Gabor Ivanyi lives every day with the consequences of government persecution. In 1977, when the Hungarian communist authorities closed down his Methodist church in Budapest, he vowed not to shave until it re-opened.
“I thought it would all be solved in a matter of days or weeks,” he says.
But the police padlocked the church, so Mr Ivanyi held services on the street until five years later when the authorities softened their approach. Though not before they had demolished his church.
The preacher thought his troubles were over when, in 1990, the outgoing regime introduced a law regulating religious organisations. But, 22 years on, the pastor is instead facing a new fight – and his beard is of Biblical proportions.
From his cramped headquarters in Jozsefvaros – a working-class district of the capital – Mr Ivanyi’s Wesleyan church runs a nationwide network of schools, homes for the aged and hostels for the homeless serving some 4,000 of Hungary’s poorest and most needy.
In December, Hungary’s parliament, in which the Fidesz party of prime minister Viktor Orban holds a two-thirds majority, passed a new law on churches – part of a burst of legislation that caused concern in the European Union and US regarding Mr Orban’s respect for democracy.
As a result, more than 300 formerly registered denominations – including Mr Ivanyi’s Methodists – are now in a legal no-man’s land, no longer recognised by the state.
“With no consultations, at least with us, the Orban government brought in a law which acknowledges 14 ‘historical’ churches, but strips us of our status,” pastor Ivanyi says. “This is Orwellian. All churches are equal, but some are more equal than others. It’s blatant discrimination.”
The 14 recognised faiths include the Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist churches and three Jewish denominations, but exclude smaller Christian movements such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even local Church of England congregations. Also no longer recognised are the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Bahai communities.
To regain official recognition, and the attendant privileges such as tax breaks, those religious communities face a complicated bureaucratic process that culminates in a final decision by parliament – where Mr Orban’s Fidesz party holds a two-thirds majority – rather than the courts. If recognition is denied, there is no right of appeal, though the denomination can apply for limited “association” status.
Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesman, argues that the law is needed to prevent abuse of the former system which saw some groups set up as “business churches” to exploit tax privileges. “For 20 years after communism we had an ‘open market’ for religion,” he says. “There were 360 registered churches. This is a nonsense – for example, the ‘Worshippers of the Womb’ was a registered church. There were a number of organisations which had nothing to do with religion proper.”
“It is very difficult to explain this to, say, an American, where freedom to set up churches is part of the culture. In continental Europe the model is about a state-regulated framework, and we are re-booting that relationship,” Mr Kovacs insists.
The government’s explanation is undermined by the reality of the law, counters Szabolcs Hegyi, of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. “In spite of the government’s claims, these provisions seriously restrict the freedom of religion. They discriminate against approximately 300 [formerly] registered churches, which have lost their status and established rights, and are obliged to [attempt to] re-register,” he says.
The process is no easy matter. The security service is required to assess all applications, and in a country where many still baulk at revealing personal preferences to the authorities, would-be churches need to find 1,000 people to vouch for their movement as bona fide.
“These conditions are unfair: they discriminate against new, small and local communities,” he says.
Mr Hegyi also dismisses the need for new legislation to combat abuse of church status. “Even if supposed ‘business churches’ or ‘nonsense’ religions were a problem, the new law is a disproportionate answer – the authorities could previously take legal action if any church breached the law,” he says.
Pastor Ivanyi – who, curiously, baptised Mr Orban’s first two children back in the 1990s – says “one or two” of his 800 employees have resigned due to uncertainty over the future. Their concerns are understandable; in a move reminiscent of his defiance of communist persecution, Mr Ivanyi refuses to re-apply for official church status.
“It is as if they took away my citizenship,” he says. “I was born Magyar; they can’t take that away and make me re-apply. We are a church, anyone can see that.”
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