Tag Archives: Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség

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.

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.