Cardinal Laws: Law on Religions and Religious Communities

Actually, the official title of the law is a bit longer: "Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Communities." It was passed on Tuesday, July 12, at 1:00 a.m. Zsolt Semjén, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party officially in charge of the fate of the bill and a devout Catholic, called it "a legislative masterpiece." There are others, however, who have a rather different take on it.

The Institute on Religion and Public Policy claimed that "the Hungarian Parliament resurrected the Soviet past with the adoption of Europe's most restrictive religion law." The founder and chairman of the organization, Joseph K. Grieboski, seemed to be surprised. He had worked with Viktor Orbán recently on the new Hungarian constitution and "expected much more from him." Grieboski considers the law "a danger to all Hungarian society and a terrible indication of the state of democracy in the country."

The leaders of evangelical churches think that the new law is "the greatest discrimination against evangelical Christians since the fall of Communism…. During Communism we were oppressed and persecuted, but we didn't expect the same from a so-called 'Christian' government."

So, what happened exactly? The Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), which is an organic part of Fidesz but with a separate parliamentary delegation, received the job of preparing five cardinal laws. Naturally, the law on religions and religious communities was assigned to them. A parliamentary committee was set up with a Christian Democratic chairman.

Ever since January they have been working furiously, and among other things they sent out questionnaires to different churches in Hungary asking them all sorts of questions. One of the questions inquired about the plans of the church in case it is not officially recognized. Which other recognized church would it name to take over its church members and its properties? Gábor Iványi, the head of the Methodist Church in Hungary, didn't answer the question. Soon enough he received a telephone call to the effect that he must answer all the questions, including the one concerning his flock and his church's property. Iványi naturally refused. Mind you, the Methodists didn't make the short list of fourteen recognized churches. The Methodist Church was stripped of its church status. Poor John Wesley and poor Ráchel Orbán, daughter of the prime minister, who was baptized at Iványi's urging as a Methodist in the early 1990s.

Over a hundred churches shared the same fate as the Methodists, the Buddhists, and followers of Islam. These churches have been retroactively stripped of their status as religious communities. Organizations that have been "de-registered" may not use the name "Church."

The original bill that the Christian Democrats put together would have recognized three levels of legal status. On the top would have been thirteen "recognized" churches with full privileges and then two other categories with lesser rights. The list would have been closed. No new churches could have been added to the original list.

About two hours before the final vote, to everybody's surprise, came János Lázár, the leader of the Fidesz delegation, with a practically new bill. Fidesz objected to listing churches in three different categories and to the closed nature of the list. In the original bill a church had to function in Hungary for at least twenty years and needed a minimum membership of 1,000. The time limit remained but the final bill didn't specify the size of the membership. In addition, the Fidesz amendment left the door open for future registration of religious organizations as churches. The most surprising and according to the opposition the most objectionable amendment to the bill was that "the competent authority to recognize a religious organization is … the parliament, with a two-thirds vote, rather than the courts or a ministry." No wonder that János Dési, a journalist at Népszava, wrote a short opinion piece about the bill in which he rather bitterly remarked that "Gods are sitting in parliament" who can decide what is a church and what is not.

Objections to the bill came early. Already in January, twenty-four members of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Committee on the Honoring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States (the Monitoring Committee) signed a motion for a resolution entitled "Serious Setbacks in the Fields of the Rule of Law and Human Rights in Hungary" which included references to the pending bill on religion.

Over the weekend American and European civic organizations published a statement in which they objected to the bill which would discriminate against smaller churches. They pointed out that the bill doesn't meet human rights standards. Moreover, the Hungarian thinking behind the bill–that "de-registered" religious organizations could continue to operate as "civil associations performing religious activities"–doesn't pass human rights scrutiny and ignores precedent from the European Court of Human Rights that ruled that "a tiered system offering an inferior religious status to minority faiths violates the right to religious freedom and the right to be free from religious discrimination." They mentioned the case of Jehovah's Witnesses v. Austria  (2008) where the state argued that their tiered law didn't offend religious freedom. This argument was emphatically rejected by the Human Rights Court on the grounds that the status of a "registered religious community" was inferior to that of a "religious society."

It is possible that the last-minute amendments to the original Christian Democratic bill with its three-tiered categorization of churches were introduced in order to avoid the kind of problem Austria faced in 2008 in Strasbourg. Similarly, the decision to allow churches excluded at present to apply at a later date was reached mainly in order to avoid problems in the European Court later.

A last-minute decision of Fidesz concerned the charismatic Assembly of Faith (or Faith Church as Hit Gyülekezete is translated into English). The original Christian Democratic proposal didn't grant church status to this rather large religious community. Perhaps Fidesz wanted to avoid excluding every evangelical church from the list of accepted religions, which surely would have been interpreted as a blanket discrimination against the evangelicals. Thus, instead of thirteen recognized churches originally proposed by the committee the final bill listed fourteen accepted religious organizations as churches. Over one-hundred others were stripped of their status. By including the Assemby of Faith, Péter Hack, a member of the church and a former SZDSZ member of parliament, could give an interview in which he claimed that any accusation that the bill discriminates against the evangelicals is incorrect.

Only time will tell whether with these amendments the Hungarian government will manage to avoid the kinds of problems Austria faced. However, the initial reaction is rather violent.


  1. Besides the “parliament gods” putting labels on people as they please what are the advantages and disadvantages of being a church (or not)? Obviously there is money, the government support given to the “good” churches. Then you cannot call your group a church if your are not first class (tier) believer. Funny. What if your are already a Church of Something. OK, is that it?
    I have the feeling the in practice all comes down to the moolah (despised by many religions). The government is practically buying votes.
    As I see it the churches should actually refuse to take anything from governments and just rely on their member’s offerings. This is the upside of this law. Those who are not accepted by the evil can stay independent. They should be proud of it. Also they should demand back a portion of their taxes, that is payed to other churches.

  2. This is weirdly fascinating stuff. Even my pro-Fidesz wife is puzzled by all this.
    Whatever else I may think of OV, I thought he was a pretty canny political operator, but this is classic ‘shoot yourself in the foot’/’blow up in your face’ stuff. He doesn’t have to do any of this, and it will almost certainly give him a lot of aggro he doesn’t need, so why is he doing it?
    And a list of permitted religions that doesn’t include Buddhists or Muslims??? Is Judaism on the list?!
    Actually, what IS on the list? Does anyone know? I’ve just been wracking my brain trying to come up with 14 religions and the best I can get is about 8 – and I allowed myself three flavours of Reform and two of Orthodox to get even that far!
    As for the “more than a hundred” that were excluded, that would be a truly fascinating list! Does it include the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Jedi Knights?

  3. Here is the list of the fourteen churches. I don’t think that I have to translate them:
    Magyarországi Katolikus Egyház, Magyarországi Református Egyház, Magyarországi Evangélikus Egyház, Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége, Egységes Magyarországi Izraelita Hitközség, Magyarországi Autonóm Orthodox Izraelita Hitközség, Budai Szerb Ortodox Egyházmegye, Konstantinápolyi Egyetemes Patriarchátus – Magyarországi Ortodox Exarchátus, Magyarországi Bolgár Ortodox Egyház, Magyarországi Román Ortodox Egyházmegye, Orosz Ortodox Egyház Magyar Egyházmegyéje, Magyar Unitárius Egyház Magyarországi Egyházkerülete, Magyarországi Baptista Egyház, Hit Gyülekezete.

  4. Thanks, Éva – makes you realise just how many schisms the ‘one true church’ has been through!
    Interesting (from a UK perspective) that the evangelists, Baptists and Unitarians have made it, but not the Methodists. I think it would have been quite the other way round here.
    Three flavours of Judaism, but no Muslims – very last century!
    And no Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses? Two churches I wouldn’t want to upset, if I were Orbán.

  5. Thank you for the 14 names
    Now the parliament can take time to filter out the 2 or 3 dangerous groups working under the name of religion. Groups with nothing to hide can continue without money from parliament or ask for registration

  6. off topic /is it really?/:
    Where does it all end or begin?
    PS: Here is what Andras said:
    He may very well be right under the circumstances /Gyurcsany Feri is saying something similar./
    I personally think that deeper thinking is necessary. However: FDR, Joe and Winston managed to smile through four long years.
    It didn’t “work” but it did the job.
    One can always take “a long hot bath afterwards” /Sergio Leone: Once upon the West/.
    Peter Litvanyi

  7. According to my dictionary:
    fundamentalism (1922) 1a: a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpredet Bible as fundamental to Christian liefe and teaching b: the beliefs of this movement. c: adherence to such beliefs 2: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.
    If it is correct to name Hit Gyülekezet as fundamentalis, then according to point 2 also the catholic and other Christian churches are fundamentalist.

  8. @Iain, can the 14 “authorised” churches filter out the dangerous politicians working under the name of democracy and strip them of office, so they also have something to do in the meantime?

  9. Paul: “Three flavours of Judaism, but no Muslims – very last century!”
    I think Eva likes that one.
    But I’m with you Paul.
    “And no Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses? Two churches I wouldn’t want to upset, if I were Orbán.”
    Jehova’s Witnesses are an insignificant sect in Hungary.
    I’m quite outraged the “Hit Gyülekezete”, this destructive business sect made it. It is not any better, if not worse, than the Scientologists, extremely damaging to the society, spreading hate and collecting money. They as a church?! Give me a break!

  10. “Yes, I thinkHit Gyülekezet are better described as a charismatic order.”
    Hitler was “charismatic” too.

  11. @ Szilárd
    Hitler was “charismatic” too?
    Erm… that word, like many others, has two meanings…

    (embarrassed cough)

    And, much as I despise Hitler and everything he stood for, starting sentences with “Hitler was …” (vegetarian/nice to dogs/a failed artist/moustachioed/etc) truly is the number one call sign of the intellectual pigmy.
    What is your point exactly?

  12. “What is your point exactly?”
    Do you really want me to elaborate something so clear?
    My point is that Hit Gyülekezete is “charismatic” in approximately the same way Hitler was.

  13. No its not clear Szilárd do you mean
    1. Of, relating to, or characterized by charisma.
    2. Of, relating to, or being a type of Christianity that emphasizes personal religious experience and divinely inspired powers, as of healing, prophecy, and the gift of tongues.
    Dropping Hitler into this debate is pretty low. Even by your fellow party member’s estimation the Holocaust was the second biggest tragedy of the 20C.
    Or is there only room for one regime-spanning demagogue in Hungary?

  14. “My point is that Hit Gyülekezete is “charismatic” in approximately the same way Hitler was.”
    Right. Same way as Orban is. Touche !! 🙂
    In case of the HT the term refers to the Charismatic Movement.

  15. To Peter Litvanyi: “One can always take “a long hot bath afterwards” /Sergio Leone: Once upon the West/.” Once Upon a Time in The West Claudia Cardinale referring to women sleeping with the enemy to save herself. Great movie!

  16. I maybe mistaken but isn’t Faith Church is a pentacostal church? AM I mixing things up? I it is the one “movement” I am thinking o,f they have over 60000 people just in Hungary, and their own school I believe. THey have a the 1% tax donations, and they are very much in the top 5 churches as far as donations go.
    I am not sure if it is the government’s duty to sort out what way one can worship the Almighty, and what way they can follow their bible. I mean if there is something illegal, I can see them not recognizing that particular church (abuse, tax evasion, money laundering, endangering the lives of others and so forth), but as long as the books (financial) are out in the open and they do not engage in illegal activities, the government should stay out of it as much as we want the church to stay out of the government.
    I am lost on the charismatic thing… Since I am a non-believer, for me all church would qualify as charismatic. People go there for many reasons, and in spiritual sense charisma is the gift of the Almighty, and often the sign of it is the halo. In a non-personalized (bit still spiritual) sense, something that is charismatic could be because of the gift of the Almighty.

  17. Ms Balogh — a few words from you, please, on the differences between “cardinal” and other laws. Thank you.

  18. “Cardinal laws” to be changed needs two-thirds majority. So, they are almost impossible to undo because it is a very rare occurrence that a party manages to get so great a majority.
    In Hungarian they are called “sarkalatos törvények.”

  19. I believe these zealots like Semjén will have special reception at the Pearly Gates. Peter will reach for his white iPhone and text God: “Boss! Another one!” “B RIGHT DOWN”. Semjén will rejoice first. God personally will thank him … then the shock comes: God is a gipsy women from Slovakia! And what about those steel toe boots? Then she’ll take him up to the top of a cumulonimbus and go: “Look SOB what you did” and kicks him in the rear. “Now you can go to heaven!”
    1 Matt 13:182

  20. I wonder what Mrs. Clinton, a life-long Methodist, would have thought of this law, had she known that it did not allow her church to be called a church in Hungary? Or George H.W. Bush, also a Methodist, or Margaret Thatcher, born a Methodist (and an adult convert to Anglicanism, also not on the list)?
    And what if Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman, both Mormons, gets the GOP nomination for the residency in 2012?

  21. It would be a very interesting idea if somebody could write a list of all of the potential cases which could brought by Hungarians before the Court of Human Rights. We know of plans for individuals who have had their pensions ‘nationalised’ to bring such cases.
    I find it amusing to think that my Queen who is head of the Church in England is disestablished by the Hungarians, as am I. How mighty is the ‘Mighty One’. He with some 9.8 odd million Hungarians can tell the 57 million ‘Brits’ how and where to worship –if they do.
    The old matey in Rome must have given him a ship load of Pardons

  22. Thank you — from sarok, then, I suppose, as in sarokkő, then, the stone that is the head of the corner, without which the house falls.

  23. Elme bajos: you are right. Next to those wholesale cheese prices all worldly problems pale.

  24. Yeah – about time Éva did a piece on wholesale cheese prices.
    Such a serious omission cannot be tolerated.
    Typical left/liberal apologist, ignoring the scandalous wholesale cheese price situation. I bet OV has got it sussed and firmly under control.

  25. Dear “Some 1”:
    Thanks for spelling out the exact reference. With age we tend to be more and more sloppy.

  26. Mutt, great article, thanks for sharing. I would be surprised if Schmitt would not sign it, except if Orban would make a huge fuss about how they will rethink the issues in the name of clarity, blah, blah, blah.

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