Tag Archives: law on churches

FOREF’S RECOMMENDATIONS CONCERNING HUNGARY’S AMENDED CHURCH LAW

Below you will find the recommendations the Forum for Religious Freedom of Europe (FOREF) will be submitting at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe being held in Warsaw at this very moment.

In the middle of the refugee crisis we are apt to forget about other “sins” of the Orbán government, among them the Church Law of 2011 that deprived a number of legitimate religious groups of equal treatment. That law was subsequently amended in the hope of conforming more to international standards. As you can see, however, this amended version is still unacceptable to the international community. Professor David Baer of Texas Lutheran University, an expert on Hungarian state and church relations, is representing FOREF at the Warsaw meeting. Professor Baer previously published several articles on the subject on Hungarian Spectrum.

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Hungary: Amended Church Law Remains at Variance with OSCE Standards and the European Convention on Human Rights

Recommendations

Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF) calls upon the Government of Hungary

  • to refrain from further changes to the legal status of religious communities except to remedy the violations of the right of religious freedom arising from the deregistration of churches in 2011;
  • to extend legal privileges to churches on the basis of objective criteria alone, and not on the basis of indeterminate discretionary prerogatives claimed by the State or Parliament;
  • to treat all religious communities equally in matters pertaining to religious practice;
  • to rewrite the proposed amendments to Act CCVI of 2011 to harmonize with Helsinki standards, international human rights law, and the ruling of the ECtHR in Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and others v. Hungary.

Persistent difficulties with Hungary’s church law

In 2011 Hungary enacted a new law on the legal status of churches (Act CCVI of 2011). The law stripped approximately 200 religious communities of legal personality, and reduced the number of legally recognized churches in Hungary to 14. In February 2012, responding to international pressure, Parliament expanded the number of recognized churches to 31. In February 2013, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled the deregistration of recognized churches had been unconstitutional. Responding to the Court’s decision, Parliament amended the constitution in March 2013. In June and September 2013, Parliament amended Act CCVI to create a two-tiered classification consisting of “religious communities” and “incorporated churches.” In September 2013, Parliament also amended the constitution explicitly to grant Parliament the authority to select religious communities for “cooperation” with the state in the service of “public interest activities.” In April 2014 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and others v. Hungary that Hungary had violated articles 9 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a judgment which became final in September 2014. Just this month (September 2015), in response to the ECtHR decision, the Government of Hungary (GOH) has made public proposed amendments to Act CCVI of 2011. Unfortunately, those amendments fail to address the most serious violations of the right of religious freedom identified by the Court. First, transitional provisions with the proposed amendments would perpetuate, rather than correct the earlier violations of the ECHR. Second, discretionary powers afforded the state would continue the arbitrary recognition procedure criticized by both the ECtHR and the Venice Commission.

Proposed transitional provisions codify previous discrimination

After Hungary’s Constitutional Court found the deregistration of churches unconstitutional, the GOH amended the church law to create a two-tiered classification system, offering deregistered churches a chance to apply for status as “religious associations.” Despite the second tier, the ECtHR found Hungary’s deregistration procedure to have violated the right of religious freedom. Even after registering as religious associations, deregistered churches had far fewer rights than they enjoyed prior to 2011. The currently proposed amendments would replace the two-tiered classification system with a three-tiered system. However, a three-tiered system does nothing to address the underlying violation. Indeed, if two tiers failed to correct the violations caused by deregistration, it is hard to see how three tiers will address that problem more effectively.

In fact, religious communities in the lower tiers will continue to be denied rights they held previously as churches. For example, according to information provided by the Ministry of Justice, “religious associations” (the lowest tier), unlike other churches, will not be permitted to collect the voluntary 1% church income tax. Since this church tax directly supports religious activity, prohibiting some religious communities from collecting such a tax while permitting others, constitutes unjustified discrimination. Indeed, this provision of the law was explicitly criticized by the ECtHR. According to the Court:

only incorporated churches are entitled to the one per cent of the personal income tax earmarked by believers and the corresponding State subsidy. These sums are intended to support faith-related activities. For this reason, the Court finds that such differentiation does not satisfy the requirements of State neutrality and is devoid of objective grounds for the differential treatment. (Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház v. Hungary, 112)

Given the explicit judgment of the Court, the GOH’s determination to preserve this discriminatory provision is surprising.

Additionally, transitional provisions stipulate that all “incorporated churches” (currently the highest tier) will automatically be recognized as “certified churches” (the new highest tier) once the new version of the law goes into effect. However, the majority of “incorporated churches” do not meet the criteria set down in the law for “certified churches.” “Certified churches” must either have at least 10,000 members or have received church income tax from at least 4000 people over five years. Based on the most recent census data, only 6 of the 31 “incorporated churches” have a membership of 10,000 or more. Based on publically available tax data, only 11 of the 31 incorporated churches consistently received voluntary church income tax from at least 4000 people between 2011 and 2014.

Furthermore, according to the proposed amendments, unlike “incorporated churches,” “religious associations” will have to apply with the courts for new legal status. The GOH thus proposes to implement the new amendments in a way that both discriminates between “incorporated churches” and “religious communities,” and also blatantly disregards the provisions of its own law. Since the original classification of religious groups into unequal tiers violated the right of religious freedom, perpetuating those distinctions with a new set of amendments cannot be considered a serious attempt to respond to the violations identified by the ECtHR.

Discretionary prerogatives claimed by the state allow for arbitrary discrimination

One of the most severely criticized parts of Act CCVI has been the provision according to which Parliament grants status as an “incorporated church” through a ⅔ vote. At first glance, the amendments appear to remove this provision, because registration in each tier will be determined by a court. However, the amendments also allow the state to enter into “cooperative agreements” with “certified churches” on a discretionary basis. This provision for discretionary subsidy of some, but not all religious communities amounts to a fourth category of legal recognition. The manner in which the state will exercise its “discretionary right” to enter into “cooperative agreements” is not specified in the church law. However, a reasonable interpretation of Hungary’s Basic Law suggests that this discretionary power is held by Parliament. Statements by government representatives as reported in the Hungarian press also indicate that Parliament will exercise this discretion.

OSCE standards require that the state remain neutral and impartial in its treatment of religious communities. Certainly, the state enjoys margin of appreciation in determining the legal framework for cooperation with churches; but having established that framework the state is required to treat all churches impartially within it. Any decision to enter into “cooperative agreements” with certain churches must be based on objective, relevant criteria. A procedure by which Parliament selects individual churches for “cooperation” lacks appropriate mechanisms to guarantee the decisions are based on objective, relevant criteria and in an impartial manner. Indeed, insofar as the determination to enter into a “cooperative agreement” is based on objective, relevant criteria, it is difficult to envision the manner in which such determinations are discretionary at all.

The proposed amendments to Act CCVI therefore rewrite the law without changing its essential content. Instead of repairing violations of religious freedom suffered by deregistered churches, the proposed amendments place those violations on new legal footing. Rather than correcting Parliament’s arbitrary power to bestow legal privileges on churches, the amendments relocate that arbitrary power to different parts of the law.

FOREF urges the Government of Hungary to refrain from submitting the currently proposed amendments to Parliament for a vote, to develop substantial, as opposed to cosmetic, changes to the law which are needed to address the identified violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, and to seek the assistance of participating States in harmonizing its church law with Helsinki standards, international human rights law, and the ruling of the ECtHR in Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and others v. Hungary.

Chief Justice Lenkovics on the Fidesz Constitutional Court, Part II

Yesterday I tried to summarize the legal philosophy of Hungary’s new chief justice, which I found shocking and totally at odds with our understanding of the rule of law in a democratic society. Viktor Szigetvári, chairman of the opposition party Együtt, in an impassioned Facebook note, called Barnabás Lenkovics morally unfit for his post. Szigetvári doesn’t spend much time on the topics I covered yesterday but instead bases his condemnation of the chief justice on some currently relevant issues such as the status of churches, the refugee issue, human rights, same-sex marriage, and the Orbán government’s latest attempt at limiting access to public documents. On almost all of these issues Lenkovics holds not conservative but outright undemocratic views.

At the moment the Hungarian government is taking its sweet time drafting an entirely new law on the recognition of churches. The original law of 2011 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 discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. The Orbán government’s answer was to change the constitution and 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. In April 2014 the court ruled in the churches’ favor: the law was unconstitutional, so it should be scrapped and the churches compensated. The Hungarian government decided to appeal the decision. Five months later, on September 9, 2014, the court turned down the appeal. At the moment the government is apparently working on a new version of the law. They are in no hurry to compensate the churches for their financial losses between 2011 and 2015.

Barnabás Lenkovics in the middle of the upper row

Barnabás Lenkovics in the middle of the upper row

It was this case that came up in the conversation between Lenkovics and the journalist from Mandiner.hu. Keep in mind that the constitution itself was altered to make an unconstitutional law constitutional. Lenkovics, who was a nominee of the then opposition parties Fidesz-KDNP and MDF in 2007, and four of the five Fidesz justices who were appointed after 2010 found nothing wrong with the church law. Consistent with that view, Lenkovics sees no reason to amend the constitution in light of the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. It is enough if “the law is rewritten or at least significantly altered.” But he still thinks that the 1989 law on churches “gave too much freedom in the establishment of churches … who, in turn, abused it.”

Well, if the churches abused their freedom, the same is true of civil rights activists whom he labelled “hobby civil rights activists” and “professional revolutionaries.” He added that “probably there is need for them, otherwise they wouldn’t finance them.” Who are these “they”? I guess the trouble-making foreigners who would like to know what the members of the government are up to. In any case, Lenkovics finds it “strange that they [the activists] exercise their own rights at the expense of the community.”

When the reporter noted that the corruption of officials and politicians may be much more costly to the community than photocopying a few hundred pages of documents, Lenkovics came up with this gem: “We assume that those who decided to serve the common good and who took an oath will not abuse their power and will not take advantage of the public purse for their own use.” The reporter was so stunned that he could only mutter: “That is what the Constitutional Court assumes? That’s all?” At this point Lenkovics realized that he went too far and quickly retreated: “Everybody is entitled to the presumption of innocence. I believe in civil control.” A little later he even sang the praises of investigative journalism, bemoaning the fact that there are not enough reporters who can ferret out the sources of corruption.

There was a brief exchange on same sex-marriage, in which Lenkovics resorted to the old natural law argument which claims that “certain rights or values are inherent in or universally cognizable by virtue of human reason or human virtue of judicial recognition or articulation.” In his view marriage has “traditional and natural legal foundations … and it is the basis not only of European and Christian civilization but of the whole human civilization.” He compares changing the current law on marriage to creating a law that would state that “a child can be born of a man by a man.” One could write such a law, but that doesn’t make it possible.

Lenkovics wove into the topic of same sex marriage a couple of intriguing sentences. “It is an interesting absurdity that while among heterosexuals the number of marriages is decreasing and more and more existing marriages break up, among homosexuals the demand to be able to get married is growing. Did anyone try to compare them?” I suspect that this intellectual giant thinks that homosexual “propaganda” is making headway and actually has an impact on the sexual behavior of the society in favor of homosexuality.

Finally, there was an exchange on the refugee question, which came up as a corollary to Lenkovics’s distinction between “legal” and “political” constitutionality. The latter in his opinion considers reality while the former is too abstract and unworkable. So, Lenkovics thinks that

It is a great problem that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes universality while in reality something very different is going on. The world, the United Nations, the European Union signed a blank check about universal human rights but that check is uncovered.

These people now, as refugees flood the world, declare their human rights and the duties of Europe. Not the duties of their own governments to look after them, but those of the West.

My take on this is that human rights as such should be thrown out of our legal arsenal.

This interview, I believe, tells us more about the nature of the Orbán regime than hundreds of pages of analyses by political scientists. The chief justice opened the door to the workings of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state.

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.

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.”

General government retreat in Hungary? I doubt it

A couple of interesting political developments surfaced this morning, but I think it is too early to draw any meaningful conclusions about their import. The first is that parliament will not discuss an amendment to the electoral law. About a week ago a Fidesz backbencher, Árpád János Potápi, submitted the amendment that should have been debated today. However, Magyar Nemzet learned (they always manage to learn things from government sources) that the amendment will not be on today’s agenda.

What was this amendment that Potápi, it seems, withdrew? According to his amendment, statistical details about the new citizens residing abroad must be kept “secret” for national security reasons. We wouldn’t even know how many people are eligible to vote from the neighboring countries and therefore wouldn’t be able to check whether the final results that the government releases are accurate or not.

This plot has been on the drawing board for a very long time because, let’s face it, granting citizenship to Hungarian nationals in the neighboring countries serves only the governing party’s interests. An incredible amount of time and money were  spent registering as many new citizens as possible. There  was a bit of a problem in Slovakia, a country that responded to the Hungarian attempt at dual citizenship for about half a million Slovak citizens with a counterattack. No dual citizenship is allowed in Slovakia with the exception of Czech-Slovak citizens. Ukraine forbids dual citizenship, period. Most Hungarians in Serbia became Hungarian citizens not so much for voting rights but for a Hungarian passport that allows them to move to western European countries where they are, as Hungarian citizens, permitted to work. The bulk of the new citizens come from Romania, where Fidesz politicians think Fidesz has a significant edge over MSZP or other left-wing parties.

Csangos (ceangăi/ csángók), a Catholic group numbering 3,000  living in Moldavia  receive their Hungarian citizenship / HVG Photo Gergely Túry

Csangos (ceangăi/ csángók), a Catholic group numbering 3,000 living in Moldavia, receive their Hungarian citizenship / HVG Photo Gergely Túry

In January of this year HVG asked the government for the statistics it had gathered on voters residing abroad, but its request was denied. HVG promptly sued the Ministry of Administration and Justice. The case is still pending. Not much was heard about the case until  March 12 when Petápi’s amendment showed up on the Hungarian parliament’s website. The government, it seems, was answering HVG‘s suit with a change in the law. By now this is a customary ploy of the Orbán government. If they don’t want to do something, they simply change the law.

Although the reaction of the opposition was slow in coming, by March 19 all groups joined in the outcry, including Jobbik.  Discussion on the amendment began in the middle of the night, as normally happens when the topic is important and/or sensitive. The government’s justification of the move was that countries like Slovakia might harass or even expel Hungarian nationals if they find out that their citizens, after all, took out Hungarian citizenship. But, of course, this is not the reason. In fact, eligible voters abroad will be notified by mail that they are on the election list. So, one way or the other the Slovak government will know who became a Hungarian citizen. Moreover, Viktor Orbán already sent out 60,000 letters to Hungarian nationals in Romania urging them to vote at the next election. The story is circulating in Romania that Romanian authorities scan all letters coming from Orbán and therefore they already have a nice long list of 60,000 names.

The list of eligible voters living in Hungary is available. Everybody can go to city or town hall and check whether he/she is on the list. We know exactly the number of eligible voters and thus we know what percentage of them actually voted and who they were. But if such details in the case of voters from the neighboring countries are not revealed, we have absolutely no way of determining the veracity of the statistics the government releases after the election. The Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) rightly cried foul and reminded people of the so-called “blue slip” election of 1947 which the communists rigged by insisting that people could vote anywhere in the country as long as they had a blue slip in hand. Naturally, many voters had several blue slips in their pockets. I actually knew someone who as a young communist enthusiast participated in this fraud and was carried by truck from city to city to vote many times over.

The Orbán government was all set and ready to vote on the amendment. Less than a week later, however, they changed their minds. Perhaps someone in the high party leadership came to the conclusion that if that amendment is tacked onto the electoral law the rest of the democratic world will question of very validity of the 2014 election and with it the legitimacy of  a new elected Orbán government. Perhaps someone remembered that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when she was in Budapest in June 2011, emphasized during her meeting with the opposition leaders that one cannot speak of democracy if the election is not free and unfettered. That’s why, she added, one must pay attention to the election law the Orbán government was working on at the time. In brief, if there is any question about the validity of the election, the consequences might be dire for the Orbán government.

The other development is also noteworthy. Magyar Hírlap learned from unnamed sources that “there will be modifications” to the Law on Religions. As of this afternoon I read nothing about the nature of the modifications. But there seems to be a retreat on the part of the Orbán government. Knowing how this government operates, however, one must not let one’s guard down. They will try to find some other way to achieve their original goals. We can only hope that the European Union and the United States will not be fooled.