The state of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: An exchange of views

Today I’m republishing an exchange of letters between György Hölvényi, a Christian Democrat who is a member of the Fidesz European Parliamentary delegation, and H. David Baer, associate professor at the Texas Lutheran University. The reason for the exchange was an article that appeared in The Economist entitled “A slippery Magyar slope.” The article was about the “ill-named law on ‘the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations and Religious Communities.’” Hölvényi, who before becoming a MEP was deputy undersecretary in charge of the government’s relations with churches, national minorities and civil society, came to the defense of the much criticized law. Since the article in The Economist was republished by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), Hölvényi sent his reply to that organization, which subsequently included it in its newsletter. Baer, an expert on Hungarian religious affairs, decided to respond. His reply was also published in HRWF’s newsletter. I thought that this exchange of letters, which shines a light on the Orbán regime’s attitude toward religious freedom, was worth republishing.

First a few words about György Hölvényi. He comes from a devout Catholic family. His father was a Cistercian priest who eventually left the order and married. The young Hölvényi became involved with the Christian Democratic movement and in 1989 was one of the founders of the Christian Democratic Union. He spent many years in Brussels serving the parliamentary delegation of the European People’s Party in various capacities. As a result, his name was practically unknown in Hungary. That changed in May 2012 when he was named assistant undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s Ministry of Human Resources.

Prior to that date the post was occupied by László Szászfalvi, who was a Hungarian Reformed minister just like Balog himself. Apparently the Catholics in the Christian Democratic Party raised a stink: two Protestant ministers were at least one too many. A Catholic must be found. Szászfalvi had to depart and came Hölvényi.

In the most recent elections for the EU parliament Hölvényi was number 12 on the Fidesz list. The party had to do very well for Hölvényi to get to Brussels. One reason for his low rank on the list was that certain positions were reserved for ethnic Hungarians from Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. But the size of the Fidesz victory was such that he made it, and now he is a member of the new European Parliament.

The article in The Economist pointed out that “getting recognition as an ‘incorporated church’ required a two-thirds majority in Parliament. So what should be a simple administrative decision was turned into a political one, in which legislators have to assess the merits of a religion…. As a result of the law, at least 200 religious communities, including Methodists, Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists, Reform Jews, Buddhists and Hindus faced a downgrading of their status…. In February 2013, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that 67 groups had been deregistered unconstitutionally. However the government seems to have ignored the ruling. A government ministry rejected the written requests of at least four deregistered bodies to be added to the list of incorporated churches.”

Gábor Iványi, one of the victim's of the Orbán regime's church law

Gábor Iványi, one of the victims of the Orbán regime’s church law

With this introduction here is the exchange of letters. First, György Hölvényi’s letter written immediately after the appearance of the article in The Economist. David Baer’s letter was published only a few days ago in the HRWF newsletter.

 * * *

Response to the Erasmus blog post “A slippery Magyar slope,” September 25th 2014

The recent post of The Economist’s blog Erasmus on religious freedom in Central Europe (“A slippery Magyar slope”” by B. C., September 25th 2014) makes several misleading statements and offers a rather personal interpretation of the existing legal regulations on churches in Hungary.

Basic aspects on the registration process of churches have not been detailed in your blog post. Firstly, all associations dealing with religious activities are registered solely by the courts in Hungary. A politically highly neutral system. These communities operate independetly from the state, acoording to their own principles of faith and rituals.

The blog post makes references on “incorporated churches” in Hungary. It is crucial to know that the category of “incorporated churches,” as you call it, does not affect religious freedom at all. It is simply about financial aspects such as state subsidies for churches running social activities for the common good of the society.

It must be pointed out that many European countries apply legal distinctions between different religious organisations for various reasons. Quite often it is the Parliament who is entitled to grant them a special status (e.g. in Lithuania, Belgium). Besides, there are a number of European countries where the constitution itself places an established religion above the rest of the religious communities (e. g. in Denmark, Finland, Greece, Malta). For the record, it needs to be mentioned that the Parliament is involved in special recognition processes of the churches at different later stages also in Austria, Denmark, Portugal or Spain. In general, the European Union leaves the rules on the foundation of churches in the Member States’ competence.

As the post correctly recalls, the original Hungarian regulation on churches of 1990 was probably the most permissive in Europe. Uniquely in the world, more than 300 registered churches operated in Hungary for decades, enjoying the widest range of financial entitlements provided by the state, with no respect to their real social activities. The amended Church Act provides for a complete freedom of conscience and religion in Hungary, at the same time it eliminates errors of the uniquely permissive regulation.

When looking at international commentaries of the issue let us focus on the facts again. The relevant opinion of Venice Commission on the issue of religious freedom in Hungary stated that the Hungarian regulation in place “constitutes a liberal and generous framework for the freedom of religion.” The resolution of the Constitutional Court in Hungary referred to in your blog post did not make any reference to the freedom of religion in Hungary. On the contrary, the government’s intention with the new legislation was widely acknowledged by the Court. The US State Department’s report on religious freedem of 2013 does underline that the Fundamental Law and all legislation in Hungary defends religious freedom. Facts that have been disregarded by the author of your post.

Last but not least, the alliances of the non-incorporated churches in Hungary recognised and declared in a joint statement with the responsible Hungarian minister that they enjoy religious freedom in Hungary.

In contrast to the statements of your article, incorporated churches in Hungary include the Methodists: the United Methodist Church in Hungary is a widely recognised and active community in Hungary, as well as internationally. The fact is that Mr Iványi’s group has not been included in the UMC itself and is not recognised at all by the international Methodist bodies. Describing it as a “highly respected” church is again a serious factual mistake, reflecting a lack of information on the issue.

Coming finally to the issue of the European Court on Human Rights’ decision: some of the member judges formed special opinions to the appeal of the affected churches. Although the Hungarian government is challenging the decision, at the same time it started negotiations with the appealing communities on the remedy process.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend that your blogger B.C. pay wider attention to the facts to better understand regulations on church affairs that have been in place in Europe for decades and centuries.

Member of the European Parliament for Hungary / EPP Group

 * * *

H. David Baer’s reply:

Mr. Hölvényi writes to defend a church law that the ECtHR has found to breach the European Convention and which the Hungarian government refuses to amend.  He would thus have us believe that religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom even as they are not protected by the rule of law.

Mr. Hölvényi urges that we stick to the facts. The fact is that in 2011 the government of Hungary retroactively “deregistered” religious communities already recognized as churches under Hungarian law.  The fact is that in 2013 Hungary’s Constitutional Court found this deregistration procedure unconstitutional.  The fact is that after 2013 the government of Hungary blatantly ignored the Court’s decision, refusing to treat unconstitutionally deregistered religious communities as legal churches.  The fact is that in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary’s unconstitutional church law also violated the right of religious freedom and the European Convention.  The fact is that the Hungarian government has still not, as of this day, acted to abide by the European Court’s decision.

Mr. Hölvényi knows these facts, because prior to being an MP in the European Parliament he was the state undersecretary responsible for dealing with the churches in Viktor Orbán’s government.  As undersecretary, Hölvényi worked closely with Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Capacities, to obstruct implementation of the Constitutional Court’s decision so as to deny deregistered religious communities their constitutional rights. Just this past month, Péter Paczolay, the president of Hungary’s Constitutional Court, lamented openly in a public address that the Court’s decision on Hungary’s church law had never been respected or implemented.  Mr. Hölvényi bears direct responsibility for this.  Thus, to listen to him aver that Hungary’s deregistered churches enjoy religious freedom is a little like listening to a man caught stealing his neighbor’s shirt and pants aver that his neighbor has the freedom to wear underwear.

Religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom the way NGO’s in Hungary enjoy freedom of association. Denied equality under the law and subject to opaque regulations, deregistered religious communities, like unpopular NGO’s, are subjected to arbitrary and expensive audits, hindered or prevented from raising money, attacked in the government controlled media, and harassed by local officials.  Mr. Hölvényi, a member of the European Parliament, should know that when citizens aren’t equal under the law they aren’t equally free.

Instead of defending Hungary’s indefensible church law, perhaps Mr. Hölvényi should encourage the government of his country to respect the rule of law, uphold its international commitments, and abide by the European Convention.

David Baer
Texas Lutheran University


  1. Monika Lamperth, MSZP said that Szanyi only got to the European Parliament due to a dirty deal with Attila Mesterhazy. There was an internal MSZP power struggle.

    Szanyi promised not to attack Mesterhazy and to muffle the sound of the internal opposition, and in exchange he got 8000 EUR per month cushy job in the EU parliament as MEP. Now Tibor Szanyi, in the EU as a result of this deal, invites Goyim Motorcyclists to Brussels from EU money because he lost a bet. And later calls journalists “rats” who ask about this uncomfortable issue. Last year Szanyi called Ferenc Gyurcsany a “Bolshevik billionaire” who is an “idiot” and it is impossible to build a future with him.

    If Hungary wants to progress somewhere first the opposition must be cleansed from such people as Tibor Szanyi. How can we expect voters to support people who act in this way? What voters need to see is punishment for bad behavior in even small cases, then they can believe that MSZP will punish bad behavior when elected into government.

  2. I guess David Baer is not a diplomat. Gangsters deserve this kind of direct answers. Not that they care…

  3. There is religious freedom in Hungary but that is a separate question from how the Orbanist regime treats the different religious communities and that is the question completely unanswered by Mr. Hölvényi.

    And to say that the Constitutional Court, loaded as it is with Orbanist poodles, is a neutral arbiter in such matters is clearly nonsense.

  4. The constitutional “court” is a joke.

    It’s hardly anything more than a Fidesz party branch (pártalapszervezet as they called it long time ago).

    The judges are one thing, but their clerks are even more partisan, if that’s possible at all.

    Any mention of this “court” which even implies that it is independent is propaganda perpetuating a myth.

  5. I just realized the Monika Karas, currently head of the Media Authority used to be Arpad Habony’s private attorney.

  6. Did the biggest Fidesz-accepted churches raise their voice against the discrimination of the other churches or denominations?

    Catholic Church – No (Church mouthpiece KDNP is in the government)
    Calvinist Church – No (represented in both the Fidesz government and Jobbik)
    Lutheran Church – No (their lay leader Prőhle is in the government)

  7. Those large churches are terrified of Gábor Iványi, because his work is just too Christian for them.

  8. Zsolt Molnar, the fidesznik/national security agency puppet sitting as formally an MSZP member of parliament as head of the national security committee asked the government whether the barring of American nazis from entering Hungary to attend a neonazi conference was similar to the present case?

    This is the opposition that will get rid of Orban. Oh my, yes, MSZP surely will.

    Janos Lazar intimated that the Americans need not worry, it is not a question of values that we support Russia over Ukraine (like cutting the gas flow to Ukraine or Paks 2) but of pragmatism.

    (Needless to say, the Russians projects will go on and the Americans should get lost.)

  9. Nowhere in this discussion was there a mention of the fact that early in 2012 nineteen religious communities (including the United Methodists — but not Reverend Ivanyi’s congregation) were added to the list of “privileged” churches. To what extent this development affects the debate on the equality and freedom of the churches in Hungary is open to differing views. My information for this cames from the website of the United Methodist Church in Hungary. Nandor

  10. @Dreisziger

    First, the Orban government placed only 14 denominations in the privileged list in July 2011. This was amended in December 2011 to 31 denominations.

  11. Nándor. We who have been following the ups and downs of the church law know what happened. See Tappanch’s comment above. But this does not change anything. Adding a few more churches to the list makes not the slightest difference as far as the unconstitutionality of the law is concerned.

  12. Time schedule, according to Acting Ambassador Goodfriend:

    October 6: He explained the meaning of the executive order #7750 to undersecretary of foreign affairs Levente Magyar.

    They also notified the banned government employees.

    October 13: He discussed the issue with foreign minister Szijjártó at the minister’s request.

    [October 16: Portal, which is close to Fidesz, discloses the issue to the public.]

    There are 6 people close to the government or inside the government that were banned.
    The issue is not a joke, in spite of Antal Arrogan’s statement. US did not want to make it a media event. He did not comment on the news that the corruption is related to sunflower production and trade.

  13. @Goodfriend’s press conference. Very serious warning. If the antidemocratic trend continues it will be impossible for the United States to treat Hungary as an ally.

    “Ha ez a trend folytatodik, elérhet egy olyan szintet, ahol az USA számára már nem lehet Magyarországgal együttműködni, mint szövetségessel.”

  14. OT – Joëlle Dufeuilly, the main translator of Krasznahorkai’s works (among other Hungarian authors) into French, has just been awarded the translation prize of the Société des Gens de Lettres. Her next published translation will be that of Krúdy’s A vörös postakocsi.

    While the reputation of the Hungarian Gov’t has never been so low in Europe, the esteem in which Hungarian-language writers are held has rarely been so high. And no, by ‘writers’ those damn Foreigners don’t mean Cécile Tormay or István Csurka.

  15. How would most countries react if the USA banned the head of the tax authority on the grounds of corruption? It would be a most astounding scandal. If the accusation is true, then immediately and decisive action would have to be taken against the tax authority. If the accusation is untrue, then the USA has made an outrageous accusation and immediate and decisive action would be taken against America.

    And yet nothing is happening in Hungary, except embarrassed (and clearly feigned) puzzlement, Even the opposition, who in this case are almost certainly entirely uninvolved, don’t seem to realise just what an extraordinary accusation this is. Incredible…

  16. Orban couldn’t care less, he will rather lead Hungary out of NATO, even out of the EU before he backs off.

    Giving in to American pressure is absolutely off the table.

    Orban is scared only of Putin, but he’s not scared of the US at all.

    The US doesn’t have any leverage over Orban, whereas Putin has the tap, Putin will sign the new natural gas contract affecting the all-important rezsi, has the list of agents from pre-1990 (and after), and has all the info about assorted currently ongoing energy deals which involve Orban and his strohmen. These are like half a dozen potentially existential deals for Orban if properly prepared by Russian political/media ‘advisors’, whereas the US has practically nothing, only this toy-list, whoa, so some six people out of 10 million can’t travel to the US. Like Orban should care.

  17. Eva there are so many things happening in relation to the travel ban that I look forward to reading your summary of all of this. As of a short while ago I became aware of András Horváth, a former NAV inspector, interview with Népszava. He indicated that Hungarians attempted to corrupt two U.S. multinational companies (a wholesaler and another one that also produces), that were the buyers of a local grains trading company which operated an “invoice factory”. He claims the latter firm was involved in VAT frauds amounting to billions of forints, but on an order superior the NAV investigation was called off.

    I assume we are talking possibly about Cargill, Inc. which bought Agribrands in Hungary, and Archer Daniels Midland Company which bought Alfred C. Toepfer International. Toepfer operates inland, river, and export facilities in Hungary. The Fidesz crooks really took on the wrong players with these two companies, they are two of the three largest grain trading firms in the world and are very big players here in Chicago and Illinois.

    There are several excellent books about these companies including Dan Morgan’s “Merchants of Grain,” and the more recent book by Brewster Kneen titled “Invisible Giant: Cargill and its Transnational Strategies.”

  18. @István, a cogent summary of the events will not be easy. The Hungarian government brought all this on itself by leaking disinformation about NAV investigation of certain American companies to Századvég’s newly acquired paper, Napi Gazdaság.

  19. Eva as always I am sure you will do an excellent job in summarizing massive amounts of detail that are coming out today.

    On an entirely different issue of a more historical nature. A story which appeared on the AP website today explains a lot to me about a few emigrations from Chicago’s Hungarian American community back to Hungary around 1989 and 1990 of suspected former Arrow Cross members and at least one member of the 25th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Hunyadi (1st Hungarian). I have commented on this issue in the past on this blog.

    In late October 1944 after the Szalasi regime took power in Hungary, the details for the creation of a Hungarian Waffen-SS were finalized by 24 November 1944. The Waffen-SS was to train and equip four infantry divisions of Hungarians as a solid base for the reestablishment of the Royal Hungarian Army. (The formation of the first had already begun on 2 November, and it took the patriotic name, “Hunyadi.” It was formed around Honved veterans, civilian volunteers, and the latest group of conscripts. First collected in Hungary, the division relocated to Neuhammer, Silesia, in late November 1944. On 27 November 1944, 800 men were killed and another 650 wounded in an American air attack on the train in which they were being transported. The division, still in training and awaiting most of its authorized equipment, evacuated Neuhammer on 8-9 February 1945, leaving behind two combat-ready battalions. These saw heavy combat up to 14 February before rejoining the division, which relocated to Bavaria, and then to Austria by the end of the war. The division surrendered to American forces after sporadic combat with American advance units.

    It appears that in 1989 after an extensive investigation by the US government a number of Germans, Croats, Romanians (including Hungarian speakers), and other Central Europeans including Hungarians who falsified the history of their service in support of fascism during WWII were found out. They were given the option of leaving the USA and retaining their social security benefits overseas without a trial. According to the article a number took that option.

    You can read the story at

  20. HiBoM,

    “It would be a most astounding scandal. If the accusation is true, then immediately and decisive action would have to be taken against the tax authority.”

    By whom? The Mafia Regime?
    No chance, the Hungarian State is corrupt and immoral from its very head right down to its very roots and the idea that Orban would permit any element of his State to be dismantled on the grounds of corruption is laughable.

    However, if true, then it puts the EU and especially those concerned with funding and keeping afloat the Orban Kleprocracy in a very embarrassing position. Or, at least, you would hope so,

  21. @Istvan
    “two U.S. multinational companies (a wholesaler and another one that also produces), that were the buyers of a local grains trading company which operated an “invoice factory”, a firm involved in VAT frauds amounting to billions of forints”

    Thank you very much for this information Istvan. Now from your description, these American companies were associated (“buyers of”) with an invoice factory, that committed billions in VAT fraud. As associates of an invoice factory, and firms directly benefiting from TAX fraud these American companies were definitely very interested in avoiding tax investigations into their own finances.

    In light of these new information it is 100% certain that there were tax investigations against major American companies, who tried to lobby to have these investigations go away.

    So Goodfriend definitely lied about there not being any investigations against US companies.

  22. @toth
    Perhaps you need to read one more time what you just quoted, before draw your conclusion based on miscomprehension:

    “two U.S. multinational companies (a wholesaler and another one that also produces), that were the buyers of a local grains trading company which operated an “invoice factory”, a firm involved in VAT frauds amounting to billions of forints”

    This is the “local grain trading company” which were associated with the “invoice factory” – it quite clear from the text, you should see too.

    You might give another try to comment, will you?

  23. Toth your logic escapes me, the NAV investigation was of the Hungarian “invoice factory” firms not Cargill, Inc. or ADM assuming those US firms are the correct ones. The US firms were not the ones involved in VAT frauds amounting to billions of forints, it was the Hungarian firms. Cargill and ADM are so big they would not even consider VAT fraud as a possible revenue source, they operate in grain deals in massive lots and make their money at the international level of prices differences of fractions of cents along with their storage capabilities.

    I recommend you read the two books I cited relating to these massive firms.

  24. From Atlatszo on the bribe attempt:

    Rough translation of two key paragraphs:

    “Two independent sources which I believe to be reliable also claims that actor close to the Hungarian government demanded bribes from two American companies in exchange for tax discounts and for changing the VAT rate. The bribes, allegedly around two billion HUF, should have been paid in the form of contracts for research and analysis through a foundation close to the government.

    The offered deal allegedly also included that NAV (the Hungarian tax office) would impose fines on the companies’ competitors (in the billions), thus significantly weakening the competition and giving significant market advantage to the Americans . Since the company was not giving in to blackmail, NAV began to squeeze them , so they finally notified their government about the whole issue. The fact that top leaders of NAV are blacklisted is in line with this version.”

    Also, the american companies have been trying to get the government to lower the VAT on certain products to DISCOURAGE the widespread fake-invoice schemes, but the government was not cooperative at all.

  25. Istvan, what is your opinion on the recent preliminary agreement between Ukraine and Russia? It is a trade deal about Ukraine buying many billion dollars worth of natural resources from Russia and trading with Russia.


    This is plain ridiculous. Orban’s government is stonewalling, and is not giving in under any circumstances. Only hopeless wishful thinkers (who are new to this blog and have not been following the recent Hungarian events) can think that Orban will crack.

    Won’t happen and for a bunch of reasons.

    But you know what, in the very very end, Orban will give a little in political terms totally meaningless gesture, a token of action so as to show goodwill towards DC. That’ll be all. Americans have more on their hands than Budapest.

    Keep calm Fidesz says, this will blow over like the trafimutyi or the NAV ‘scandal’. Nothing will change at all.

    The Americans really have two options in the world. Either they can use the drones and bomb, and that may work or they can do whatever else they want and it won’t change a thing.

    There are no scandals, only media hype for a couple of days. Lazar and co are all well trained to wait this out and they will. This would only crack the szocis.

    This is a story in a limited range of opposition media, as usual and most people have no clue or don’t care. They just don’t get it why is this such a big deal? No visas to some fact cats when there’s no work in Borsod or the gasoline price is down 20% this year? These things matter, as the recent elections show.

    It’s another matter that the opposition cannot say a word. Have you heard Együtt or DK or MSZP pounding the table as Fidesz would do? No, they are clueless and are just too bored and lazy and perfectly coopted.

  27. Sanctions-busting (from a comment in another blog)

    Russia — Switzerland —- Hungary — Ukraine

  28. KTP I think the agreement had better be more detailed than the 12 point Minsk Protocol which was agreed to by the Ukraine because their military had effectively been destroyed or surrounded by combined Russian and separatist forces. The reason for this military defeat was a direct intervention by Russian Federation forces, combined with incomprehensible bad tactics by the Ukrainian forces.

    Judy Dempsey ( ) wrote this of the deal KTP is discussing: “Putin also said Russia was prepared to reduce Ukraine’s gas debt by $1 billion to $4.5 billion by retroactively offering a lower gas price. Kiev would have to pay up front and not by credit. Since the country is strapped for cash, the EU is expected to step in. This price offer shows the arbitrary way in which Russia prices its energy and uses such prices as political pressure. The more dependent a European country is on Russian gas, the more Moscow can threaten it. That is why Europe needs to wean itself off Russian energy as quickly as possible.”

    I liked that KTP, so I think it gives you an idea of what I think of the deal.

  29. @locker room
    While I agree with your assessment regarding Orban and his pets, just imagine how this kind of “news” can motivate potential investors to put their money – and faith – in Hungary and its corrupt leaders, and the end of the day this is what really matters.
    As the Russians have their plate quite full at the moment, not to mention the restrictions imposed by the EU, the effect could be rather sobering, don’t you think?

  30. Thanks for your reply Istvan. I think we can all agree that Ukraine considers itself not a friend but an enemy of Russia and yet even they are making trade deals with Russia for the benefit of their population. From this I think it follows that just because a country has trade with Russia ,it does NOT mean it “loves Russia” or is “pro-Russian”.

    About 7-8 years ago there was an idea of a new gas pipeline called Nabucco, that would have offered an alternative gas supply but it was never built. It would have been a great benefit to Hungary and countries in a similar position.

  31. @KTP

    re: Nabucco

    I believe that the Russkies went out of their way to make deals with gas/oil producers NOT to ship through Nabucco. If it had been built, there would have been no suppliers…

    Russian strategy, anyone?

  32. “This is a story in a limited range of opposition media….”

    And in RTL. Is it now classified as “opposition media”?

  33. Not sure if the Budapest Business Journal also qualifies as “opposition media” but this an interesting report:

    “When German carmaker Audi stopped work at its plant in Győr in August, sending Hungary’s production numbers into a tailspin, it was Germany flexing its economic muscle in response to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s dissatisfaction with Hungary’s government – dissatisfaction she discussed with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in talks this month, reported Saturday.”

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