church and state

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.

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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.

HÖLVÉNYI György
Member of the European Parliament for Hungary / EPP Group

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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
USA

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The risk of political Christianity: An interview with Tamás Fabiny, Lutheran bishop

Gábor Czene of  Népszabadság conducted an interview with Tamás Fabiny, bishop of the northern district of the Hungarian Lutheran Church. Fabiny was ordained in Erlangen, Germany in 1982. He also studied in the United States. In addition to his church activities he worked for Duna TV. Since 2010 he has been the vice chairman of the Lutheran World Federation.

The Lutheran Church is the smallest of the three most important Hungarian congregations, after the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed Churches. To my mind the Hungarian Lutherans have the most enlightened views on many issues, including the topics Bishop Fabiny is talking about here.

* * *

– We hear you are an eager fan of the football club Fradi – or at least you were in your childhood. Do you still attend matches?

– Hardly ever. But when the Fradi fell out of the first division, I went to their match as a demonstration. I felt an obligation to be there. I even wrote an article for the Lutheran weekly on the ability to lose. That we don’t always have to win. That a loss also has a lesson to teach.

– As for the state of Hungarian football today, that article will be appropriate for a long time. What do you think of the stadiums being built nowadays? For example, in a small village called Felcsút they are building an arena for 3500 spectators.

–I am astonished. I understand if the Prime Minister likes football and I can even imagine that he wants to prove that a small town can also have big dreams. But I just read that a match at the Puskás Academy was attended by only a hundred people. I support the founding of football academies in the country. With such a luxury investment, it would have been better to show some restraint.

– During the former socialist government, you said you could hardly wait to be the critic of a conservative government. With that, you not only expressed your demand for political change but also preserved the right of criticism. At a conference last spring you already warned about the risks of “political” Christianity.

Bishop Tamás Fabiny

Bishop Tamás Fabiny

– The conference was organized by young Christian Democrats and I had the feeling that they didn’t expect such an attitude from me. No problem. If I would always say what is expected of me, I would lose my credibility. Political Christianity refers to a situation in which those in power try to exploit the churches in a paternalistic way. When they want to use the churches as a tool for reaching their own goals. I cannot accept from any party, not even from a mayor to treat us as their natural partners and demand political support from the churches. We have to cooperate with everyone to create a common set of values but we are not “natural partners” of anyone. The churches suffered enough during the dictatorship when they were expected to support the state without criticism. Luckily, even at that time there were some people who resisted. We mustn’t forget that the churches also experienced a lot of humiliation and unjust exclusion during the governance of the present opposition parties. On the other hand, we cannot deny that the churches themselves try to flirt with the powers-to-be from time to time. If there were a healthy financing system of churches in Hungary – which is not the case now – they wouldn’t be forced to have constant financial negotiations with the government. I am thinking of a transparent and reliable financing system which would remain unaffected by political changes. Not what some people are saying, namely that the believers should keep up the churches. That is ridiculous. Just as if someone said that the Hungarian State Opera should be financed from the ticket income of the friends of the opera. Churches are not only carrying out tasks in education and the social sphere but also their spiritual work could have a healing effect on the society.

– How deeply are the parties immersed in political Christianity?

– All parties show some signs of the phenomenon, but Jobbik is the most outstanding example. The vocabulary and the ideas of Jobbik and the way they are using the most important Christian symbol, the cross, for political purposes is clearly blasphemous. But I am just as unhappy about the cross appearing in the party image of the Christian Democratic Party. I also do not rejoice when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán starts his speeches with “dear congregation” and ends them with “Soli Deo Gloria”. It is good if he thinks like that as a private person, but it shouldn’t be brought to a government level. The late Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) had an infamous slogan: “My kingdom come!” I criticized them just as I criticized a poster of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) at the time of the first free elections in 1990. This one said: “Thy kingdom come!” In my opinion, MDF was the more blasphemous of the two. The liberal party at least uncovered itself, showing how egocentric they are. But the other example, taking the biblical phrase in its original form, mixed up Hungary with the kingdom of God. But no more about political parties. I didn’t leave anyone out, did I?

– Yes, you did. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP).

– Speaking of that crew, I could – maybe a bit unjustly – refer to the whole era of communism…

– Let’s not go into that. We should just speak about the MSZP today.

– Let me just mention the Democratic Coalition (DK), whose leader is only generating sympathy for political Christianity with his radical anti-clericalism. As I see it, he doesn’t understand a word of what I call public Christianity and which I hold as an undeniable right. Coming back to the socialists, their signing of the treaty with the Vatican didn’t lack political intentions either. I admit that they were also driven by righteous purposes but basically it was a deal. It was a way for the socialists to win over the Catholic Church.

– Your thoughts that were broadcast on the radio were published a few days ago as a book. At the presentation, before reading a piece called “The homeless Jesus” you referred to the newest regulations about the homeless as “painful and unjust”. I cannot recall though the churches having protested very actively against the criminalization of homelessness.

– We are not hypocrites: everyone knows that this is a complex issue. No one is happy—including me–when he steps out of his house only to see that someone has urinated again in front of the door. Yet, we try to help. My family and I take blankets or food to the homeless finding shelter at the bus stop near us. We are in the middle of preparing a Lutheran statement which basically says that prohibiting the homeless from dwelling in public places is not a solution. The institutional background needs to be developed. As long as there is no sufficient financing and infrastructure, it is meaningless for the mayor of Budapest or others in Parliament to say that there are attractive shelters in the city. Because there are not. It shouldn’t be possible to – or should I say, it is a sin to – criminalize the homeless, especially before we have provided them with sufficient provisions. But your question was why didn’t we protest more loudly. There were some interviews though, in which I and my colleagues working closely with the homeless expressed their opinion. I am proud of our pastor Márta Román Bolba who has spoken at several demonstrations. Together with the members of the group City for Everyone and with the homeless she participated in the civil disobedience action at the meeting of the Council of Budapest.  She did everything she possibly could. It is important to underline that she is not just a “tolerated” person in the Evangelical–Lutheran Church. On the contrary: she is fully supported by the leaders of our church. I wish there were more people like her. At the time of Advent, we have to specially emphasize this service of the church. It is not only deeds of charity but a testimony about Jesus: in his birth, God humiliated and lowered himself to the very deep. I would very much like this insensitive society to hear this radical theological message.

– In your book, you also write about a “sick church.” How serious is this illness and what is its nature?

– It is an illness in itself that we are divided by schisms although God created the church to be one. There are many symptoms. The church often appears to be lame: it moves with difficulty and is slow in its reactions. With Pope Francis, maybe even the big Catholic church will change in this regard. Another symptom is self-importance: the church thinks it always has a solution for every question. Luther makes a clear differentiation between the theology of the glory and the theology of the cross. Smaller neo-Protestant groups often think that success is a blessing from God and that the extent of success shows our proximity to God. Therefore they cling to power as if the place of the church would be on the glorious side. However, Luther teaches that the church has to stand beside the suffering, those on the periphery, the underprivileged and the outcasts. The church is also ill because it has many unsettled issues. One of those is the secret agent issue.

– Unlike the Catholic and the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church started to reveal its past with a great intensity. Then the process seems to have stopped.

– We haven’t stopped at all. Seemingly there was a break of two years, but during this time exhaustive background work was accomplished. The synod of our church decided that the past of the church leadership has to be explored first. In a few weeks, a sizable book will present full documentation about the lives of two Lutheran bishops, Zoltán Káldy and Ernő Ottlyk.

– Were both of them secret agents?

– Yes. But it is an interesting comparison as it will be visible what a difference there is between one agent and another. You can even compare how they reported about the same event. Zoltán Káldy used the code name Pécsi, Ernő Ottlyk was Szamosi. But it wouldn’t be proper to say more about the details before the book is published. I don’t want to excuse either of the two. But it is true that Zoltán Káldy – helped by signing an agent’s mandate – tried to implement his own ideas about church leadership. Ernő Ottlyk was seeking his own benefit in a distasteful manner, causing real injury to others. As for my personal involvement: I was ordained by Bishop Káldy. In 1983, before travelling to Canada on official business they tried to recruit me. I called my father in a perplexed state. Bishop Káldy was the only other person whom I told what happened. To my great astonishment and joy, he also found it natural that I shouldn’t cooperate. If they approach me once more, I should say I don’t want to work with them and this is also Bishop Káldy’s message, he said. And so I did. They stopped coming to me and there were no unpleasant consequences.

– I was quite shocked to hear a Lutheran professor give a lecture on Luther’s anti-Semitism at a recent conference. How can you accept the fact that the “initiator of Reformation” had anti-Semitic views?

– It is not a pleasant topic to face but it would be even worse to hide it. We have to speak straight.

– Doesn’t it affect one’s faith?

– No. I don’t believe in Luther but in God. On the other hand, I cannot follow his example in this question but in other respects I still do. The Lutheran politician Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky also expressed anti-Semitic views in a difficult phase of his life. The great difference is that he was a racist in his youth and later became an anti-fascist. Unfortunately Luther followed a reverse order. Someone said once that it would have been better for poor Luther if God had called him out of this world three years earlier. It was only in the last three years of his life that he expressed anti-Semitic thoughts, not earlier. Of course he had some really unacceptable sentences.

– Even if they weren’t his own invention. He mostly drew on the texts of an earlier author.

– Although the context of the sixteenth century was different from today, a sentence like “set fire to synagogues” should not be written down at any time. In his earlier works, Luther speaks positively of the Jews. His later anti-Semitism casts a shadow over his life work but does not cover it as a whole. His unacceptable statements can only be quoted by the Lutheran church as a negative example. 2013 was the year of tolerance in our church. We organized a series of exhibitions, conferences and cultural events. At a meeting for Lutheran school principals and teachers, we emphasized that in a Lutheran school there is no place for expressing anti-Roma, anti-gay, or anti-Semite views. In this church, there is simply no space for any extremism.