hungarian parliament

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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Banks versus the Hungarian government

Today was the last day for the legislators to get together before the summer recess. They marked the occasion by voting for a piece of legislation that is supposed to ease the hardship of those who took out loans in foreign currencies. Nobody seems to be satisfied with the result, with the exception of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who announced that “this was a historic day that may be the start of a new era…. The era of fair banks may follow.” The debtors find the assistance insufficient. The banks consider it unfair and unconstitutional. And the Hungarian currency, the forint, has been ailing as more and more details of the proposed legislation have become known.

The loss the banks in Hungary face is at least $4 billion according to the estimates of Hungary’s central bank. Today OTP, Hungary’s largest lender, said it may have to refund borrowers $644 million, most of that sum due to the charge that banks were not transparent about unilateral changes to loan terms such as interest rate hikes and a smaller amount linked to exchange-rate margins. And this may not be the end of the banks’ troubles. Antal Rogán, whip of the Fidesz caucus, indicated that later in the year the government plans to force the banks to convert their forex loans to loans denominated in forints at a below-market exchange rate. That could cost the lending institutions an additional $16 billion.

The stock price of  OTP dropped as much as 4% during the course of the day, closing down 1.7% on the day and 4.1% on the week. The share price of Austrian Erste Group Bank AG, the second biggest lender in the country, plunged 16% after it was revealed that its loss in 2014 might be as large as 1.6 billion euros ($2.2 billion) because of its poor performance in Hungary and Romania.

London-based analysts see trouble ahead.  Peter Attard Montalto, an economist at Nomura International, thinks the market “is underestimating the disruptive impact the proposed path will have on the banks in the short to medium run.”

The forex loan legislation passed with an overwhelming majority. There was only one dissenting vote and two abstentions. The former came from Gábor Fodor, the sole MP of the Hungarian Liberal Party, and the two abstentions from DK members. Fodor argues that the legislation “will cause serious economic troubles.” He is also convinced that the Supreme Court’s (Kúria) decision regarding the currency bid/ask spread and the practice of unilateral changes in contracts is unconstitutional. In addition, there is the problem of the statute of limitations, which the bill retroactively changed in a bizarre way. The clock will start counting down only after the loan has been paid in full.

Naturally, the Banking Association (Bankszövetség) is up in arms. Taking advantage of the currency spread is an internationally accepted practice which covers the real cost to the banks. Like Fodor, the secretary of the association, Levente Kovács, considers the change in the statute of limitations unacceptable. He also objects to other retroactive changes incorporated into the legislation as “they violate the rule of law and cause uncertainty among investors.” He pointed out that the banking sector is one of the largest taxpayers in the country. The banks pay 220 billion forints yearly in taxes, and that does not include the extra tax levies they had to suffer in the last three years. The extra levies themselves amount to 1 trillion forints, which translates into 2 million forints per forex debtor. He predicted serious losses and, as a result, forced consolidation in the sector.

Everybody suspects that the banks will go to court over the issue of unilateral contract changes. It is also almost certain that there will be court battles over the legality of converting foreign currency loans into forint loans at below-market rates.

Swiss franc2

All this made no impression on Fidesz legislators. Antal Rogán claimed after the vote that parliament had at last meted out justice for the debtors and promised that within a few months all unfairly collected charges would be refunded. According to Rogán, the average debt holder may receive a refund of between 600,000 and 1 million forints before the end of the year.

This promised windfall did not satisfy those foreign exchange debt holders who had earlier organized several groups to battle for their “rights.” One of these groups, Otthonvédelmi Tanács (Council of Home Defense), demonstrated in front of the parliament building this afternoon. Figuring that an average loan is 7 million forints, they now demand 5.9 million back because in their estimation that 7 million forint debt has since doubled. They claim that the bill just passed will decrease their debt by only 1.2 million, which is not enough. They charged the banks with fraud, and some of the signs demanded jail sentences for bank managers.

Those who predicted court battles did not need to wait long. OTP shortly after the passing of the bill announced its decision to sue the government. And this is just the beginning.

The opening session of the new Hungarian parliament

Today was the opening session of the new parliament. Before the session began the new MPs were treated in the “Red Room” to music by the so-called folk musician András Jánosi and his orchestra. Actually, András Jánosi’s genre is what used to be called Gypsy music; it seems to be experiencing a revival with the assistance of the Orbán government. In fact, Magyar Rádió established a separate channel devoted to Gypsy music and songs created in the manner of folk music (műdalok). The channel is named after a famous Gypsy band leader, Pista Dankó (1858-1903).

But why Gypsy music at the opening session of Parliament? According to Népszabadság, “they revived the tradition that the Gypsy band of János Bihari (1764-1827) played music for the arriving members of the Diet.” It’s too bad that historians are such sticklers for the truth, but this so-called tradition couldn’t have been exactly long-lived. Between 1811 and 1825 no Diet was convened at all; the “reform era” spanned the period between 1825 and 1848. Bihari, to repeat, died in 1827. So much for a great Hungarian tradition.

Outside the parliament building Tamás Gaudi-Nagy, a Jobbik member of the European parliament, organized a demonstration protesting the new law concerning agricultural lands. When a guest to the opening of parliament, István Pásztor, a Hungarian politician from the Voivodina, appeared, a scuffle ensued. The police stood by passively. Demonstrators, mostly women, surrounded Pásztor, calling him a traitor and a Bolshevik. Several women spat in his face. Why did Gaudi-Nagy’s group decide to attack Pásztor? According to ATV’s website, last year Gaudi-Nagy tried to “defend” the Hungarians in Serbia in the European Council, which Pásztor deemed “harmful” to the Hungarian minority. Whatever the reason, Jobbik distanced itself from Gaudi-Nagy, emphasizing that he is not a member of the party’s parliamentary caucus. Gaudi-Nagy, you may recall, is the man who a few months ago threw the flag of the European Union out of one of the bathroom windows of the parliament building.

Of course, there were also the usual opening speeches. Especially interesting was the speech of President János Áder, who drew on the writings and speeches of Ferenc Deák (1803-1876), known as the wise man of the nation because he was the architect of the Compromise of 1867. As is often the case, Áder used Deák as a springboard to make a political point. He quoted Deák saying that “we should not cast our glances at the past, but instead we must look forward to the future.” I don’t think one needs much imagination to grasp Áder’s intent. In my opinion, at least, he is telling all those people who are upset over the alleged falsification of history to leave the past alone and stop being pests.

Áder also invoked Ferenc Deák’s words about the necessity of differences of opinion in politics. “The truth gets extracted from differences of opinion,” Deák said. “I don’t mind, in fact I desire differences of opinion even in very important matters. I love all those citizens who oppose us. Let God grant us opponents and not enemies.” To hear these lofty words coming from the mouth of  János Áder was jarring. His party and the government he supports never listen to their political opponents, whom they treat as enemies.

Otherwise, according to Áder, no one can question the results of the election and the legitimacy of the electoral system. As for the new constitution, the election results also legitimized its legality.  Moreover, the results of the April 6 election in Áder’s view mean that “the Hungarian nation considers the long process of regime change final.” That is, the second Orbán government has brought to fruition what began in 1989-1990. Hungary has arrived at the pinnacle of democracy thanks to Viktor Orbán.

It seems, however, that some MPs openly and loudly disagreed with János Áder. When it came to the swearing-in ceremony, when the new members have to swear to the new constitution, the four Demokratikus Koalíció MPs, Ferenc Gyurcsány, Csaba Molnár, Lajos Oláh, and Ágnes Vadai, added the following two sentences: “I solemnly swear that I will do everything in my power for the reestablishment of the republic. I will try with all my strength to achieve the adoption of a new constitution confirmed by popular referendum.” Otherwise, Heti Válasz noted with some satisfaction that whoever was responsible for the parliamentary seating arrangement put the independent members of DK and Együtt2014-PM right behind the rather large Jobbik delegation.

Members of the Demokratikus Kolíció add their pledge to the official text of the swearing-in From left to right, Lajos Oláh, Csaba Molnár, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Ágnes Vadai / Stop.hu

Members of the Demokratikus Kolíció at the swearing-in ceremony
Lajos Oláh, Csaba Molnár, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Ágnes Vadai / Stop.hu

It was at this point that the new members had to vote for the deputies to the president of the House. The only interesting vote was for former skinhead Tamás Sneider (Jobbik). He received 150 yeas and 35 nays, while 5 MPs abstained. They were members of the LMP delegation. Fidesz, KDNP, and Jobbik have altogether 156 members, and therefore a number of MPs did not vote at all. Among them were Zoltán Balog, Zoltán Kovács, János Lázár, and Tibor Navracsics. On the other hand, Viktor Orbán voted for Sneider. As for the nays, they must have come from the democratic opposition parties: MSZP, DK, Együtt2014-PM, and the sole liberal member, Gábor Fodor. Péter Kiss (MSZP) and Ferenc Gyurcsány did not vote on Sneider.

In the secret ballot vote for president of the House, László Kövér received 171 yeas and 19 nays, with 3 abstentions. This is a first. In the past, votes for the president of the House were always unanimous. Fidesz and KDNP together have 133 members, and therefore 38 yea votes had to come from somewhere else. DK announced ahead of time that they, all four of them, will say no to Kövér’s nomination. If I calculate correctly, six people simply refrained from voting. Népszabadság announced the 19 nays as “Nineteen people dared to say no!”  Unfortunately it does seem to take a certain amount of courage to vote against Kövér and even greater courage to announce it publicly. He’s not the kind of guy who understands fair play and the democratic rules of politics.

Hungarian parliament voted on Paks; the Jewish-government dialogue is stalled

Yesterday we all thought that the parliamentary vote on the Russian-Hungarian agreement about financing and building two new reactors in Paks would take place only next Thursday. But, in typical Fidesz fashion, the Fidesz-KDNP majority made a last-minute change in the agenda and opted to hold the vote today. Perhaps the sudden decision had something to do with the revelations of Mihály Varga, minister of the economy, about the financial details of the agreement. Parliament had only four days to ponder the bill, and five hours were allowed for discussion on the floor.

The decision to move the vote forward naturally upset the opposition, but that was not all that raised eyebrows. The figures Mihály Varga revealed were much higher than earlier expected. First of all, Hungary will have to pay back the loan not in 30 but in 21 years, in 2035. In the early years the interest rate will be 3.9%, later 4.5%, and in the final years 4.9%. The Russians will pay the 10 billion euros it is lending to Hungary over ten years, and Hungary will have to pony up 2 billion euros in the final years of plant construction. (That figure, of course, assumes that there are no cost overruns, a highly unlikely possibility.) According to information received from government circles, one reason Viktor Orbán was so eager to push through the vote at the earliest possible date was that he was concerned that even Fidesz legislators would be unwilling to vote for the plant expansion once they knew its true cost. This information had to be revealed because the court so decided. Moreover, according to estimates, the expansion of nuclear capacity would be so costly that it would raise the price of electricity at least 40% and in the first decade perhaps 80%. Népszabadság gave the following headline to its article on the estimates prepared by MVM, the state-owned utility company: “More expensive electricity, brutal losses.” Nice prospects, if MVM’s calculations are correct.

LMP asked for a roll call vote, after which András Schiffer held up a sign: “Hungary sold out and indebted,” while Szilvia Lengyel, also of LMP, held up another placard proclaiming that “We will not be a Russian atomic colony.” Bernadett Szél (LMP) and Katalin Ertsey (LMP) had megaphones that produced the noise of ambulance sirens at full volume. The scene was quite something. I highly recommend the video of the brawl, available on Index. Parliament had to adjourn for over an hour. László Kövér called the protesters idiots and also indicated that the highest possible fine will have to be paid by the four LMP members.

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) / Source Index

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) / Source Index

A quick look at the record of the votes is most interesting. It is striking how many members chose not to be present. Let’s start with Fidesz which has a large 223-member delegation out of which 21 members were absent. Among the missing were Viktor Orbán, Zoltán Balog, Mihály Varga, Tibor Navracsics, and Zoltán Illés and Zsolt Németh, undersecretary for foreign affairs.. Out of the KDNP caucus of 34 members only two were missing but one of them was no other than Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister. Half of the Jobbik members were absent, but those present with the exception of one voted with the government parties. The majority of MSZP members decided to stay at home (32 out of 48). Out of the 27 independents 17 were absent and only one of those present voted for the bill: József Balogh of blind komondor fame.

The other important news of the day was the scheduled meeting between Jewish leaders and János Lázár. If anyone had great hopes for a compromise between the government and the Jewish community, he was mistaken. It turned out that János Lázár was simply a messenger. As he himself admitted, everything depends on Viktor Orbán. His is the final word and at the moment that word is “no go.” The monument will be erected, Sándor Szakály will stay, and the House of Fates “can become a reality only if there is intelligent, correct dialogue that concentrates on the essence of the matter… If there is no cooperation there is no reason to go ahead with the project.” So, if you raise objections and want to oversee Mária Schmidt’s activities, there will be no new Holocaust center in Hungary.

As for the monument depicting Archangel Gabriel and the German imperial eagle, “it would be a falsification of history if we pretended as if Germany didn’t deprive Hungary of its sovereignty on March 19, 1944.” The problem is that most respectable historians dispute the government’s contention of a lack of sovereignty, pointing to the composition of the governments formed between March 19 and October 15, 1944. For example, all ministers and undersecretaries of the Sztójay government also served in earlier Hungarian ministries going back as far as 1933. It is also clear that Miklós Horthy was not entirely powerless, as he demonstrated several times during this period. In my opinion, given the seemingly firm position of the government, there can be no agreement between the two sides.

I very much doubt that Viktor Orbán, who will have the final say on the issue next week, will move an inch. He is not that kind of a guy. As for the Jewish organizations that will sit down to talk on Sunday, they are unlikely to retreat from their position. So, it can easily happen that an international scandal is in the offing: the Hungarian Jewish community will boycott the Holocaust Memorial Year initiated by the Orbán government.

H. David Baer: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”: Continuing problems with Hungary’s law on religion

H. David Baer, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Texan Lutheran University, is spending his sabbatical in Hungary where he is doing research with the support of IREX, an organization that has been supporting research and exchange in Europe and Eurasia. David Baer is also a visiting research fellow for the 20014/15 academic year at the Central European University located in Budapest.

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During the last two years I have devoted considerable research to assessing the impact of Hungary’s religion law on deregistered, or non-established, churches.  This research has consisted of surveys as well as extensive field work carried out during extended visits in Hungary.  Today, in the short time allotted to me, I would like to highlight what I see as key problems with Hungary’s law on religion.  These problems can be grouped into two sets.  The first set concerns the recognition procedure itself; the second set concerns the legal status of religious communities not recognized as churches.  I will discuss these problems in turn, but to do so clearly let me first comment briefly on the religion law’s legislative history.

The religion law’s troubled legislative history

The first version of the law on “the Right of Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations, and Religious Communities” was passed as Act C of 2011.  An initial bill was brought to the floor by the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), a coalition party in the ruling government.  The original bill listed 44 recognized churches and provided a procedure by which additional religious groups could receive recognition through the courts.  However, two hours before the final vote, the original bill was replaced with a completely different one, introduced on the floor by a member of the ruling Fidesz party.  The new bill, which was passed into law, reduced the number of recognized churches from 44 to 14, and stipulated, further, that future recognition of churches would be determined by a two-thirds vote in Parliament.  Although Hungary’s Constitutional Court later struck down Act C on procedural grounds, an identical version of the bill was resubmitted to Parliament and passed as Act CCVI of 2011, going into effect on January 1, 2012.

In February, Parliament expanded the number of recognized churches from 14 to 27, a list which now includes smaller Christian and non-Western religious groups.  This is still fewer than the number of recognized churches included in the original Christian Democratic bill.  Moreover, at the time it was passed, Act CCVI stripped all religious groups not recognized by Parliament of legal standing.  In my estimate, as many as 150 religious communities may have been deregistered by the law.

Hungary’s Constitutional Court subsequently struck down numerous provisions in Act CCVI on the grounds that the recognition procedure did not adequately guarantee the rights of due process and legal remedy to all religious communities.  The government responded by amending both Hungary’s constitution, or what is called the Basic Law, and Act CCVI of 2011.  Although some of these amendments improve parts of the law, they also preserve Parliament’s power to determine church recognition.  Thus they fall short of addressing adequately the issues of due process and legal remedy raised by the Court.  In this respect, as well as others, Hungary’s religion law remains highly discriminatory.

Problems with the recognition procedure

The government responded to the Court’s concern about due process by modifying Hungary’s laws to allow explicitly for political discretion in the decision concerning which

religious groups to recognize as churches.  Act CCVI now stipulates as a condition for recognition that a religious community must be suitable for cooperation with the state in the pursuit of public goods.  A religious community demonstrates this suitability on the basis of its charter, the size of its membership, and its previous activities.  These, however, are vague criteria.  The current list of recognized churches includes many small churches with a small social presence, while simultaneously excluding larger churches with a significant social presence.  Because the criteria are vague, they open up a legal space in which Parliament is free to act in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

The government responded to the concerns about legal remedy by introducing a passage into Act CCVI 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 are suitable to cooperate with the state, 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.

To illustrate the kind of arbitrary treatment Hungary’s new constitution protects, one might consider the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is a church which, despite its large social presence, has been denied recognition by Parliament.  The church operates a large homeless shelter in Budapest and five nursing homes.  It also maintains a seminary, and educates more than 3000 children, mostly Roma, in preschools and elementary schools throughout the country.  Although the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was included among the recognized churches in the original Christian Democratic draft of the law, it was not included in the bill submitted to Parliament by Fidesz’s representative.

The president of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is Gábor Iványi.  Iványi was an opposition figure in the communist period and part of a group that broke away from the Hungarian Methodist church in the 1970’s to establish the Evangelical Fellowship.  Pastor Iványi also baptized Viktor Orbán’s first two children.  The young Orbán, perhaps, was attracted to Iványi because of his strong anti-communist credentials.  Since then, however, the relation between the two men has soured.  Today Iványi is one of the Orbán government’s most vocal critics.

In a published interview, the news weekly Heti Válasz asked the Minister of Human Resources, Zoltán Balog, about the government’s relationship with Iványi.  Balog, who plays a key role in deciding which religious communities are forwarded to Parliament to be considered for recognition, was asked whether Orbán’s children had been baptized in a false church.  He responded as follows:

Baptism is valid even if it is performed by a midwife, which means that Orbán’s child is all right. In addition, it is not in good taste, in my opinion, if someone appears all over the media announcing that he baptized the prime minister’s children. What kind of spiritual leader gives statements about the spiritual life of believers who have been entrusted to him? I would never do such a thing because I take being a pastor seriously. And as to those who don’t, why are they surprised that the government, in turn, does not take them seriously?

If this is intended as an explanation for why the government has refused to recognize Iványi’s church, then such an explanation appears incompatible with the state’s obligation to adopt a neutral attitude toward religious communities.  Are we to understand that the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is not suitable for cooperation with the state because, in the view of a government minister, its president does not take his pastoral vocation seriously?  Although this is admittedly a rhetorical question, the point is that nothing in Hungarian law appears to rule out such prejudiced considerations from Parliament’s decision concerning which churches to recognize, and nothing in Hungarian law appears to guarantee the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship legal remedy against Parliamentary decisions rendered on such a prejudiced basis.

Problems with the legal status of deregistered religious groups

When it reduced the number of recognized churches in Hungary, Act CCVI simultaneously placed the formerly recognized, now deregistered, churches into a no-man’s land in which they had no clear legal status.  Deregistered religious communities were forced to apply for recognition as civil organizations, but neither Hungary’s constitution nor its civil code extended basic religious freedom rights to civil organizations.  In this respect, recent amendments to Act CCVI represent a notable improvement.  The law now creates two clear categories for religious groups.  The first category consists of “established churches” (bevett egyházak), which are the churches recognized by Parliament.  The second category consists of “organizations conducting religious activity” (vallási tevékenységet végző szervezetek).  These religious organizations are registered by the courts, rather than by Parliament, and they enjoy many of the protections associated with the right of religious freedom.

Even so, this two-tiered classification system remains highly discriminatory.  Unlike established churches, religious organizations do not enjoy tax exemptions, nor do they receive the same kind of subsidies as churches.  Beginning in 2014 the accounting laws applicable to established churches will be significantly different from those applicable to religious organizations.  The two tiers are also treated unequally in respect to religious practice.  For example, the clergy of established churches enjoy privileges of confidentiality (e.g., a priest can’t be forced to divulge secrets heard in the confessional) that clergy in religious organizations do not.  Although religious instruction has recently been incorporated into the national school curriculum, religious organizations are prohibited from offering religious instruction in public schools.  Before the new religion law and the change in Hungary’s national curriculum, however, many of these same religious communities could offer optional religious instruction in public schools when there was demand for it.  Moreover, when placed in the context of broader changes in Hungary’s legal environment, the new law on religion functions to burden and restrict the activity of non-established religious organizations.

The best way to understand how the law functions in practice is by way of concrete illustrations.  There is a Buddhist community in Hungary, consisting mostly of Roma, called the Jai Bhim Network.  It is actively engaged in educating disadvantaged gypsy children.  When Jai Bhim was still a recognized church, it rented out several classrooms from a public school in Ózd, a city frequently in the Hungarian news because of racial tensions.  When Jai Bhim lost church status, all of its contracts, including its contract with the school in Ózd, where voided.  City leaders were unwilling to negotiate a new contract, and Jai Bhim had to abandon its activities in Ózd.  Of course, members of Jai Bhim remain free to practice their religion, and they are even able to maintain a few schools.  However, their activities have been restricted, and, lacking the same legal protections enjoyed by established churches, they are more vulnerable to discrimination.

In 2011, Hungary conducted a national census, which included a question about religious affiliation.  In the town of Sajókaza, where Jai Bhim is active and maintains a school, more than 300 Gypsies identified themselves as Buddhists to census workers.  Shortly thereafter, the local police went knocking door-to-door in the Roma neighborhood, asking if the residents had identified themselves as Buddhists on the census.  According to some news reports, the mayor of Sajókaza later informed the town’s Gypsies that the Catholic priest would neither bury Budhhists nor baptize their children.  A few months later, the Hungarian Labour Inspectorate, responding to an anonymous tip, audited the school operated by Jai Bhim in Sajókaza.  Because this school was no longer a church school, the regulations pertaining to it were different.  The school needed to keep a record not only of the hours teachers spent in the classroom, but also the hours teachers spent preparing for class outside of the classroom.  Because it failed to do this, the school was fined 3.2 million HUF (approximately $14,000).  Although the fine was later reduced to 1.75 million HUF, this remains a large sum which the school must pay at the same time its operating budget has been reduced by the loss of state subsidies granted to churches and church schools.

In fact, the representatives of many religious communities have told me they worry about the tax authority.  At any time, they say, the government can order the audit of a religious community it dislikes, and because the accounting laws are complicated and constantly changing, the tax authority can always discover an irregularity and levy a fine large enough to drive a small religious community into bankruptcy.  Established churches, by contrast, will be able to maintain financial records in accordance with their own internal rules starting in 2014.  Thus the tax authority will not be able to audit the records of established churches as carefully or rigorously as it can audit the records of businesses and religious organizations.

Animal farm

The situation regarding religious freedom in Hungary might thus be summarized as follows.  Hungary’s two-tiered classification of religious groups functions discriminatorily by affording different rights and protections to established churches and religious organizations.  Because religious organizations enjoy fewer rights and protections, they are vulnerable to acts of discrimination from state and bureaucratic offices.  Because the registration process is thoroughly political, religious organizations are denied an effective legal avenue to obtaining the rights and protections enjoyed by established churches.  Like the pigs who ruled George Orwell’s Animal Farm, those who crafted Hungary’s new law on religion might well concur that, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Hungarian attitude toward alcohol consumption

I would like to talk about two incidents that happened only a few days apart. We briefly touched on the first in the comments. István Lovas, Magyar Nemzet’s correspondent in Brussels, wrote an obscene letter full of four-letter words to the foreign correspondents in Budapest. In it he accused them of false reporting, resulting in an unjust and untrue picture of Hungary. The English-language letter can be read here at the end of the Hungarian introduction. Now it turned out that Lovas’s excuse is that he was drunk.

Two days ago there was a curious scene in the Hungarian parliament. An MSZP member of parliament happened to be delivering a question to one of the ministers when István Pálffy (KDNP), who is in his first term in parliament, got up, went by the speaker, shook hands with him, and began unsteadily ambling toward the exit. Then he suddenly stopped and began a conversation with two Jobbik members who, after he had left, indicated that the honorable member was drunk.

We may also add to these two recent incidents that József Balogh, another parliamentarian, hit “Terike” while intoxicated. In fact, he had to be so drunk that the next morning he had no recollection of the events of the night before.

According to the World Health Organization, mortality due to alcohol-related problems in Hungary was over three times the European Union average for men and around two and a half times that of the EU average for women. A full 10% of the population has been officially diagnosed with alcoholism. It is likely that there is a correlation between excessive alcohol consumption and violence of all sorts, not just the domestic variety.

An American researcher reported that during her stay in the country she was offered a drink at practically all the families she visited regardless of the time of the day. I can attest to that myself. People wanted me to drink cognac at 11 a.m. and they could be very insistent, viewing refusal as an insult. Perhaps that’s why there is a certain tolerance toward “being tipsy.”

In an interview with Lovas in Heti Válasz the discussion turned to his unspeakable letter to the foreign journalists. There were jokes about the amount of alcohol he consumed, which turned out to be a whole bottle of wine and two ponies of pálinka. At least this is what he admitted to. Jokes were flying about the Hungarian expression “the glass suddenly became full,” meaning that “it was the last straw” that foreign correspondents were not reporting on the Baja video.

Pallfy Istvan

István Pálffy

As for Pálffy, I suspect that he is an alcoholic. Although he has an engineering degree, he spent most of his adult life as a newspaperman. First in Magyar Rádió and later at MTV. Between 2002 and 2008 he was in charge of the news and, given Pálffy’s political views, MTV’s news even before 2010 was anything but balanced. In addition he shows a keen interest in gastronomy and, not surprisingly, wines. He wrote guides to Hungarian wines with the title “The best 100 Hungarian wines.” I somehow doubt that he could be a great judge.

A Hungarian right-wing Internet site ran a story about these two incidents with the title “Pony” (Kupica). In it the author called Lovas’s letter “astonishingly sweet and obscene.” What was sweet about it I wouldn’t know, but Lovas’s obscene outburst seemed to have been explained away and forgiven.

Today an article appeared by György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, who often publishes short articles in Magyar Narancs. He is bothered about “the jovial manner” in which the topic is treated. The way the interviewing journalist actually condones Lovas’s drinking that ended in great embarrassment not just for himself but for right-wing Hungarian journalism in general.

While Lovas thinks that he was justified in complaining about the alleged “anti-Fidesz” behavior of foreign journalists and only the alcohol made him use inappropriate words, Pálffy threatens anyone who says he was drunk in parliament with a law suit. Although the Hungarian parliament has a pub, according to one article I read its sales are ridiculously modest: one bottle of wine and ten bottles of beer a day! Pálffy claims that he has never bought any alcohol in the parliamentary pub. I believe him. But one doesn’t have to purchase liquor there in order to be loaded by the afternoon. The parliamentary session normally starts at 1 p.m.

Just as the attitude toward the role of women and domestic violence must change in Hungary, so should the attitude towards excessive drinking. But how can this happen when such a widespread “understanding” of the phenomenon exists? Interestingly enough, while there is some attempt at curbing smoking, I see no government effort at educating the public about the pitfalls of excessive drinking. In my elementary school we had a poster on the wall: “Az alohol öl, butít, és nyomorba dönt!” (Alcohol kills, makes you stupid, and reduces you to destitution.) I’m not sure that it shaped later behavior, but at least it was pointing in the right general direction–as opposed to granting a tax exemption for the production of pálinka.

The plight of the homeless in Hungary

Perhaps I haven’t spent enough time on the plight of the homeless in Hungary. The United Nations estimates the number of homeless people in Hungary at 30-35,000, of whom about 8,000 are in Budapest. Some of them live in homeless shelters; others, afraid of being robbed, refuse to go there. In any case, there are only about 5,500 places, which is not enough. Some of those counted as homeless managed to build primitive huts in the mountains in Buda.

It was clear from the start that this government was not going to try to find a humane solution to a growing problem. Instead, its goal was to hide the homeless from sight.  Surely, they are not good for tourism. So, let’s expel them by force of law from the most frequented places.

István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest, was one of the first who decided “to solve” this problem. The Fidesz majority on the City Council passed a local ordinance that banned the homeless from public places. Some people in the central government liked this idea so much that they proposed a law that extended the ban to the whole country. Offenders could have been jailed or fined up to $650. Fining people who can barely keep body and soul together is naturally a ludicrous idea. Punishing somebody with a jail sentence because he has no shelter over his head is inhumane.

Last November the Constitutional Court found this law unconstitutional. (Today such a verdict would be unimaginable. By now the overwhelming majority of the judges were nominated by the government and voted in by Parliament with a two-thirds Fidesz majority.) That something is found unconstitutional never bothered the Orbán government, which considers itself the paragon of democratic virtue. Since due to pressure from the European Union the Hungarian government had to change some sections of the new constitution anyway, they smuggled in an entirely new provision that allowed municipalities to declare living in public places illegal “in order to protect public order, public security, public health and cultural values.”  Both the European Parliament and the United Nations condemned the law.

Kristina Jovanovski wrote a long article about the plight of the homeless in Hungary for Al Jazeera and interviewed Magdalena Sepulveda, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, who told her that Hungary wasn’t the only country that bans behavior linked to homelessness, but “what makes Hungary stand out … is that such a law has been put into the country’s constitution.”

So, let’s see what the new law says. The law decrees it a misdemeanor if a homeless person frequents places designated as “world heritage” sites. In Budapest this is quite an extensive area For example, the whole Andrássy út, the region around the Gellért Hotel in Buda, the castle area, the area around the Chain Bridge, the Gellért Mountain, the Royal Castle, Szabadság tér, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Parliament building, and the buildings on the Pest side of the Danube all the way to the Petőfi Bridge.

It is unlikely that the law will apply only to “world heritage sites” for long. In Budapest the mayor of Budapest has the right to designate any area taboo that he feels needs such protection. Moreover, the district mayors can request additional sites, which István Tarlós must grant. Those homeless people who are caught in the forbidden parts of the city can be forced to perform public work. If the person refuses, he will be fined 300,000 forints or $1,300. If the authorities catch him twice within half a year, the person will be automatically jailed. Moreover, as the result of a last-minute amendment, the law became even more punitive. Building a hut in some far-away wooded area situated either on public or on private land without permission is also considered to be a misdemeanor.

Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP), a member of the parliamentary committee on human rights, released a communiqué in which she calls attention to some provisions of the law that at first glance might not be obvious to everyone. In the areas designated as “world heritage” sites, a homeless person doesn’t have to do anything in the least criminal. It would be enough if someone who looked like a homeless person walked along peacefully, for example, on Andrássy út.  These sites are now declared to be “homeless-free zones.”

In the future if this fellow is cut his hut will be destroyed and he thrown to jail

In the future, if this fellow is caught his hut will be destroyed and he will be thrown in jail

Kristina Jovanovski got in touch with a government official who explained that the law was adopted “to enable local governments to handle the issue of homelessness, and so to assure order in public spaces and increased public safety.” Furthermore, the government spokesman admitted that permitting the homeless in public spaces “poses problems from a cultural point of view when it comes to the … accessibility of certain public areas, including areas frequented by a large number of people and also in terms of the protection of historical buildings.”

So, this is where we stand now. A dictate on how to handle the homeless is part of the Hungarian constitution. One would think that a democratic country’s constitution would be designed to defend the rights of its citizens and not contain punitive measures against certain segments of the population. But, of course, Hungary is straying farther and farther from democratic principles.

Soon enough the constitution will be a motley assortment of bits and pieces of legislation. Control of utility prices will also be included in the sacred Basic Law of Viktor Orbán. This is the constitution that Viktor Szigetvári and Gordon Bajnai of Együtt 2014-PM want to “improve.” No, this constitution must be thrown into the garbage as soon as this government is gone.