth
Gábor Iványi
Zoltán Lovas

An additional note to the manifesto:

A democratic round table (DR) upholding left-wing values is slated to be established on 25 January 2015. The DR strives to contribute to the envisaged success of joint national efforts through offering documents drafted within the framework of its workshop targeting the public at large. We hope that similar documents will also be drafted under the aegis of other workshops, primarily by parties to a conservative right-wing round table.

An “abomination”: the Orbán government refuses to recognize Gábor Iványi’s church

More than two years ago I wrote a post entitled “The vindictive Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.” In this piece I talked about the two men Viktor Orbán hates most: Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gábor Iványi. We all know why Orbán hates Gyurcsány: Gyurcsány trounced him in the television debate that preceded the 2006 national election. But why does he hate Gábor Iványi, head of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship/Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET), an offshoot of the Hungarian Methodist Church? Iványi, a bearded bear of a man, is outright saintly. Or at least he strikes me as such, and I am rarely impressed by churchmen. What does Orbán find so objectionable about Iványi, whom at one point he admired? They were such close friends that it was Iványi who persuaded Orbán and his wife, who in their youth were anything but religious, that they should allow him to baptize their two small children.

H. David  Baer, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Texas Lutheran University who is an expert on church-state relations in today’s Hungary, thought it was Iványi’s fierce anti-communist stance during the 1980s that attracted the young Orbán to him but that after the regime change they parted ways. Iványi became one of the founders of SZDSZ and served as a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994 and again between 1998 and 2002. A few years later, when Orbán’s political views turned toward the right, he didn’t want to be associated with a small religious community. He was interested in developing good relations with the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed churches. The first two Orbán children were therefore “released” by Iványi at Mrs. Orbán’s request. The girl was rebaptized in the Catholic church and the boy in the Hungarian Reformed church according to a nineteenth-century arrangement devised for religiously mixed marriages. Meanwhile, Iványi, sticking with his own liberal views, remained a severe critic of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

Gábor Iványi

Gábor Iványi

The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship has a small membership but a large social presence. The church runs several kindergartens, elementary schools, a college, old folks homes, and homeless shelters. But since the Fidesz government refused to recognize MET as a church, it was not eligible to receive any subsidies from the government to continue its educational and social activities with the underprivileged, the Roma, and the homeless.

The first excuse for excluding MET from the list of accepted churches was that MET’s membership was under the required 10,000. At that point Iványi conducted a membership drive of sorts, and soon enough the church could show that MET had 22,000 members, more than sufficient to qualify.

But, as David Baer pointed out in his article published in Hungarian Spectrum, the process of deciding which church will be recognized has nothing to do with membership or any other formal requirements. It all depends on whether the government, in this case specifically Viktor Orbán, likes the leader of that church or not. And he definitely does not like Gábor Iványi and what he stands for. Baer quoted a telling paragraph from a Heti Válasz interview with Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources responsible for recommending churches for consideration to the parliamentary committeeThe reporter brought up the fact that it now seems that Orbán’s children were baptized “in a false church.” He responded as follows:

Baptism is valid even if it is performed by a midwife, which means that Orbán’s child is all right. In addition, it is not in good taste, in my opinion, if someone appears all over the media announcing that he baptized the prime minister’s children. What kind of spiritual leader gives statements about the spiritual life of believers who have been entrusted to him? I would never do such a thing because I take being a pastor seriously. And as to those who don’t, why are they surprised that the government, in turn, does not take them seriously?

So, basically, the recognition of a religious community depends on the whim of Viktor Orbán. And it matters not whether the formal requirements are fulfilled.

At the end of May Iványi decided to write a letter to László Kövér. In the letter he noted that Zoltán Balog, already in February, stated that MET had fulfilled the requirements for official recognition but that sixty days had gone by without any action. He asked Kövér to expedite matters. Meanwhile, during the past few months the Orbán government tried its best to find something that could make MET ineligible. Even the Office of Defense of the Constitution (Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal [AH]) was sent to snoop around in order to find out whether MET “posed a national security risk” to Hungary. Surprisingly, it did not.

At last, on June 12, the parliamentary committee on judicial matters decided to take up the case of MET. Gábor Iványi was called in. Iványi told about the billion forint loss the church suffered because its educational and social activities are not, unlike those of the official churches, compensated by the state. MET, not being one of the official churches, cannot even receive gifts from taxpayers who would like to donate 1% of the tax they owe to MET.

I should add that MET is not the only religious community that was in this predicament. There are nine others. Without translating them all, here is the list:

  • Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség,
  • Szabad Evangéliumi Gyülekezet,
  • Evangéliumi Barátság Vallási Egyesület,
  • Magyar Evangéliumi Egyesület,
  • Mantra Magyarországi Buddhista Közösség,
  • Magyarországi Szabadkeresztyén Gyülekezet Egyház,
  • Magyarországi Názáreti Gyülekezetek Hitéleti Egyesülete,
  • Magyarországi Bahá’í Közösség,
  • Szim Salom Progresszív Zsidó Egyesület,
  • Magyar Reform Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége

Surprise, surprise, all ten were again rejected on July 11. By now even the saintly Iványi was outspoken. He told Népszava that “today in Hungary there is tyranny because the pathological will of one man becomes the law.” He also gave a long interview to the Amerikai Népszava, where he called the Hungarian situation ” an abomination.” One can only agree with him.

H. David Baer: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”: Continuing problems with Hungary’s law on religion

H. David Baer, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Texan Lutheran University, is spending his sabbatical in Hungary where he is doing research with the support of IREX, an organization that has been supporting research and exchange in Europe and Eurasia. David Baer is also a visiting research fellow for the 20014/15 academic year at the Central European University located in Budapest.

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During the last two years I have devoted considerable research to assessing the impact of Hungary’s religion law on deregistered, or non-established, churches.  This research has consisted of surveys as well as extensive field work carried out during extended visits in Hungary.  Today, in the short time allotted to me, I would like to highlight what I see as key problems with Hungary’s law on religion.  These problems can be grouped into two sets.  The first set concerns the recognition procedure itself; the second set concerns the legal status of religious communities not recognized as churches.  I will discuss these problems in turn, but to do so clearly let me first comment briefly on the religion law’s legislative history.

The religion law’s troubled legislative history

The first version of the law on “the Right of Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations, and Religious Communities” was passed as Act C of 2011.  An initial bill was brought to the floor by the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), a coalition party in the ruling government.  The original bill listed 44 recognized churches and provided a procedure by which additional religious groups could receive recognition through the courts.  However, two hours before the final vote, the original bill was replaced with a completely different one, introduced on the floor by a member of the ruling Fidesz party.  The new bill, which was passed into law, reduced the number of recognized churches from 44 to 14, and stipulated, further, that future recognition of churches would be determined by a two-thirds vote in Parliament.  Although Hungary’s Constitutional Court later struck down Act C on procedural grounds, an identical version of the bill was resubmitted to Parliament and passed as Act CCVI of 2011, going into effect on January 1, 2012.

In February, Parliament expanded the number of recognized churches from 14 to 27, a list which now includes smaller Christian and non-Western religious groups.  This is still fewer than the number of recognized churches included in the original Christian Democratic bill.  Moreover, at the time it was passed, Act CCVI stripped all religious groups not recognized by Parliament of legal standing.  In my estimate, as many as 150 religious communities may have been deregistered by the law.

Hungary’s Constitutional Court subsequently struck down numerous provisions in Act CCVI on the grounds that the recognition procedure did not adequately guarantee the rights of due process and legal remedy to all religious communities.  The government responded by amending both Hungary’s constitution, or what is called the Basic Law, and Act CCVI of 2011.  Although some of these amendments improve parts of the law, they also preserve Parliament’s power to determine church recognition.  Thus they fall short of addressing adequately the issues of due process and legal remedy raised by the Court.  In this respect, as well as others, Hungary’s religion law remains highly discriminatory.

Problems with the recognition procedure

The government responded to the Court’s concern about due process by modifying Hungary’s laws to allow explicitly for political discretion in the decision concerning which

religious groups to recognize as churches.  Act CCVI now stipulates as a condition for recognition that a religious community must be suitable for cooperation with the state in the pursuit of public goods.  A religious community demonstrates this suitability on the basis of its charter, the size of its membership, and its previous activities.  These, however, are vague criteria.  The current list of recognized churches includes many small churches with a small social presence, while simultaneously excluding larger churches with a significant social presence.  Because the criteria are vague, they open up a legal space in which Parliament is free to act in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

The government responded to the concerns about legal remedy by introducing a passage into Act CCVI that allows religious communities to appeal their rejection by Parliament before the Constitutional Court.  That is, a rejected religious community would ask the high court to review Parliament’s specific decision to deny it church status.  However, since both the Basic Law and the law on religion allow Parliament to exercise political discretion in determining which religious groups are suitable to cooperate with the state, it is hard to envision a scenario in which the Constitutional Court could ever overturn a decision by Parliament.  If Parliament has a constitutional right to enact arbitrary decisions, the Court cannot strike down Parliament’s decision for being arbitrary.

To illustrate the kind of arbitrary treatment Hungary’s new constitution protects, one might consider the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is a church which, despite its large social presence, has been denied recognition by Parliament.  The church operates a large homeless shelter in Budapest and five nursing homes.  It also maintains a seminary, and educates more than 3000 children, mostly Roma, in preschools and elementary schools throughout the country.  Although the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was included among the recognized churches in the original Christian Democratic draft of the law, it was not included in the bill submitted to Parliament by Fidesz’s representative.

The president of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is Gábor Iványi.  Iványi was an opposition figure in the communist period and part of a group that broke away from the Hungarian Methodist church in the 1970’s to establish the Evangelical Fellowship.  Pastor Iványi also baptized Viktor Orbán’s first two children.  The young Orbán, perhaps, was attracted to Iványi because of his strong anti-communist credentials.  Since then, however, the relation between the two men has soured.  Today Iványi is one of the Orbán government’s most vocal critics.

In a published interview, the news weekly Heti Válasz asked the Minister of Human Resources, Zoltán Balog, about the government’s relationship with Iványi.  Balog, who plays a key role in deciding which religious communities are forwarded to Parliament to be considered for recognition, was asked whether Orbán’s children had been baptized in a false church.  He responded as follows:

Baptism is valid even if it is performed by a midwife, which means that Orbán’s child is all right. In addition, it is not in good taste, in my opinion, if someone appears all over the media announcing that he baptized the prime minister’s children. What kind of spiritual leader gives statements about the spiritual life of believers who have been entrusted to him? I would never do such a thing because I take being a pastor seriously. And as to those who don’t, why are they surprised that the government, in turn, does not take them seriously?

If this is intended as an explanation for why the government has refused to recognize Iványi’s church, then such an explanation appears incompatible with the state’s obligation to adopt a neutral attitude toward religious communities.  Are we to understand that the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is not suitable for cooperation with the state because, in the view of a government minister, its president does not take his pastoral vocation seriously?  Although this is admittedly a rhetorical question, the point is that nothing in Hungarian law appears to rule out such prejudiced considerations from Parliament’s decision concerning which churches to recognize, and nothing in Hungarian law appears to guarantee the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship legal remedy against Parliamentary decisions rendered on such a prejudiced basis.

Problems with the legal status of deregistered religious groups

When it reduced the number of recognized churches in Hungary, Act CCVI simultaneously placed the formerly recognized, now deregistered, churches into a no-man’s land in which they had no clear legal status.  Deregistered religious communities were forced to apply for recognition as civil organizations, but neither Hungary’s constitution nor its civil code extended basic religious freedom rights to civil organizations.  In this respect, recent amendments to Act CCVI represent a notable improvement.  The law now creates two clear categories for religious groups.  The first category consists of “established churches” (bevett egyházak), which are the churches recognized by Parliament.  The second category consists of “organizations conducting religious activity” (vallási tevékenységet végző szervezetek).  These religious organizations are registered by the courts, rather than by Parliament, and they enjoy many of the protections associated with the right of religious freedom.

Even so, this two-tiered classification system remains highly discriminatory.  Unlike established churches, religious organizations do not enjoy tax exemptions, nor do they receive the same kind of subsidies as churches.  Beginning in 2014 the accounting laws applicable to established churches will be significantly different from those applicable to religious organizations.  The two tiers are also treated unequally in respect to religious practice.  For example, the clergy of established churches enjoy privileges of confidentiality (e.g., a priest can’t be forced to divulge secrets heard in the confessional) that clergy in religious organizations do not.  Although religious instruction has recently been incorporated into the national school curriculum, religious organizations are prohibited from offering religious instruction in public schools.  Before the new religion law and the change in Hungary’s national curriculum, however, many of these same religious communities could offer optional religious instruction in public schools when there was demand for it.  Moreover, when placed in the context of broader changes in Hungary’s legal environment, the new law on religion functions to burden and restrict the activity of non-established religious organizations.

The best way to understand how the law functions in practice is by way of concrete illustrations.  There is a Buddhist community in Hungary, consisting mostly of Roma, called the Jai Bhim Network.  It is actively engaged in educating disadvantaged gypsy children.  When Jai Bhim was still a recognized church, it rented out several classrooms from a public school in Ózd, a city frequently in the Hungarian news because of racial tensions.  When Jai Bhim lost church status, all of its contracts, including its contract with the school in Ózd, where voided.  City leaders were unwilling to negotiate a new contract, and Jai Bhim had to abandon its activities in Ózd.  Of course, members of Jai Bhim remain free to practice their religion, and they are even able to maintain a few schools.  However, their activities have been restricted, and, lacking the same legal protections enjoyed by established churches, they are more vulnerable to discrimination.

In 2011, Hungary conducted a national census, which included a question about religious affiliation.  In the town of Sajókaza, where Jai Bhim is active and maintains a school, more than 300 Gypsies identified themselves as Buddhists to census workers.  Shortly thereafter, the local police went knocking door-to-door in the Roma neighborhood, asking if the residents had identified themselves as Buddhists on the census.  According to some news reports, the mayor of Sajókaza later informed the town’s Gypsies that the Catholic priest would neither bury Budhhists nor baptize their children.  A few months later, the Hungarian Labour Inspectorate, responding to an anonymous tip, audited the school operated by Jai Bhim in Sajókaza.  Because this school was no longer a church school, the regulations pertaining to it were different.  The school needed to keep a record not only of the hours teachers spent in the classroom, but also the hours teachers spent preparing for class outside of the classroom.  Because it failed to do this, the school was fined 3.2 million HUF (approximately $14,000).  Although the fine was later reduced to 1.75 million HUF, this remains a large sum which the school must pay at the same time its operating budget has been reduced by the loss of state subsidies granted to churches and church schools.

In fact, the representatives of many religious communities have told me they worry about the tax authority.  At any time, they say, the government can order the audit of a religious community it dislikes, and because the accounting laws are complicated and constantly changing, the tax authority can always discover an irregularity and levy a fine large enough to drive a small religious community into bankruptcy.  Established churches, by contrast, will be able to maintain financial records in accordance with their own internal rules starting in 2014.  Thus the tax authority will not be able to audit the records of established churches as carefully or rigorously as it can audit the records of businesses and religious organizations.

Animal farm

The situation regarding religious freedom in Hungary might thus be summarized as follows.  Hungary’s two-tiered classification of religious groups functions discriminatorily by affording different rights and protections to established churches and religious organizations.  Because religious organizations enjoy fewer rights and protections, they are vulnerable to acts of discrimination from state and bureaucratic offices.  Because the registration process is thoroughly political, religious organizations are denied an effective legal avenue to obtaining the rights and protections enjoyed by established churches.  Like the pigs who ruled George Orwell’s Animal Farm, those who crafted Hungary’s new law on religion might well concur that, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”