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
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.