Open letter on the oppression of freedom of religion in Hungary

For those of you who are perhaps unfamiliar with this distinguished list of names, the signatories to this letter are the still living members of the small group of people who put up resistance to the one-party dictatorship of the Kádár years. Their numbers were never large, but they were the ones who put out samizdat publications, held “flying universities” in the apartments of the writer István Eörsi and László Rajk, the architect son of the possibly most famous victim of the Rákosi regime, and opened boutiques where samizdat literature could be purchased. Some of them had been jailed earlier as political prisoners–for example, Imre Mécs, who after the 1956 revolution was first condemned to death, a sentence later commuted to life imprisonment.

These people belonged to the best of what Hungary could offer at the time toward the establishment of a democratic regime that would follow János Kádár’s Hungary. They were the conscience of the nation. Their words should be taken seriously.

At the end of the open letter I include a photograph taken in 1993 at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the new democratic Hungary. The picture was taken when the Queen visited Gábor Iványi’s Methodist Church, which was stripped of its church status by the new law on religion. Gábor Iványi stands to the right of Queen Elizabeth. On her left you can see Miklós Haraszti. Both are signatories to this letter. Well, if this church was good enough for Queen Elizabeth, I wonder on what grounds Viktor Orbán’s government thought it unworthy of recognition.

* * *

Open letter on the oppression of freedom of religion in Hungary
from former Hungarian political dissidents
to the Human Rights Commissioners of the European Commission and the Council of Europe

Viviane Reding

 Vice-President of the European Commission, Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship

Thomas Hammarberg

 Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights 



Budapest, 8 August 2011

Dear Vice-President Reding,

Dear Commissioner Hammarberg:


The undersigned, participants of the erstwhile human rights and democracy movement that opposed the one-party communist regime in the 1970s and 1980s, request you to take resolute action in defence of freedom of religion and other fundamental liberties that are currently in great danger in Hungary.

On 12 July 2011, based on a draft presented just two hours before the vote, Hungary’s Parliament passed a law on churches that deprived more than 100 religious denominations of their church status.

In blatant disregard of Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, only fourteen denominations were allowed to retain their recognition as churches and the rights that come with it.

In breach of democratic standards separating church from state, the law declared that, in the future, the authority to recognize churches will be a vote by the political parties sitting in Parliament.

The fourteen denominations that were allowed to retain their registration are the Roman and Greek Catholic Churches, the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Lutherans, the Calvinists, select Jewish denominations, the Hungarian Unitarians, the Baptists, and the Faith Church.

Among the churches that were discriminated against are, to mention only a few, Hungary’s Methodist, Pentecostal, Adventist and reform Jewish churches; the Salvation Army and Jehovah’s Witnesses; and all the Islamic, Buddhist, and Hinduist congregations.

Not only were these communities pushed into a pariah status overnight, but all of their social, healthcare and educational services were stripped of their lawful subsidies.

Many of the now de-registered churches have been leaders in social services for the homeless, the elderly and the poor. They have provided assistance for tens of thousands of persons in need, including the Roma, inmates, children and young people. Withdrawing their subsidies leads the way to a social disaster.

Several of the cast-out churches have been running successful middle and higher education schools which now will be denied accreditation.

This unabashed violation of freedom and equality of religions is paired with an open about-face from the separation of religious and political institutions that was achieved in our democratic transition twenty years ago.

In the future, all the now-ostracized churches as well as all new ones will have to request recognition from a government minister, who will “evaluate” their religious creeds. Such requests will also have to obtain authorization from the secret services. If the minister chooses to consider the request, it will be sent to Parliament, where the sitting political parties will decide whether church status should be recognised. A positive result will necessitate a two-thirds vote.

The right to judicial overview is denied in this process. Any religious group that has been in existence for less than twenty years is automatically excluded from recognition. In violation of privacy rights, at least one thousand citizens have to personally sign each submitted request.

Dear Commissioners Reding, Hammarberg:

Never before has a Member State of the EU so blatantly dared to go against the principles of freedom of beliefs, equality before the law, and separation of church from state. These are all established fundamental rights in our common Europe.

In the 1970s, under Soviet domination over Eastern Europe, all we could do in similar situations was to hold vigils at worship sites that had been shut or demolished.

We fought for a Europe that is united under human rights. Have our hopes been in vain?

The passage of this law is only the latest disturbing example of the many serious setbacks in human rights and the rule of law that have occurred recently in Hungary.

We sincerely hope that, after studying Hungary’s new Church Law, you will start an official inquiry into this violation of the rights that are possessed by all Europeans.

Yours sincerely,

Attila Ara-Kovács, journalist

György Dalos, writer

Gábor Demszky, former Mayor of Budapest

Miklós Haraszti, former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media

 Róza Hodosán, former MP

 Gábor Iványi, pastor

 János Kenedi, historian

 György Konrád, writer

 Ferenc Kőszeg, Founding President of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee

 Bálint Magyar, former Minister of Education

 Imre Mécs, former MP

 Sándor Radnóti, philosopher

 László Rajk, architect

 Sándor Szilágyi, writer on photography

 Gáspár Miklós Tamás, philosopher

Forwarded by László Rajk,

  Queen Elizabeth


  1. They’re all Communists, Liberals, Hungary Haters and Jew lovers, though. So we can safely ignore this.
    Isn’t that right, JB?

  2. Count me in on this fight.
    Church and state are two separate entities.
    All “faith” based entities as long as they abide by the law of the land are to be treated/ taxed/ protected equally.
    What part of this is not clear to some?
    Peter Litvanyi
    atheist/ reform jew and zen buddhist

  3. On July 14th 2011 there is an item in this blog called “Cardinal Laws: Law on Religions and Religious Communities”
    In it our hostess reports that ** “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.”
    She 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.”
    Hum Ho what now? On the 31st July 2008 the European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgement in the case. You can read it here
    In their judgement the ECHR ruled on the length of time taken in the Austrian court was in one case excessive.
    Now I know that the ‘Mighty One’ and ‘Johnny Boy’ will tell the ECHR to keep their noses out of the Sovereign State of Hungary as it is a cardinal law and none of the ECH’s business and any way the proceedings for a religion to obtain recognition under Hungarian will take many hundreds of year.
    Johnny Boy I hope that your ‘BUNK-O-MATIC (© Mutt Damon MMXI) has been fitted with a three speed as you will have to ‘Go a Bit’ on this one!

  4. It’s all very well to go on about the EU ruling this and the ECHR ruling that, but what matters is what happens afterwards. Does the ruling have any real power, is the offending law changed?
    I can’t find anything about this on the net – plenty about the decision, but nothing about whether or not Austria complied, and if they did so fully.
    We all know how OV will react to any outsiders making judgements on Hungary, but it would be nice to know if the EU, ECHR, etc actually have any meaningful power – or can the offending country just ignore them and nothing happens?
    I’m still trying to find out if Hungary actually changed the media law in the light of EU criticisms, but no one seems to know even something as recent and relatively minor as that.
    If it turns out that the effect of these rulings depends entirely on the country concerned feeling an obligation to change their laws, then we all know what effect all this hot air will have on Hungary.
    The only time OV listens to criticism is if money is concerned, so perhaps the only way to put pressure on him is for companies investing in Hungary to make it clear that their continued investment depends on Hungary remaining democratic and human rights being respected.
    But who is the main investor chosen by OV? The last time I looked the Chinese weren’t too worried about democracy or human rights.
    Face it, unless the EU, US, etc have real powers we are so far unaware of, OV is free to do what he likes.

  5. Does anyone knows what kind of relationship Orban had with any of the signatories for the last 25 years also? I mean did he ever worked together with any of these people? Are any of these people member of the Fidesz or what party are they members of? Why?

  6. Some1: “Does anyone knows what kind of relationship Orban had with any of the signatories for the last 25 years also? I mean did he ever worked together with any of these people?”
    Very close in the first few years after 1989. Fidesz then was considered to be something like the youth organization of SZDSZ. After 1993 the relationship soured especially when Gábor Fodor, the second most important man in Fidesz, left the party and joined SZDSZ.

  7. @Peter Litvanyi
    atheist/ reform jew and zen Buddhist
    “Count me in on this fight.”
    Congratulations! You are enlisted. Please report to Paul(Debrecen, in front of Hotel Arany Bika) next Sunday after church service. He will have a cache of paper bags ready to blow up and scare the ugly Government away.I am also sure that the signatories of above letter will join the fight as well.
    Till then just watch the US national debt grow.

  8. Thank you, Ms Balogh. Not being in Hungary — where I could proclaim myself a congregant at a “non-church”, and engage in civil disobedience — I can only deplore. Which I do. But… what good does that do?
    Do you have any observations that address Paul’s comment? Without sanctions to apply, and applied!, as he points out, the EU can “view with alarm” all that it likes.. and nothing in Hungary will change. Indeed, what DID happen in Austria?
    The church has always been strongest when it has stood against the state, not with it. (I am not comfortable when the signatories to this letter whine that various religious groups have been deprived of their “lawful subsidies”. The United States tradition of strict separation of church and state remains to be introduced to Hungary, it seems.) Perhaps good will yet come of this, as of a refiner’s fire.

  9. kormos: “scare the ugly Government away. I am also sure that the signatories of above letter will join the fight as well. Till then just watch the US national debt grow.” Well kormos, it is way more then you ever did or ever will do against the new communist party, called Fidesz in Hungary, so it is a breath of fresh air. People who actually speak up for others… hmm. I am sure that is new to you. As far as the US debt concerns, won’t you wish Hungary would have least tenth of the chance to come out of its own mess then the US? I certainly wish, but then again, I ant the best for Hungary.

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