Hungarian Government amending controversial law on churches?

25 03 2012

CERF INSTITUTE, BUDAPEST – In the letter to Central-European Religious Freedom Institute dated March 20, Hungarian Ombudsman Dr. Mate Szabo, stated that Hungarian Government is going to introduce amendments to the Act CCVI. of 2011 on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion and on the Status of Churches, Religions and Religious Communities.

Upon reviewing the report of Venice Commission and the amendments proposed by the Government, Dr. Szabo will decide if an action on his part should be undertaken.

Dr. Mate Szabo’s letter was an answer to the complaint filed by Central-European Religious Freedom Institute to Hungarian Ombudsman in which the Institute urged that the law be submitted for evaluation by Constitutional Court. According to the Institute’s founder Jura Nanuk, main faults of the Hungarian law on churches are violation of the principle of separation between church and state by requesting MP’s to vote on church status of individual religious communities, violation of the rule of law by stripping more than 200 religious communities of their acquired rights, discrimination by categorization of religious communities in three groups, introduction of provision on “National Security” which is contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the fact that the law does not leave any possibility for legal remedy for religious communities which are refused the status of a church.

The Venice Commission criticizes the state of religious freedom in Hungary

20 03 2012

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional law, responded to a request from the government of Hungary for an advisory opinion, by issuing a report on Hungary’s 2011 Act On the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion and the Legal Status of Churches, Denominations and Religious Communities. 

The main conclusions of the report are:

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society. In this respect, it may only be restricted by strict criteria set out in international instruments.

States benefit from a large margin of appreciation with regard to the relationship between the church and the state and with regard to the choice of their policies and regulation in this field. The Venice Commission recognises that there is legitimate concern in Hungary to eliminate the abuse of religious organisations, which have operated for illicit and harmful purposes or for personal gain. One of the main justifications for this new Act is the need to prevent some religious organizations from abusing the possibility of receiving public funding. Although various types of solutions have been found throughout Europe, the European guarantees must not be undermined.

As a whole, the Act constitutes a liberal and generous framework for the freedom of
religion. However, although few in number, some important issues remain problematic and fall short of international standards.

The Act sets a range of requirements that are excessive and based on arbitrary criteria with regard to the recognition of a church. In particular, the requirement related to the national and international duration of a religious community and the recognition procedure, based on a political decision, should be reviewed. This recognition confers a number of privileges to churches concerned.

The Act has led to a deregistration process of hundreds of previously lawfully recognised churches, that can hardly be considered in line with international standards.

Finally, the Act induces, to some extent, an unequal and even discriminatory treatment of religious beliefs and communities, depending on whether they are recognised or not.

The Venice Commission was informed that – as a reaction to the draft opinion – the Government intends to introduce amendments, which is welcome. The Commission had no possibility to examine these proposals but it remains at the disposal of the Hungarian authorities for any further assistance.

For the access to the full text of the report, please click here.

UNITED KINGDOM: Outrage at move towards banning Christian crosses from workplace

17 03 2012
The Scotsman (14.03.2012) / HRWF (16.03.2012) – – Religious groups have hit out at the UK government after a leaked document suggested it was moving to deny Christians the right to wear crosses at their place of work.

The Church of Scotland stressed that there should be “no discrimination” against people who wish to make statements of faith by wearing jewellery, after it emerged that ministers were fighting a case brought by two women at the European Court of Human Rights.

Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin claim that they were discriminated against when their employers barred them from wearing the symbol.

Mrs Eweida’s case dates from 2006 when the 61-year-old, from Twickenham, was suspended by British Airways for breaching its uniform code. Mrs Chaplin, a 56-year-old nurse from Exeter, was barred from working on wards by Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust after refusing to hide the cross she wore on a necklace.

Lawyers for the two women claim that the protection under Article Nine of the Human Rights Act for “manifesting” religion covers things that are not a “requirement of the faith”.

The article states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including the right to “manifest” their religion or belief “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance”.

The government is expected to make a submission to the Strasbourg court which dismisses their argument as “ill-founded”. Its argument, leaked to a Sunday newspaper, will state that the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not a manifestation of their religion or belief within the meaning of Article 9, and… the restriction on the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not an “interference” with their rights protected by Article 9.

The response, prepared by the Foreign Office, adds: “In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross, or crucifix, was a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith.”

Christian groups have condemned the government’s stance as extraordinary and said it should not interfere.

Rev Ian Galloway, convenor of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, said: “Unless organisations have specific policies which preclude all employees from wearing jewellery, or governing the ways jewellery may be worn, the Church of Scotland hopes that there will be no discrimination against people who wish to wear items of a religious nature.

“Whatever the strict legal situation, we believe that individuals should have the right to make statements of faith, and this extends to the wearing of appropriate jewellery.”

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, also attacked the government’s argument. He said: “This is not the business of government actually. They are beginning to meddle in areas that they ought not to. I think they should leave that to the courts to make a judgment.

“If someone wanted to manifest their belief as a Christian that they wanted to wear a cross – after all at their baptism they are sealed with a cross of Christ – so if they decided to say, ‘I know I am sealed with it, but I am going to wear it’, I think that is a matter really for people and that we should allow it.”

Source: Human Rights Without Frontiers

Double Trouble: Discrimination of Roma Buddhists in Hungary

10 03 2012

Hungarian Buddhist congregations have lost their denominational rights this summer along with every Hindu and Muslim congregation. Some organisations regained the religious rights from March 2012 thanks to protests.

Jai Bhim Network, which educates, agitates and organizes on the footsteps of Bodhisattva Dr. Ambedkar in schools and congregations in rural Roma communities, remains deprived.

To help the fight discrimination please sign the petition on

On February 23, uniformed police officers surrounded the high school of a small Hungarian town. Their targets: four Roma students, all between the ages of 14 and 16, who were to be arrested and transported in handcuffs for questioning at the neighboring city’s police station. But according to residents of the town, the conflict between the local authorities and the Roma community involves more than just a school-yard spat. Namely, it has to do with religion, discrimination, and most especially with the responses of the town’s residents to the national census.

Trouble in the Local School. As many as ten uniformed police officers entered the school building of the North-Eastern town of Sajókaza. Three female and one male student were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and for restraining another person’s liberty – for attacking a 17-year-old female student a week ago, on February 13. The students were taken away in hand-cuffs, the teachers overheard the officers using racial slurs.

Leaders of the local community, among them the chairman of the local Roma minority council hurried to the police station upon news of the arrest. Only one of them, the headmaster of the school – who made the case that in his official capacity he was personally responsible for the students – was allowed to stay with them at the police station.

The investigation concerned a case that had occurred a week earlier. The students’ statements had already been taken at that time, after a spat on the school’s campus which involved two female students who got into the argument over a boy.

When asked about the racial slurs, the spokesperson for the county’s police stated that the students did not make an official complaint about their treatment. He told the press that during their questioning the four teenagers admitted to the charges and that the students’ treatment were within legal bounds. Civil rights activists are doubtful: regulations for the police explicitly forbid police conduct “evidently not commensurate” with the purported goal of the action taken. Furthermore, when police officers have a choice among more than one possible ways of handling a case, they must choose one that, besides efficiency, also guarantees the least restraint, injury or damage against the target of the action.

Census Investigation.
 The incident took place in the Dr. Ámbédkar School, an institution operated by the Dzsaj Bhím Buddhist community, which works in partnership with many organizations – among them the Hungarian government and Amnesty International – to provide Roma youth with a high-school education. In the impoverished north-eastern region of Hungary, a high school degree is an important prerequisite of a livable future. Despite the fact, however, several communities in the region have segregated their schools.

But despite its connections outside the community, or perhaps precisely because of them, the Dzsaj Bhím (Helping Hands) Buddhist community has an uneasy relationship with the local authorities. One of the manifestations of this longstanding conflict is an investigation under way against the leaders of the Buddhist community, who stand accused of committing census fraud.

Hungary’s census was conducted during the month of October 2011. Already by mid-October, however, a complaint had been made to the police of Sajókaza citing preliminary results of the census data collected via internet filing.

As described by the town’s notary to the television crews arriving to the scene in October, over 300 persons – one in ten residents of the village – identified as Buddhists in Sajókaza, which raised doubts that leaders of the local Buddhist community may have filled out census forms for the town’s Roma residents. Indeed, over 600 individuals, many of whom belonged to the Roma minority, used the internet connection at the Buddhist community center to file their census forms.

Nevertheless, at the time of the television reports, the Hungarian authority entrusted with ensuring the anonymity of the census denied providing access to the local authorities to the results of the data collected.

The police investigation under way since last October concerns the role of István János Lázi, leader of the local Roma minority council, who is also a prominent member of the Buddhist community. Lázi assisted census responders at the Buddhist community center and is now accused of over-reporting the number of Buddhist believers in the village.

The majority of the Roma residents of the town are known to be Roman Catholics. When asked, however, they also point out that the question on the census form asked them to name the religious community to which they belong, and that regardless of their religion, they consider Dzsaj Bhím their true community. Not even the mayor’s informal threats – that the Catholic church will refuse to provide them a burial or to baptize their children if they identify as Buddhists – led them to reconsider their answers.

Addressless. There is solidarity among the Roma and the Buddhist community regarding other matters as well. The town’s Roma residents are thankful to Dzsaj Bhím for assistance in restoring their houses after a flood. They also appreciate the support received in their fight against the policies of the local municipality.

In March of 2011, the municipal government of Sajókaza introduced new regulations for registering a local residence: in every house of the municipality, at least ten square meters have to be available to house the resident registered at the address – bathroom, basement and storage not included.

But refusing to register persons as officially residing in the village may have been a longstanding practice in Sajókaza even before the regulation was made official: some of the Roma in the town have not been able to obtain residency in Sajókaza for as many as six years.

Accordingly, many of the Roma of Sajókaza are “addressless.” Without a registered home address, they are also disenfranchised: they are ineligible to vote and addressless persons do not qualify for local aid either.

In Hungary, it is within the power of each municipality to set local regulations for registering one’s residence in the municipality. For example in Hajdúhadháza, in another town in Northeast Hungary, registration is tied to keeping an orderly yard and maintaining standards of hygiene within the residence. Hajdúhadháza’s municipal council therefore also reserves the right to access the town’s residences and yards in order to monitor the hygiene of their residents.

In Sajókaza, there is a second issue causing conflict within the locality. Municipal plans drawn up for introducing sewage canals into the village exclude the two Roma neighborhoods situated at the two opposite edges of the town. At the same time, however, the sewage plant is planned to be built in one of the Roma neighborhoods, at a location where rising waters of the Sajó river could flood the streets with raw sewage.

Privacy of Personal Data. While the criminal investigation relied on the availability of personal and sensitive information from the national census, it is unclear who leaked about the “suspiciously high” number of Buddhist believers in the town. The identity of the person initiating the criminal probe has not been reported, and the governmental authority responsible for conducting the census denies releasing this information data to the local authorities.

Just days prior to the arrest of the high-school students, the local police also made an attempt to obtain permission from Roma residents to investigate their census responses.

“I authorize release of my information as provided during the census regarding my religious affiliation to the police,” the affidavit of permission to use statistical information in a criminal investigation states. Two uniformed police officers had made visits to Roma residences in Sajókaza to hand-deliver the forms and to explain the criminal investigation under way. This took place just days before the police escalated its proceedings against the Roma students of the community.

The affidavit is a legal absurdity, points out András Jóri, who used to serve as Hungary’s ombudsman for data protection until his office was reorganized under Hungary’s new constitution. If the police decides to investigate something, the law defines the scope of information they are entitled to use. Otherwise, the police does not typically ask for permission to investigate.

What is especially disconcerting about the affidavits collected by the police in Sajókaza is that their text suggests – falsely, as was pointed out by a governmental agency – that the police has access to the census forms, and, what is more, that it is capable of matching up the authorizations obtained with the census form submitted by the specific individual who agrees to a criminal probe.

The spokesperson for Hungary’s national census insists that this would be impossible. The only identifying personal data on the census form is the person’s home address, but even this information is deleted, eventually, from the census database once the data processing has been completed.

Data Protection under the Hungarian constitution. András Jóri, who spoke out against the illegalities of the criminal investigation in Sajókaza in spite of that fact that he no longer serves as Hungary’s ombudsman for data protection, also points out that the relative benefits of investigating a Roma rights activist’s involvement in the census-taking are insignificant compared to damages thereby caused to the integrity of the census and to protecting the privacy of the responses given.

Jóri has clashed with the Hungarian government on issues related to data collection before. One of the most memorable standoffs between the ombudsman and the Hungarian government took place in the summer of 2011 and concerned the Hungarian government’s “social consultation,” a questionnaire sent to every Hungarian citizen 16 years of age or older regarding their approval of the government’s policy goals. The forms were bar-coded (and asked for the name and place of residence of each responder). Jóri ordered deleting the personal data collected through the survey.

Jóri’s objections to the form were followed by statements from the Hungarian prime minister’s spokesperson, Péter Szíjjártó, alleging the ombudsman with acting out of sheer retribution (it was known by that time that Jóri would lose his position as a result of the constitutional changes pushed through by the Hungarian government). Szíjjártó also claimed that the ombudsman’s objections were aimed at undermining public trust in the Hungarian government.

Since the new Hungarian constitution came into effect, protecting the privacy of government-mandated statistical data collection falls under the purview of the newly formed National Agency for Data Protection. Given these transformations, Jóri had been fired from what, under Hungary’s previous constitution, would have been a tenured position not to expire prior to 2014.

Hungary’s new constitution allows for the prime minister to dismiss the supervisor of the  new data protection agency at will. The EU has initiated an infringement proceeding into the matter, which is becoming a hotly contested legal issue between the Hungarian government and the European Union.

Source: The Contrarium Hungarian blog

Anti-Buddhism campaign in Austria

4 03 2012

HRWF (02.03.2012) – On 12 February, the construction of the biggest Buddhist temple in Europe was rejected by 67% of the population of Gföhl  who had been consulted on this issue. The mayor, Karl Simlinger, accepted the decision of the population. In the newspaper Standard, Bop Jon Sunim, a Buddhist monk and initiator of the project, commented the result of the referendum as follows: “The fact that the inhabitants of Gföhl have finally voted against the Buddhist temple is the result of a hate campaign of political and religious opponents.”

Among the promoters of this campaign, it is worth mentioning the “Austrian Society for the Protection of Tradition, Family and Private Property” (TFP) which distributed leaflets to incite the people against the Buddhist temple. “Buddhism in Austria, a wolf in the sheepfold”.

Prof. Christian Brünner, a constitutionalist from Graz and former president of the conference of the rectors, unambiguously criticized the anti-Buddhist hate campaign and the popular consultation.

Source: Human Rights Without Frontiers


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