Hungary’s new system of church recognition: Rule of law or rule by decree?

1 02 2014

Upon the invitation of the International Association for Religious Freedom, Central-European Religious Freedom Institute attended the INFORM Conference at London School of Economics and Political Sciences. Prof. H. David Baer, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Texas Lutheran University and member of the Honorary Board of the Central-European Religious Freedom, held a lecture about Hungary’s Law on Churches and its implications on religious freedom in Hungary. Below you can see the full text of prof. Baer’s lecture.



By prof. H. David Baer

H D Baer

In 2011 Hungary enacted a new law on “the Right of Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations, and Religious Communities” (Act CCVI of 2011) which has had enormous implications for religious freedom. Prior to 2011, religious communities in Hungary were registered and recognized in accordance with a 1990 law which treated all groups equally. Act CCVI, however, abolished the previous practice and replaced it with a tiered system of recognition for religious communities that distinguishes between, on the one hand, “established churches” (bevett egyházak), which receive numerous rights and privileges, and, on the other hand, “organizations conducting religious activity” (vallási tevékenységet végző szervezetek), which receive different and fewer rights and privileges. In order to introduce this new classification system, Act CCVI had to repeal the legal status of numerous groups previously recognized as churches according to the 1990 law. The number of churches deregistered by the new law was approximately 200.


Many countries in Europe have tiered classification systems for religious communities, and a superficial look at Hungary might leave the impression that its religion law resembles that in other European countries. However, Hungary’s tiered system was introduced after the country had established a twenty year legal practice of treating religious groups equally. Introducing a tiered system in Hungary was thus impossible without stripping numerous religious communities of rights they had already secured under law. Furthermore, because the structure of the new religion law depends upon the retroactive withdrawal of rights, the Hungarian government has been unable to preserve the tiered classification system without creating a registration system that is arbitrary and unaccountable, which fails to comply with OSCE/ODIHR-Venice Commission guidelines for legislation pertaining to religion or belief, and which contravenes fundamental democratic principles such as equality under the law and the right to due process.


The challenge of introducing a tiered classification system


Any tiered system for classifying religious communities inevitably raises questions concerning equality under the law. The essential characteristic of a tiered system is that it treats religious communities differently, granting privileges to some groups that it denies to others. But the right of religious freedom, including the right to the group-differentiated expression of religious belief, is held by all persons equally. The question therefore becomes: how can the unequal treatment of different religious groups be reconciled with the legal equality all citizens enjoy under the law?


Although the Hungarian government has not been altogether clear in providing answers to this question, one can, I think, discern in some public comments the outlines of an argument that goes something as follows: The right of religious freedom consists of an essential minimum that is protected by Hungarian law. Extending rights and privileges that go beyond the basic minimum, however, is a matter for political discretion. Thus, if the state wants to distinguish between churches and religious organizations, it can do so provided this differential treatment does not impinge upon the essential minimum guaranteed by the right of religious freedom. In Hungary, the argument goes, religious organizations enjoy the essential minimum; established churches enjoy privileges that go beyond the essential minimum. So Tamás Lukács, chair of a parliamentary committee on human rights and a member of the government coalition party, has stated that no religious community has a “subjective right” to be recognized as a church, even in circumstances in which that community meets the criteria for recognition laid down in the law. This is because, in Lukács’s view, whether or not the government bestows recognition as a church on a religious community is a matter purely for political discretion. Indeed, according to one press report, Lukács told the committee of human rights which he chairs that acquiring church status was not a matter of “right, but of grace.”[1]


Yet even if one grants that the state can differentiate in its treatment of religious groups under some circumstances, the proposition that differences in treatment need no justification whatsoever is preposterous. The state cannot distinguish between religious communities willy-nilly, favoring some groups over others on the basis of, say, the prime minister’s personal preferences. All religious citizens are entitled to equal treatment under the law, and therefore the associations those religious citizens form are also entitled to equal treatment. Differential treatment of religious communities can be justified only as the byproduct, or social outcome, of the equal treatment of their citizens.


A few brief illustrations may serve to illustrate the ways in which equal treatment under the law allows space for certain kinds of differential treatment. Imagine a state that decides to support the religious aspirations of its citizens by providing direct subsidies to the religious communities in and through which citizens pursue those aspirations. Equality under the law means those subsidies need to be accessible in principle to everyone. At the same time, the state might well decide to distribute its subsidies proportionally in ways that provide larger sums to larger communities. It might also reasonably establish a minimum threshold for receiving financial support. But in these cases the differences in subsidy correspond to legitimate social differences among the religious communities. That is, the different treatment arises from a process that begins by treating all citizens equally. To use another example, the state may decide to extend tax exemptions to clergy, property, or activities of religious communities. The principle of equality under the law requires that these exemptions be offered in a neutral way to all religious groups,[2] although again, the extent of the benefits will correspond to the size of a religious community.


In the case of the Hungarian law, however, the different treatment of established churches and religious organizations does not correspond to a principle of proportional equality, nor does it consistently reflect objectively different social circumstances. Established churches receive certain types of direct subsidy, regardless of size or kind of activity, which religious organizations, regardless of size or kind of activity, do not. The salaries of clergy in established churches are tax exempt, but those of clergy in religious organizations are not. Furthermore, the law treats the two groups differently as concerns rights of religious practice. The different rights enjoyed by established churches and religious organizations would therefore seem to arise from differences in the underlying posture the Hungarian state has adopted toward different groups of people. In other words, the state is discriminating against certain of its citizens.


Further evidence of this discriminatory posture can be adduced from the way Act CCVI of 2011 was implemented. Introducing a tiered classification of religious groups into a legal structure where those groups had previously been treated equally proved impossible without disregarding basic rights and legal principles. Hungary’s new religion law recognizes 27 established churches. At the time the law went into effect, all other previously recognized churches were stripped of legal personality. As a result, their leases, their contracts with utility companies, and any other legal relationships they had were voided. Deregistered churches were also informed that they needed to secure recognition as a civil organization to avoid having their property liquidated by the state. Given that OSCE/ODIHR guidelines for legislation concerning religion caution against retroactive provisions and re-registration procedures, the problematic character of this deregistration process should be obvious.[3] Even so, I would like to call attention to some distinctive aspects of the Hungarian case.


In Hungary, deregistered communities were essentially compelled to seek legal personality under threat of losing their assets. This would appear to violate OSCE/ODIHR guidelines, which indicate religious communities should not be required to seek legal personality. However, OSCE/ODIHR guidelines also recognize that certain legal benefits properly attach to legal personality. Thus for the Hungarian government to require religious communities to acquire legal personality in order to own property or enter into contracts would seem compatible with European guidelines. The problem is that Hungary’s deregistered communities had already entered into legal relationships as churches. Retroactively stripped of rights they had once acquired, they were told to apply for the same rights again as a different kind of entity. Many deregistered religious communities have reported to me that the process of registering as a civil organization required making institutional changes that violated their religious conscience. Although perhaps in a strict sense these groups were free not to apply for legal personality, the choice to exercise that freedom would certainly come with a cost.


As a matter of due process and equal treatment, we should note that the 27 established churches recognized by the law were not required to apply for that status in accordance with the new recognition procedure laid down in the law. If the purpose of Act CCVI was to wipe the slate clean, so to speak, by establishing a completely new procedure for recognizing churches, then all of Hungary’s religious communities should have been deregistered and made to apply for the new status according to the new requirements. However, the churches currently recognized received their status as part of the legislation that brought the religion law into effect. Act CCVI of 2011 undid twenty years of established legal practice, but did so unequally, exempting some religious communities from its draconian measures. Once again, therefore, the state adopted a fundamentally unequal posture toward different groups of citizens, discriminating against some of them.


An arbitrary registration procedure


Yet further evidence that Hungary’s tiered classification system is discriminatory can be adduced from the legal procedure established by the law for conferring the status of established church. Even if the government’s expert on human rights, Tamás Lukács, were right that religious organizations do not have a subjective right to receive church status, the citizens belonging to those religious organizations certainly do have a subjective right to due process under the law. Thus any justification of Hungary’s tiered system must show, at the very least, that the citizens of all religious communities have an equal opportunity under equal circumstances to secure recognition as a church. Judged by the standards of equal treatment and due process, however, Hungary’s religion law falls egregiously short.


In many cases, the actual classification of specific religious communities into the categories does not conform clearly to the requirements of the law itself. Some religious communities on the list of established churches do not appear to meet the conditions for recognition, while other communities appearing to meet those conditions have been excluded. The list of established churches therefore appears arbitrary. To demonstrate this, I need only discuss a few of the numerous (and we should add parenthetically, burdensome) conditions for recognition.


According to the law, a religious organization applying for church status must demonstrate either (1) that it has been operating internationally for at least 100 years, or (2) that it has been operating in Hungary for 20 years and that its membership reaches 0.1% of the total population.[4] Let us consider this second condition first, particularly the requirement that a religious community’s membership reach 0.1% of the population. According to the 2011 census, Hungary’s total population is just below 10 million inhabitants (9,937,628). Thus, a religious community with a membership reaching 0.1 percent of the population would have approximately 10,000 members. This number arguably contradicts OSCE/ODIHR guidelines against high membership requirements.[5] Based on the most recent census data, only 6 of the 27 established churches in Hungary have 10,000 members or more. Thus, insofar as the current list was established according to the conditions enunciated in the law, the majority of those groups were recognized not on the basis of condition (2), but because they conform to condition (1).


Condition (1) requires a religious community to have been operating internationally for at least 100 years. The law stipulates further that a religious community must demonstrate international operation by meeting one of three, additional conditions. It must (a) provide “a certificate issued by churches that have church status in at least two countries and have the same confession;” or it must (b) provide “a certificate of membership in an association issued by churches, church associations that operate in at least two countries and have the same confession;” or it must (c) provide “a certificate issued by a world church that has member churches in at least two countries.”[6]


Condition (b), which provides for membership in international associations, seems to be written with a view toward Protestant churches, which often belong to international ecumenical organizations. Most of those ecumenical organizations are, however, less than 100 years old. The World Methodist Council, for example, was formed in 1931, the Lutheran World Federation in 1947, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 1970. Membership in one of these ecumenical organizations, therefore, would not demonstrate 100 years of international operation. Currently in Hungary there exist two separate Methodist churches. The smaller one is legally recognized, the larger is not. One possible explanation for this might be that the smaller church belongs to the World Methodist Council; except the World Methodist Council is less than 100 years old. This Methodist church is also affiliated with the United Methodist Church based in America, but the United Methodist Church was established only in 1968. Meanwhile, the unrecognized Methodist church in Hungary, called the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, has recently demonstrated a membership of more than 10,000.


Condition (c) provides for member churches of a world church. The clearest example of this might be the Roman Catholic Church, although the various Orthodox churches recognized in Hungary would probably also qualify under this provision; so also would the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), which is recognized in Hungary. However, other groups which clearly meet this condition are excluded. The Armenian Apostolic Church, which has a presence in Hungary and which is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, is not on the list of established churches. The Unification Church, present in Hungary, would also qualify under this condition. Admittedly, the Unification Church is not 100 years old, but as we have seen, that did not seem to matter in the case of the Methodist church.


Condition (a) provides for churches with the same confession existing in at least two countries. This condition seems quite similar to condition (c), but perhaps it was written with sister churches in mind, rather than churches with a single international organization and leadership. Perhaps the Seventh-Day Adventists, who are recognized, would fit under this condition, as would the United Methodists – if the United Methodist Church were 100 years old. But again, churches which appear to meet this condition have been denied recognition. For example, a Pentecostal church in Hungary (Isten Gyülekezete Egyesült Pünkösdi Egyház) affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church, International has so far been denied church status, even after producing a signed and notarized certificate from the American leadership of the church, as the law requires. The response of the relevant government minister, Zoltán Balog, has been to request that the United Pentecostal Church, International produce evidence that it is legally recognized in two countries.


On the other hand, several of Hungary’s established churches would seem to have trouble meeting any of the conditions just discussed. In calling attention to this, I do not mean to suggest these groups should not have been recognized, I merely wish to point out inconsistencies in the application of the law. One of the most perplexing instances of a recognized church is the Transylvanian Congregation (Erdélyi Gyülekezet). The Transylvanian Congregation is a group that broke away from Hungary’s Reformed Church in the 1990’s. It may be barely 20 years old, but it almost certainly does not have 10,000 members. Given its unique mission to ethnic Hungarians, the likelihood that the Transylvanian Congregation shares an identical confession with churches recognized in at least two countries also seems low. One is left to wonder, therefore, why this group is included among the established churches, especially when many other religious groups with a greater presence in Hungary have been excluded.


The explanation for these inconsistent applications of the law is to be found in one of the law’s provisions, according to which a church can only be recognized by a 2/3 majority vote of Parliament. Since nothing binds members of Parliament to respect the conditions for recognition laid down in the law, the list of recognized churches need not conform to those conditions. Indeed, according to Tamás Lukács, Parliament need not recognize a religious community as a church even when it meets all the conditions in the law, because recognition is a matter of political discretion rather than subjective right.


However, everyone has a right to due process. As the Venice Commission noted in its report on Hungary’s religion law, a provision that grants Parliament exclusive authority to bestow recognition on religious groups cannot be viewed as complying with the standards of due process of law.[7] Nor can such a provision satisfy the right of effective remedy, which, as the OSCE/ODIHR guidelines remind us, is a right “rooted in general rule-of-law conceptions” and embodied “in a number of international norms.”[8] Insofar as Parliament’s decision is both arbitrary and final, religious groups unfairly denied recognition have no avenue of legal appeal.


Serious concerns about due process and the right to effective remedy were at the core of a ruling by Hungary’s Constitutional Court that struck down significant parts of Act CCVI of 2011. The Court ruled that the recognition procedure carried out under the new law did not afford unrecognized groups due process and legal remedy, and, therefore, the Court restored the legal status of numerous deregistered communities. The response of the Hungarian government was to amend the constitution and the religion law so as explicitly to allow Parliament political discretion in determining which religious groups to recognize as churches. By explicitly granting Parliament a right of discretion, these amendments also give Parliament the constitutional authority to ignore the conditions for recognition laid down in the law. Nor did Parliament choose to change the list of established churches in light of the high court’s ruling.


Instead, the Hungarian government responded to concerns about legal remedy by introducing a passage into the religion law that allows religious communities to appeal their rejection by Parliament before the Constitutional Court. That is, a rejected religious community would ask the high court to review Parliament’s specific decision to deny it church status. However, since both the Basic Law and the law on religion allow Parliament to exercise political discretion in determining which religious groups to recognize as churches, it is hard to envision a scenario in which the Constitutional Court could ever overturn a decision by Parliament. If Parliament has a constitutional right to enact arbitrary decisions, the Court cannot strike down Parliament’s decision for being arbitrary. Rather than provide for legal remedy, the constitutional amendment has effectively removed it.




In seeking to rebut international criticisms of its religion law, the government of Hungary tries to describe its tiered classification of religious communities as a common European model, a system analogous to that in other democratic countries. However, the numerous problems with the law that I have outlined above call this analogy into question. Indeed, most of the problems with the Hungarian law originate in the way its classification system differs from those found elsewhere in Europe. In other European countries, tiered classification systems are the result of historical development, reflecting compromises achieved over time between national histories and a growing acknowledgment of the right of religious freedom. The defining characteristic of Hungary’s religion law, by contrast, is its effort to repeal historical developments by revoking rights previously held by Hungary’s citizens and reducing the scope of religious freedom. From the point of its inception, to the moment of its implementation, and through its continuing application, Act CCVI of 2011 has been discriminatory in ways that raise justifiable concerns not only about the state of religious freedom in Hungary, but also about the rule of law itself.





[1] “Állami kegy az egyházi statusz” Népszava online February 10, 2012 (

[2] See Guidelines for Review of Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief, OSCE/ODIHR, adopted by the Venice Commission, June 2004, page, 16.

[3] Ibid, page, 17.

[4] Act CVII of 2011, 14. § “The Parliament recognizes a religious organization if c) it has operated for at least ca) a hundred years internationally or cb) twenty years in an organized fashion as a religious community in Hungary and has a membership equalling at least 0.1 percent of the population of Hungary. „14. § A vallási tevékenységet végző szervezetet az Országgyűlés egyházként ismeri el, ha…c) legalább ca) százéves nemzetközi működéssel rendelkezik vagy cb) húsz éve szervezett formában, vallási közösségként működik Magyarországon és Magyarország lakosságának 0,1 százalékát elérő taglétszámmal rendelkezik”.

[5] Guidelines for Review of Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief, page, 17.

[6] Act CCVI of 2011, “14/A. § (1) A 14. § c) pont ca) alpontja szerinti nemzetközi működést a) legalább két országban egyházi státusszal rendelkező és azonos hitelveket valló egyházak által kiállított igazolás, b) legalább két országban működő és azonos hitelveket valló egyházak, tagegyházak szövetsége által a szövetségi tagságról kiállított igazolás, vagy c) legalább két országban működő részegyházakat összefogó világegyház által kiállított igazolás alapján kell megállapítani.”

[7] Opinion 664/2012 European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission), paragraphs 76-77.

[8] Guidelines for Review of Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief, page 13.

HUNGARY: Methodist church leader calls government decision “discriminatory”

14 01 2014

Pastor Gabor Ivanyi celebrating mass at pastor celebrates mass at the Church of Reconciliation of Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.

By Benjamin Novak / BUDAPEST BEACON

Students attending the John Wesley Theological College will no longer qualify for state educational grants according to Gabor Ivanyi of the Evangelical Fellowship.  The Department of Education’s decision to deny government scholarships to those attending (or wishing to attend) this esteemed institute of higher learning is the latest in a series of government measures targeting the Hungarian Methodist Church.  Ivanyi calls the decision “discriminatory”.

In addition to theology, the John Wesley Theological College offers programs in social work and minority outreach.  One of its faculty members, Zoltan Balog, was appointed state secretary for minority affairs in 2010 and presently serves as Hungary’s Minister of Human Resources (to which the Department of Education belongs).

In addition to the John Wesley Theological College, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship operates 25 schools in 18 impoverished villages and towns around Hungary, providing education for over 3,000 children who would otherwise not be able to attend school.

In 2011 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was stripped of its status as a state-recognized religion. Widely criticized at home and abroad, the 2011 Law on Religion provides for only state-recognized religions to receive government funding of any kind.

Since then the government has stripped the Methodist church of state subsidies with which to fund its various social programs and facilities, including homeless shelters, refugee housing, and retirement homes.

Towards the end of 2013 the government required the Methodist church prove its “legitimacy” by collect endorsing signatures from all of its members.  After the church collected twice the required number of signatures, the government appointed a committee of three ‘religious scholars’ to determine the “theological legitimacy” of the church. The scholars’ identities have not been made public and the committee has yet to issue its findings.

If the committee finds the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship merits legal recognition, the matter will be forwarded to the Parliamentary Committee on National Security to determine whether the church poses any kind of national security threat. If it passes that stage of approval, a plenary session of Hungary’s Parliament will vote on the fate of Ivanyi’s church. In order for the church to regain the status it enjoyed from the late-1970’s until 2011, two-thirds of the National Assembly would need to vote in favor of granting the church a ‘recognized’ status.

Ivanyi officiated at the marriage of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and also christened two of his children. Ivanyi also buried the father of National Assembly Speaker Laszlo Kover. When Queen Elizabeth visited Hungary in the early 1990s she met Ivanyi and visited Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship’s homeless shelter on Danko street.   A photograph of Ivanyi with Her Majesty the Queen of England, adorns Ivanyi’s Danko street office.

Pastor Ivanyi Gabor

Pastor Ivanyi Gabor

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.


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.”


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.

OSCE MEETING 2013: Report on Hungarian Law on Churches and its implications on freedom of religion

24 09 2013
Plenary Session of the annual meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, September 24, 2013, Warsaw, Poland.

Plenary session of the annual meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, September 24, 2013, Warsaw, Poland.



 September 2013, Warsaw, Poland


 By Jura Nanuk, Forum Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF-Europe)
Coordinator for Central & Eastern Europe

Current Hungarian legislation seriously violates numerous standards and recommendations of European and UN human right bodies regarding freedom of religion.

Jura Nanuk, President of Central-European Religious Freedom Institute and FOREF Europe Coordinator for Central & Eastern Europe, submitting report on religious freedom in Hungary at OSCE plenary session.

Jura Nanuk, President of Central-European Religious Freedom Institute and FOREF Europe Coordinator for Central & Eastern Europe, submitting report on religious freedom in Hungary at the OSCE plenary session, September 24, Warsaw, Poland..

In summer 2011, Hungarian Parliament adopted the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion and the Legal Status of Churches, Denominations and Religious Communities (in further text: Law) which stripped hundreds of religious communities from their status of recognized churches. Only fourteen communities – 12 Christian and two Jewish – were granted the right to keep their status.

All other religious communities in Hungary were forced to undergo an absurd and highly arbitrary re-registration procedure which, amongst a whole range of barriers, included a final obstacle of being voted on by the Parliament, as to whether each group is a religious organization or not.

Such procedures could hardly be much further away from international human rights standards and academically accepted determinations of what constitutes a religion.

The fact that only fourteen religious communities were automatically granted the status of religion by the new law, but Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and hundreds of Christian denominations have been rejected – clearly shows how arbitrary and discriminatory the law was.

 Although the original arbitrary list of 14 churches was latter extended due to increasing international pressure, it is clear that the Law and the consequent Amendments on the Constitution still don’t guarantee the freedom of religion.

Providing that the religions can even overcome the administrative barriers and meet the arbitrary standards that were imposed on them through standards made up by government committees and imposed by civil servants, they will only be finally accepted if they can get a 2/3 majority vote by Members of the Parliament. As a journalist of Hungarian daily newspaper Népszava noted in an article about the Law, “Gods are sitting in the Parliament and will be able to decide what is a religion and what is not”.

Nine Hungarian churches which lost their church status – three reformed Jewish communities and six Christian denominations – filed a claim to European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg after exhausting all available domestic legal remedies (ECHR Application no. 70945/11, Hungarian Mennonite Christian Church and Jeremias Izsak-Bacs against Hungary and 8 other applicants). At the present, the case is still ongoing, prolonged by several changes of the Law as well as latest Amendments on the Constitution which demanded further clarification from the Hungarian Government and responses from the claimant churches.

It is interesting to note that the Law was twice rejected by Hungarian Constitutional Court, but both times Hungarian Government managed to uphold it with questionable legal maneuvers. First time, in December 2011, after Hungarian Constitutional Court rejected the Law based on a procedural mistake, the Government withdrew it, and submitted the same Law just a few days latter with minor changes, none of which contributed to religious freedom.

Next time, in February 2013, the Constitutional Court again rejected the Law, on the basis that the Law failed to stipulate that detailed reasons must be provided when a request for the church status is refused, no deadlines are specified for the Parliament’s actions, and no legal remedy is offered. The Court also stated that granting church status by parliamentary vote can result in political decisions. Hungarian Parliament then decided to incorporate parts of the Law in the Constitution itself. This unheard of manoeuvre rendered Constitutional Court unable to examine the Law, as the Law was technically incorporated in to the Constitution itself, so it cannot be said that it is unconstitutional.

This move didn’t pass unnoticed and Hungary was again receiving harsh criticism for violating fundamental rights. In June 2013, the Venice Commission of Council of Europe in its report regarding the parts of the Fourth Amendment concerning religious communities, stated among other things the following:

“The Venice Commission is worried about the absence in the Act of procedural guarantees for a neutral and impartial application of the provisions pertaining to the recognition of churches.”

 “According to the latest information at the disposal of the rapporteurs, Parliament adopted a Bill of Recognition on 29 February 2012, with 32 recognized churches. It is entirely unclear to the rapporteurs and to the outside world, how and on which criteria and materials the Parliamentary Committee and Members of Parliament were able to discuss this list of 32 churches, to settle the delicate questions involved in the definition of religious activities and churches supplied in the Act, within a few days, without falling under the influence of popular prejudice.”

One in a series of arbitrary criteria that religious communities must satisfy before they are voted upon by Parliament, is the request that they don’t represent any threat to national security. Churches which would be rejected because they would allegedly represent threat to national security, would not be informed why they are considered as a threat or what should they change or improve, and they would have no legal remedy available.

Such “national security” criteria is in direct contradiction with 2004 OSCE Guidelines for Review of Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief, prepared by OSCE/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, adopted by Venice Commission. In the Guidelines it is clearly stated that “’national security’ is not permissible limitation under European Convention on Human Rights article 9.2 or International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights article 18.3”.

Just ten days ago, the 5th Amendment on the Constitution was accepted by the Hungarian Parliament which was supposed to handle the criticism of the Law and the 4th Amendment. Hungary’s State Secretary of Justice, Robert Repassy, announced that the government would adjust the recent, highly controversial amendments to the country’s Constitution adopted by the Parliament in March 2013. Repassy admitted that the modifications contained in the 5th Amendment of the Constitution were initiated as a result of pressure from the European Union and various human rights organizations, which had criticized the March 2013 revisions as violating certain fundamental rights.

It is obvious is that the Government didn’t introduce any measures that would improve the situation of the religious freedom in Hungary. The 5th Amendment was nothing but a failed attempt to make it seem as if Hungary had listened to its critics while actually not changing anything.

In the recent report about the 5th Amendment on the Law, Human Rights Watch stated the following:

“The Hungarian government’s largely cosmetic amendments show it’s not serious about fixing the human rights and rule of law problems in the constitution It’s come to the point where the European Council and the European Commission need to make clear there will be consequences for Hungary, and to move from talk to action.

“While allowing any religious group to refer to itself as a “church,” the amendments do not address the discrimination against churches the government has not recognized. A parliamentary committee, instead of an independent body, confers recognition, which is necessary for a church to apply for government subsidies.”


We demand that the degree of freedom of religion in Hungary is restored to its pre 2011 level and that the legislation concerning freedom of religion in Hungary is adjusted with European and UN guidelines and recommendations.

We believe that the legislation violating fundamental human rights should not be ignored as it can serve as dangerous precedent and a bad example that other countries in the region might follow.


To see this report in OSCE database, click here.


Hungary shows determination on constitution

8 03 2013


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.

Hungary’s Top Court Overturns Controversial Church Law

1 03 2013

By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest for Radio Vatican

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Hungary’s top court on Tuesday, February 26, overturned controversial religious legislation that dramatically reduced the number of recognized churches, but the government threatened to challenge the ruling with constitutional amendments.

0012xsUnder the recently adopted ‘Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and
Religious Communities’ only 32 of over 300 faith groups in Hungary received formal recognition by Parliament to operate as churches.

However the Constitutional Court said the law failed to “stipulate that detailed reasons” must be provided when a request for church status is refused.

It also complained that “no legal remedies” were provided to those being refused church status and said granting church status by parliamentary vote “could result in political decisions”.

Hungary’s center-right government argued that the ‘church law’, as it also known, aims to prevent abuse of Hungary’s tax regulations and related legislation.


The court ordered Parliament, however, to establish new rules “to filter out groups” that claim to be churches but do not carry out religious activities.

Formal recognition gives churches tax-free status, qualifies them for government support and allows them to collect donations during services and do pastoral work in jails and hospitals of this heavily Catholic nation of some 10 million people.

Hungary’s Ombudsman Máté Szabó, an elected official for civil rights, had asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the law amid concerns the legislation violated religious freedom and the constitutional separation of church and state.

Jura Nanuk, the founder and president of the Central-European Religious Freedom Institute in Budapest welcomed Szabó’s legal challenge.

“There are things in this law that are contrary to many international recommendations on such laws. I believe it is a very good thing what the ombudsman did, I appreciate what he did,” Nanuk told BosNewsLife.


Critics claimed the European Union’s most restrictive church bill only served the interests and ideology of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The EU and the United States have also questioned the legislation and Orbán’s perceived crackdown on previously independent institutions.

Some evangelical Christians and former democracy activists compared the legislation to Hungary’s Communist-era when religion was discouraged.

Szabó said earlier that the concerns expressed by faith groups prompted him to launch the legal challenge. “…Freedom of religion makes it indispensable that the decision on the recognition of the church, on rendering the religious status meets all guarantees protecting fundamental rights,” he stressed.

While Tuesday’s outcome came as a moral victory for churches, including several evangelical congregations, trial observers cautioned that Prime Minister Orbán wanted to use his Fidesz party’s super-majority in parliament to change the constitution it passed in 2011.


Among the proposed changes included in the constitution — or Basic Law as it is known in Hungary — would be Parliament’s right to decide which churches are officially recognized. That would make it impossible to challenge the legislation, and effectively bypass the ruling of the Constitutional Court.

Recent policies have already impacted churches. “Many of the churches which lost their status last year have disappeared or have turned themselves into associations,” said lawyer Szabolcs Hegyi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union in published remarks.

“The government’s good will and assistance would also be needed to restore the churches’ rights and that is far from being the case.”

Szabó has made clear he hopes Hungary’s legislature will uphold religious rights for all churches. “On the basis of the principle of separation of power the Parliament cannot exercise tasks, during which it makes political decisions affecting fundamental civil rights, without having appropriate constitutional guarantees,” he said in an earlier statement obtained by BosNewsLife.

News of Tuesday’s ruling came a day before EU President Herman Van Rompuy was due in Budapest to meet Orbán in an attempt to ease tensions.

HUNGARY: The Ombudsman turned to the Constitutional Court because of the provisions of the Law on Churches

13 08 2012

BUDAPEST, August 13, 2012 – According to the opinion of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights the legal provisions regulating the recognition of churches are in contrary to the principle of separation of power, to the right to fair procedure and to the right to legal remedy. After analysing the initiatives of many religious organisations Szabó Máté turned to the Constitutional Court.

The Ombudsman finds the provision contrary to the Fundamental Law, which not considering the constitutional principle of separation of power among government branches allows the Parliament to decide by itself and  on church status recognition without the right to an appeal.

The close relation to freedom of religion makes it indispensable that the decision on the recognition of the church, on rendering the religious status meets all guarantees protecting fundamental rights. If it is at the discretion of the decision-maker to give the religious status, then the aspects of deliberation have to be regulated by Act. The Act lacks such principles and provisions. The refusal should be reasoned, but the Act also lacks the requirement of reasoning in case of refusal. Thus we would never learn the reason of the refusal – stated Szabó Máté. Legal remedy has to be guaranteed against the decision on church status and the current regulation lacks it.

The Ombudsman emphasises that on the basis of the principle of separation of power the Parliament cannot exercise tasks, during which it makes political decisions affecting fundamental civil rights without having appropriate constitutional guarantees.

Source: Hungarian Commissioner for Fundamental Rights


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