NEWS ALERT: Hungarian Government Investigates Evangelicals; US Concerned

1 01 2014

WASHINGTON/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) — A senior Democratic member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has warned that a Hungarian government investigation into a key evangelical church “opens the door” to communist-style “repressive measures” against faith groups.

US Senator Ben Cardin

US Senator Ben Cardin

In a statement obtained by BosNewsLife early Monday, December 16, Senator Ben Cardin said he was disturbed that Hungary’s center-right leadership is “launching an investigation into the Methodist Evangelical Church, a church persecuted during communist times.

The denomination, officially called the ‘Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship’ (HEF), “is known for its outreach to Roma, work with the homeless and is one of the largest charitable organizations in Hungary,” Cardin told the Senate last Friday, December 13.

It was among “hundreds of religious groups stripped of official recognition” in this former communist nation, after Hungary’s new religion law was rushed through parliament by supporters of the ruling Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, he noted.

“The church has now complied with submitting the necessary number of supporters required by the law and, as a reply, the government has announced an unidentified ‘expert’ will conduct an investigation into the church’s beliefs and tenets,” the senator added.

“ACCEPTED CHURCH”

In a statement, Hungary’s Ministry for Human Resources confirmed the probe would focus on “evaluating whether the church’s activities are primarily of a religious nature.”

The investigation is also aimed at uncovering “whether the church complies with its own beliefs and rituals, and whether the church has maintained an active congregation over the past 20 years in Hungary,” the Ministry said, citing regulations introduced in 2011 and 2013.

Pastor Gábor Iványi  condemned the latest “official assault” on his Methodist church, which claims to have at least 18,000 members.

Pastor Ivanyi Gabor

Pastor Ivanyi Gabor

In an open letter he said the church was “dedicated to following the teachings of Jesus Christ” by serving the community. He made clear that the investigation was painful as his church was “persecuted and banned during the communist era.”

In earlier remarks he said, “Those who voted for the [religious] law are not with us….This is called dictatorship.”

”ACCEPTED CHURCHES”

Cardin agrees. “This step only reinforces fears that parliamentary denial of recognition as a so-called “Accepted Church” opens the door for further repressive measures,” he explained, according to records obtained by BosNewsLife.

The government has denied wrongdoing. It says the ‘Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Communities’ prevents abuse of Hungary’s tax regulations and other laws.

Cardin said the latest developments come while other religious groups and minorities, including Jewish people and Gypsies, who prefer to be known as Roma, face extremism.

“Veneration of Hungary’s wartime regent,  Miklós Horthy, along with other anti-Semitic figures such as writer József Nyírő continues. In November, a statue of Hungarian Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti, who was killed by Hungarian Nazis at the end of 1944, was rammed with a car and broken in half,” he said.

“At roughly the same time, extremists staged a book burning of his works along with other materials they called “‘Zionist publications”. At the beginning of December, two menorahs were vandalized in Budapest.”

TARGETING HUNGARIANS

The senator noted that targeted Hungarians are seeking asylum abroad. “Reflecting the climate of extremism, more than 160 Hungarian nationals have been found by Canada this year to have a well-founded fear of persecution,” he recalled.

“Almost all are Roma, but the refugees include an 80-year-old award winning Hungarian Jewish writer who received death threats after writing about antisemitism in Hungary.”

He said the writer, Ákos Kertész, “was stripped of his honorary citizenship of Budapest on an initiative from the far-right Jobbik party, supported by votes of the ruling Fidesz party.”

The influential senator said that while “many suggest the real problem comes from the extremist opposition party Jobbik, and not the ruling government,” it seems that some members of Fidesz have contributed “to a rise” in intolerance.

He expressed concerns however about perceived government attempts to undermine media efforts to report on these issues. “I am particularly troubled that the government-created Media Council, consisting entirely of Fidesz delegated members, has threatened ATV–an independent television station–with punitive fines if it again characterizes Jobbik as extremist.”

EVANGELICAL SUPPORT

ATV is backed by the Faith Church, one of Hungary’s largest Pentecostal churches. “If you can’t even talk about what is extremist or anti-Semitic in Hungary without facing legal sanctions, how can you combat extremism and antisemitism?,” the senator wondered.

“Moreover, this decision serves to protect Jobbik from critical debate in the advance of next year’s elections. Why?”

Hungarian State Secretary Zsolt Németh told BosNewsLife however that his ruling Fidesz party won’t seek a coalition with Jobbik, whatever the outcome of the 2014 elections. “I cannot speak for the government, but as a member of Fidesz I can say that will not happen,” he said.

Yet, Cardin said the government is stifling free speech and cracking down on religious freedom. “Unfortunately, and somewhat shockingly, last month Hungary amended its defamation law to allow for the imposition of prison terms up to three years. The imposition of jail time for speech offenses was a hallmark of the communist era.”

The veteran politician noted that during the post-communist transition, the Helsinki Commission advocacy group “consistently urged [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE countries to repeal criminal defamation and insult laws entirely. In 2004, for example, the Helsinki Commission wrote to Minister of Justice Péter Bárándy regarding the criminal convictions of András Bencsik and László Attila Bertók.”

NEW LAW

Cardin said, “The new law, raced through under an expedited procedure in the wake of a bi-election controversy in which allegations of voter manipulation were traded, was quickly criticized by the OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media. I share her concerns that these changes to the criminal code may lead to the silencing of critical or differing views in society and are inconsistent with OSCE commitments.”

The senator stressed that “Hungary was once held up as a model of peaceful democratic transition and is situated in a region of Europe where the beacon of freedom is still sought by many today. I hope Hungary will return to a leadership role in the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy.”

However he appeared pessimistic about Hungary’s immediate future. “Since the April 2010 elections, Hungary has undertaken the most dramatic legal transformation that Europe has seen in decades. A new Constitution was passed with votes of the ruling party alone, and even that has already been amended five times.”

Additionally, “More than 700 new laws have been passed, including laws on the media, religion, and civic associations. There is a new civil code and a new criminal code. There is an entirely new electoral framework. The magnitude and scope of these changes have understandably put Hungary under a microscope,” he said.

Cardin added that at a recent Helsinki Commission’s hearing in March, he “examined concerns that these changes” have also “undermined Hungary’s system of democratic checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, and freedoms of the media and religion.”

WITNESSES TESTIFY 

He said he based his conclusions on several sources, including testimonies about rising revisionism and extremism from József Szájer, a European parliamentarian who represented Hungary’s government at the hearing.

Other officials presenting evidence included Princeton University constitutional law expert Kim Lane Scheppelle, Paul Shapiro from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska from rights group Freedom House.

“Unfortunately, developments in Hungary remain troubling,” despite international concern, Senator Cardin complained.

Hungary, a nation of nearly 10-million people, joined the European Union in 2004, some 15 years after the collapse of communism here. It is also a member of the NATO military alliance since 1999.

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Hungary shows determination on constitution

8 03 2013

Hungary

By Neil Buckley in London and Kester Eddy in Budapest

Just last week, Gabor Ivanyi, head pastor of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, an independent Methodist congregation in Budapest, was celebrating. Hungary’s top court had annulled a controversial law last year that reduced the number of officially recognised churches from more than 350 to little more than two dozen.

The court said the churches law – part of a new constitution introduced by the government of Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party in January 2012 – could lead to politically motivated decisions on recognition. Pastor Ivanyi’s group lost its church status, hitting its funding and charitable work including tending daily to 1,000 homeless people.

“The Fellowship, in God’s name, welcomes the constitutional court ruling with joy. [The church law] destroyed the right to freedom of conscience and religion,” he wrote in an email.

The joy may not last. Amendments being debated by Hungary’s parliament and voted on next week are set to restore both the bulk of the church law and many controversial parts of the new constitution that the constitutional court or European institutions had successfully challenged.

The turnround has taken not just Pastor Ivanyi but the international community by surprise.

The 2012 constitution, and associated “cardinal” laws on different areas also passed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, was denounced by critics as a “constitutional coup”. They said it weakened democratic checks and balances and endangered media freedom and independence of the judiciary.

Though in piecemeal fashion, the European Commission won some changes to the media and judiciary laws. The Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, secured alterations to the church and justice laws.

Hungary’s constitutional court also struck down some elements, despite being composed increasingly of Fidesz appointees.

Now, critics warn, 14 pages of constitutional amendments could reverse much of that.

“Orban views checks and balances as outdated instruments to tame his will and, accordingly, he is doing his best to remove any obstacle from the glorious road of his ‘revolution’,” said Gordon Bajnai, Hungary’s technocratic prime minister in 2009-10 after the collapse of a discredited socialist government.

Mr Bajnai said the amendments reincorporate into the constitution “all those [areas where] decisions taken by the constitutional court . . . repealed some pivotal elements of Orban’s revolution”.

Mr Orban’s government always insisted Hungary needed a constitutional “reboot” after too long relying on a rewritten Stalin-era constitution. It rebuffed criticisms of the new fundamental law as groundless and orchestrated by its arch-foes, the socialists.

The government this week said criticism was again misplaced and the amendments were anyway being introduced in a Fidesz MP’s private member’s bill, not a government bill.

But why take such provocative action now?

One reason may be that Fidesz’s ratings have fallen sharply since it won 53 per cent of votes in 2010 parliament elections and two-thirds of seats. Recent polls have shown its support at below a quarter of all voters, though large numbers answer “don’t know” or “won’t vote”.

Economic output shrank 1.7 per cent last year – exacerbated, say economists, by Fidesz’s unorthodox policies. But Mr Orban has found blaming foreign banks and EU “interference” resonates politically.

“In some elements it’s just popular [with voters],” says Tamas Boros, director of Policy Solutions, a Budapest think tank.

He adds that Mr Orban takes any defeat badly. “It’s [Fidesz’s] philosophy to aim to win all fights; that no one else should have a say on these issues,” says Mr Boros.

Kim Lane Scheppele, director of Princeton University’s law and public affairs programme, who has monitored Hungary’s new constitution, says legal complexities also played a part.

A constitutional court judgment in December raised the risk of an “unravelling of [Fidesz’s] constitutional system”. The government had to address that risk – and took the opportunity to reinsert some contentious elements.

European Commission officials said it was unclear how serious the latest developments in Budapest would become, but they were monitoring them. The problem if Hungary’s parliament does pass the amendments, say EU experts, is Brussels already used most of its limited tools to deal with backsliding on democratic standards last year – but now Budapest is fighting back.





President of Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship condemns anti-Semitic remarks of Hungarian MP

5 12 2012

Pastor-Ivanyi-Gabor-2

PRESS RELEASE OF HUNGARIAN EVANGELICAL FELLOWSHIP

Statement on the latest Nazi provocation and the responses to it

No-one could distinguish the sound of the shouts
of joy from the sound of weeping, because
the people made so much noise
(Ezra 3:13)

 I condemn in the name of our church, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, the provocative attempt  by a Jobbik member of Parliament to persuade the house to consider “on national security grounds” which members of the National Assembly and present Hungarian government are Jewish or connected to Israel in some way.

We consider it necessary to note that the incident is not unprecedented, though this openly Nazi proposal was condemned by all parliamentary groups but the one mentioned (which tried to talk its way out of what was indefensible).

The right-wing government in power – through constant threats, slanders, artificially divisiveness, stirring up feeling against the poor and the minorities or simply otherness of any kind, legislating without any kind of consensus, and constantly, even retroactively curtailing our rights – has discredited Hungary not only at home but abroad, and produced conditions for open display of the extremist behavior being objected to here.

We welcome the fact that parties, organizations and individuals have condemned what occurred in writing, parliamentary speeches and the form of a street demonstration. Nazi, Arrow-Cross, fascist, racist or anti-otherness statements and behavior can occur on the peripheries of society and public life even in a respectable democracy. Uniting against them is the duty of all, regardless of party, denomination or social position.

We regret that the organizers of Sunday’s demonstration did not draw on all democratic forces, even omitting some democratic parliamentary parties from its ad hoc coalition. We also regret that their inclusion among the speakers of the parliamentary leader of the main governing party conveyed the impression that the party, in its conduct hitherto, bore no blame for the current daily revival of the ideas that brought ignominy and bereavement to Hungary between the two world wars.

But we see the greatest harm in the way the well-intentioned crowd of protesters were misled. We regret how the organizers have left us with a suspicion that they were moved more by secondary political aims, by a desire to demonstrate their influence in society. For our part, we neither forbade (nor ever would forbid) our members to attend this political event nor encouraged them to do so (which we would also refrain from doing as far as possible). Nonetheless, we must now encourage everyone, now as ever, to refrain from entering into any kind of communion with satanic racism, anti-Semitism, or hatred of otherness in any form, and so to distance ourselves openly and unequivocally.

Rev. Gábor Iványi

President of Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship

ivanyi-gabor








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