Zoltán Balog

Hungarian Christian Democrats and freedom of the press

The Parisian terrorist attacks will have, I fear, a negative effect not only on Hungary’s immigration policy but also on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the country. At least this is the way things are looking at the moment.

In an earlier post I recalled Viktor Orbán’s long-standing belief that Europe as a whole and Hungary as part of the European Union should remain “European.” European in this case means ethnically and religiously pure. Until last week, however, we didn’t know that this sentiment was actually reflected in current government practice.

It was on Sunday afternoon, before Viktor Orbán’s by now infamous press conference railing against immigration to Europe, that I realized that strict anti-immigration policies have been in effect ever since 2010. They were introduced quietly, under cover so to speak. Antónia Mészáros, a reporter for ATV, had an interview with Zoltán Balog on Friday afternoon, which didn’t air until Sunday, in which he admitted that the Orbán government has been conducting an anti-immigration policy all along.

Now there is an opportunity to put this unspoken policy into law. On Monday morning Antal Rogán seconded Viktor Orbán’s position on the undesirability of immigration. The next day the “international spokesman” of the Orbán government, Zoltán Kovács, followed suit and explained the Hungarian position on CNN, not with the greatest success. Richard Quest, the reporter, worried that the kind of debate the Hungarians are promoting will become a witch hunt. He ended his program (and this is a rough transcript) by saying that

What’s worrying is when politicians start whipping up the rhetoric. `Hungary for Hungarians,’ – when it starts to become immigration must be stopped. Then you go into you’ve crossed the line. It’s no longer a debate about whether immigration is good or bad, it becomes one to whip up a ferment. History is replete with examples where this has happened, and anybody who tries to deny an innocent-sounding comment for what it could turn into in the future is simply misguided.

As it stands, four out of ten Hungarians share Viktor Orbán’s and his government’s point of view. Tárki, a Hungarian polling firm, has been keeping track of Hungarian xenophobia for some time. In the decade between 2002 and 2011, 24% to 33% of the population were anti-immigrant. After that date the anti-foreign sentiment shot up to 40%, which is not surprising given the rhetoric of Viktor Orbán and his government.

I talked earlier about some right-wing journalists who intimated that the staff at Charlie Hebdo were responsible for their own fate. They provoked the followers of Islam by drawing crude caricatures of their prophet. This argument is now being taken up by the Hungarian Christian Democrats who are, on the whole, even more radical than Fidesz when it comes to religiosity. Their party is often described as the “political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church.” According to their whip, Péter Harrach, “neither freedom of the press nor freedom of speech can be extended to blasphemy.”

ShawFareed Zakaria, the American reporter who came up with the label “illiberal democracy” for countries like Turkey or Hungary, wrote an article in The Washington Post on the subject of blasphemy. In it he pointed out that the Koran “prescribes no punishment for blasphemy.” However, as we know, today many Muslim countries have harsh laws against blasphemy. It seems that Péter Harrach finds this practice attractive. But Harrach doesn’t have to look to current Muslim practice for a model. As Zakaria points out, only “one holy book is deeply concerned with blasphemy: the Bible.” The Old Testament is full of stories of blasphemers who receive harsh punishment for their sin. It seems that Harrach wants to lead Hungary all the way back to Old Testament times.

This morning representatives of five parties  (Fidesz, KDNP, Jobbik, MSZP, LMP, Együtt) got together to discuss the fight against terrorism. According to Antal Rogán, the parties agreed that “the European Union cannot defend its member states” and that therefore they must formulate and enforce their own strategies. “Political correctness by now is not enough.” Fidesz suggests that “certain public symbols and values should receive special protection.” Rogán made it clear that “religious symbols” would certainly be covered by the new law. I wouldn’t be surprised if among Hungarians’ “common values” we would also find national symbols. Or even political offices. Or high dignitaries of the land, like the president or the president of the house.

There are some analysts, for example, Gábor Török, who are convinced that the terrorist attack in Paris came at the right time for Orbán, whose party lost another 2% in support last month. According to Ipsos, some of the lost voters drifted over to Jobbik, and therefore the Fidesz top leadership decided to turn up the volume on far-right talk. With this strategy they are hoping to regain solid control of the right. Maybe, but I wouldn’t be so sure. According to some fairly reliable sources, Fidesz leaders are not panicking over their loss of popularity at the moment. In their opinion, the current level of support is still high enough for the party to bounce back. Demonstrations will end soon, and people will forget about their grievances over the introduction of toll roads and the Sunday store closings.

As opposed to Török, I don’t believe that Orbán’s outburst in Paris has anything to do with his party’s popularity. I think that he is convinced of the ill effects of immigration and is happy that he found an opportunity to take up arms against it, alone if necessary, quite independently of the European Union. He most likely explored how far he can go and came to the conclusion that he can introduce a law that would effectively stop immigration to Hungary and that he could also restrict freedom of the press as long as the law does not differentiate between religions. Therefore, I fear that Hungarian journalists can look forward to greater restrictions to their freedom.


Zoltán Balog, who is in charge of Roma integration, fights for segregation

In the last two years I wrote a couple of times about school segregation in Hungary. Of course, segregation along ethnic lines is illegal in Hungary and after 2003, when the law on equal treatment was enacted, the ministry of education managed to achieve some success in school integration. One can read more about these efforts in a blog I wrote in January 2013.

In 2010 Zoltán Balog, then only an undersecretary in charge of the so-called Roma strategy, assumed the job of integrating and “converging” Hungary’s sizable Roma population. Moreover, during Hungary’s presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first six months of 2011, the Hungarian government took upon itself the creation of a Roma program for the entire European Union.

From the beginning I noted Balog’s reluctance to follow the earlier Hungarian government’s strategy of integration. There were also signs that Balog, realizing the enormousness of the task, wanted to dump the problem on the churches. He made frequent references to his belief that religious communities are best equipped to handle the special issues of the Hungarian Roma. What happened behind the scenes I have no idea, but most churches were not willing to take over what should have been the job of the government. On the whole Hungarian churches said “no thanks.”

My other suspicion was that in his heart of hearts Balog does not believe in school integration. He is convinced that special Gypsy classes enable students to catch up with their non-Roma contemporaries–separate to become equal. Based on countless studies we know that this is a misguided notion. But it seems that Fidesz politicians cannot easily be convinced by hard data or evidence.

If someone had not noticed earlier that Balog is no fan of integration, it became absolutely clear this spring when at a meeting of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) he argued that there can be no uniform Roma strategy for all EU countries and therefore the European Commission has to be “more responsive” even as he stressed that the Roma issue “is a European responsibility.”

Zoltán Balog, the defender of quality education of Roma children

Zoltán Balog, the defender of quality education for Roma children

The clash between Balog and civil organizations dealing with Roma issues came to a head in Nyíregyháza where there was a segregated school for Roma children which was closed in 2007. However, came the 2010 municipal election and with it a new Fidesz mayor who convinced the Greek Catholic church that had taken over the school in the interim to reopen the segregated school only about 1.5 km from a new modern school that served the majority of the students. It was at this point that an NGO, Esélyt a Hátrányos Helyzetű Gyerekeknek Alapítvány (CFCF), sued both the city and the church.

After a careful consideration of the facts and listening to experts the court decided in favor of the foundation. At that time Balog went so far as to testify on behalf of the Greek Catholic church. He supported segregation which he called a “tender loving attainment process.” When the church lost the case, Balog was furious and made no secret of his feelings: “this verdict only increases my fighting spirit. We will continue to fight for a good, decent verdict which is good for the children.”

How strongly Balog felt about this particular case is demonstrated in a press release his ministry issued on November 6, the day the appellate court issued its ruling affirming the lower court’s decision. This press release is a perfect example of the double talk this government specializes in. The final verdict in the case is” highly regrettable because many children will be deprived of a superior education.” Of course, “the Government of Hungary condemns segregation which is forbidden by Hungarian law. If segregation can be proven we will do everything to ensure its discontinuance.” But this time, it seems, segregation is a good thing.

In fact, twelve days after the appellate court’s decision the government moved to change the 2003 law. The proposed amendment says that in the case of schools run by churches or in schools serving national minorities the minister–in our case Zoltán Balog–can issue a decree that will allow segregated classes. Surely, for the sake of superior education. The Orbán government is trying to integrate by segregating, a solution that is a time-tested failure.

CFCF issued a statement in which they question the legality of this amendment. They claim that the 2003 law is protected by the Fundamental Law’s Article  I(3): “A fundamental right may only be restricted to allow the application of another fundamental right or to protect a constitutional value, to the extent absolutely necessary, proportionate to the objective pursued and with full respect for the essential content of such fundamental right.” Therefore Balog’s amendment is unconstitutional. CFCF somewhat naively sent this statement to all members of parliament, asking them not to vote for the amendment “in its present form.” The voting robots will not oblige, which means that the case will most likely end up in the European Court of Human Rights.

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


Fidesz at a far-right conference in Moscow

It was only today that Cink.hu, a Hungarian internet portal, reported on an extreme right-wing gathering in Moscow on September 10-11 where the Hungarian government was represented by Gergely Prőhle, undersecretary in the Ministry of Human Resources. I myself learned about this event earlier from the excellent German-language blog on Hungarian affairs, PusztarangerThe story is quite complicated, so let’s start at the beginning.

The World Congress of Families that sponsored the Moscow conference is an American based organization that opposes same-sex marriage, pornography, and abortion. Because of its militant anti-gay stand, especially its involvement with the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law opposing LGBT rights internationally, WCF was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and political lobbying organization in the United States, called WCF “one of the most influential groups in America promoting and coordinating the exportation  of anti-LGBT bigotry, ideology, and legislation abroad.” HRC claimed that their international conferences gather “the most fringe activists engaged in anti-LGBT extremism.”

WCF has organized annual congresses ever since 1997 when it was established. This year the eighth congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow on September 10-11. This particular congress was to carry the title: World Congress of Families VIII: “Every Child a Gift: Large families–The Future of Humanity.” But then came the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Three Russians–Vladimir Yakunin, Yelena Mizulina, and Aleksey Pushkov–who were involved with the conference were among those sanctioned by the United States and Australia right after the annexation. Under these circumstances WCF, which normally has very good relations with the Russian government and the Russian right, tried to make itself invisible. After all, other groups, such as Concerned Women for America, pulled out of the project, saying that they “don’t want to appear to be giving aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin.” So WCF’s name was removed from the program. They decided to call it “International Forum: Large Family and Future of Humanity.” Although the organizing committee still listed two prominent leaders of WCF, they hid their affiliations.

Sharing organizational tasks with WCF were the Russian Orthodox Church, the Vladimir Yakunin Center of National Glory, the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation, and Konstantin Malofeev’s Saint Basil the Great Charitable Foundation. Both Yakunin and Malofeev are among the oligarchs sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. According to Anton Shekhovtsov’s blog, Malofeev has high-level connections with EU-based far right parties and was deeply involved in unleashing the Ukrainian crisis. Apparently a meeting between leaders of far-right parties in Europe and Russian right-wingers, including Malofeev, took place in Vienna in June. Their goal was to “rescue Europe from liberalism and the gay lobby.” Among the participants were Aymeric Chauprade (National Front, France), Heinz-Christian Strache, and Johann Gudenus (FPÖ, Austria). I wouldn’t surprised if Béla Kovács of Jobbik, whom Fidesz accused of spying for the Russians, were also present. Chauprade was at the congress in Moscow and had a large role to play in the proceedings. So was the Austrian FPÖ’s Johann Gudenus. The conference ended with the issuance of a proclamation that blasts liberal social policies in Western countries and calls for Russian-style “homosexual propaganda” bans to be enacted throughout the world.

Enter Gergely Prőhle, who is no stranger to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. He had a distinguished diplomatic career: he was ambassador to Germany and Switzerland and in the second Orbán administration served as assistant undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In comparison to some of the others, Prőhle seemed moderate–at least until I read an op/ed piece of his in Heti Válasz about the controversial monument to the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. I devoted a whole post to that opinion piece in which Prőhle showed his less attractive side.

Prőhle was one of three hundred employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who got the boot from the interim minister, Tibor Navracsics. For a while it looked as if his government career was over. But then he received an offer from Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, to become an undersecretary in charge of international and European Union affairs. (One would think that “international” includes the European Union, but this government’s naming habits are rather peculiar.)

It was in this new capacity that Prőhle was dispatched to Moscow to represent the Hungarian government at this illustrious conclave. It is hard to tell whether the bright lights in the ministry were aware of WCF’s involvement in the congress. It is also unclear whether they knew that the French and Austrian far-right parties would be taking center stage at the gathering. In the final analysis, however, even if they were uninformed, ignorance is no excuse. If nothing else,  Zoltán Balog and Gergely Prőhle were careless and negligent. Of course, it is also possible, perhaps even likely, that members of the government felt that good relations with Russia were of paramount importance to Hungary and therefore they should not turn down an invitation coming from Moscow.

Gergely Prőhle at a conference organized by far-right groups in Moscow, September 10-11, 2014

Gergely Prőhle at a far-right conference in Moscow, September 10-11, 2014

One thing is sure. Official Hungary did not boast about Prőhle’s presence at the Moscow conference. MTI made no mention of the conference, and neither the journalist at Cink.hu nor I found anything about the event on the ministry’s website. However, Cink.hu discovered on the Russian Orthodox Church’s website that Gergely Prőhle was among the speakers at the conference, along with Aymeric Chauprade, a member of the European Parliament, and Johann Gudenus (FPÖ), a member of the Austrian parliament. Gudenus delivered his speech in Russian because, according to his German-language entry on Wikipedia, he “regularly attended summer courses at the Lononosov University of Moscow and received a Russian Certificate from the Education Ministry of the Russian Federation.”

Cink.hu put a number of questions to the ministry and got some meaningless answers. They denied that the oligarchs had anything to do with the conference; it was organized by the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. When Cink.hu inquired about the gathering that was studded with extreme right groups, the answer was that “it is possible that they were also there but Gergely Prőhle represented the family policy of the Hungarian government.” The ministry proudly announced that Prőhle spoke “between Russia’s Chief Rabbi and the Russian Chief Mufti.” Well, in that case everything must be okay.

It’s too bad that the journalist failed to inquire about the manifesto the congress issued that lambasted liberal Europe and called for a ban on “homosexual propaganda.” It would be interesting to know whether Prőhle, the man in charge of European affairs, signed this document on behalf of Hungary.


A week in Hungary: worrisome developments

There is no silly season or “uborka szezon” in Hungary this year. In fact, I could easily write three or four times a day about not at all silly stories. Today I decided to catch up and offer a smorgasbord of “illiberal” news.

Let’s start with Zoltán Balog’s unfortunate statement about the Gypsy Holocaust on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the murder of thousands of Gypsies in Auschwitz. Balog, minister of human resources and a very close associate and spiritual adviser of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has an uncanny knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

On Sunday morning Balog was interviewed on the state radio’s program Vasárnapi Újság. This program, even during the socialist-liberal government, was known for its far-right tendencies, but it was a favorite of Viktor Orbán who often appeared there. Balog was asked to say a few words appropriate for the occasion. Instead of paying tribute to the Roma victims of the Holocaust, he began ruminating about the proper historical interpretation of the deportation of the Hungarian Gypsies while showing a total ignorance of the details. He said that there are a lot of uncertainties–for example, the  number of victims–and offered up the nonsensical excuse that “no Hungarian Gypsies were ever deported from Hungary. Only from Austria.” He also had some advice for the Roma. They shouldn’t dwell too much on tragic events because Gypsy culture is already prone to portray its members as victims, as people who are at the bottom of society. And such an attitude hurts their chances of success.

The reaction in opposition circles was uniformly negative to this latest Balog faux pas. A lot of people interpreted Balog’s words as Holocaust denial or at least a diminishing of its importance. Historians expressed their astonishment that the minister in charge of Hungary’s Roma strategy knows so little about the details of the events of 1944 and the fate of about 5,000 Hungarian Roma who perished and the tens of thousands who were deported.

As usual came the standard excuse: his adversaries misinterpreted his words, although this time he added that he could have expressed himself more clearly. Instead of admitting his mistake, however, he launched into an attack against his political opponents. It is not he “who has to explain himself but the Left under whose governance Gypsies were murdered in Hungary.” As if the Gyurcsány-Bajnai governments were responsible for the serial murders of several Gypsies.

Now let’s move on to another story that broke a few days ago. Some eagle-eyed journalist found an interesting picture on the front page of the publication of the Hungarian Medical Association. It was taken in the enormous study of Viktor Orbán in the parliamentary building when the president and the vice president of the association paid a visit to the prime minister. In the background a poster depicting the crown and the Hungarian colors reads: Győzelem (Victory).

A few telephone calls to historians revealed that the poster was designed by Sándor Légrády (1906-1987), who made quite a name for himself as a designer of Hungarian stamps. The poster Viktor Orbán so proudly displays in his office was done in 1940-41 to commemorate the Hungarian army’s entry into the territories Hungary received in the Second Vienna Award (August 30, 1940). I might add that Légrády was a politically committed person who in 1941 became an undersecretary in the prime minister’s office ( Bárdossy government, April 1940-March 1942) and who was later transferred to the ministry of defense. Because of his posters extolling the war he was briefly detained in 1945 but was acquitted two years later.

Viktor Orbán's study with the controversial poster in the background

Viktor Orbán’s study with the controversial poster in the background

What is such a poster doing in the Hungarian prime minister’s office? The official account is that he received the poster as a gift after the 2014 parliamentary election. A Fidesz politician explained the significance of the poster. Viktor Orbán began his infamous speech in Tasnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad by thanking the Transylvanian Hungarians for their support. Their votes gave Fidesz that one extra seat in parliament that ensured the continuation of the two-thirds parliamentary majority that allows Viktor Orbán to continue his rule unchecked. About 100,000 people who may never have set foot in the country decided the fate of Hungary for four years if not for longer.

This explanation is believable, but one must question the decision to display such an irredentist poster in the prime minister’s office. The year 1941 marked Hungary’s entrance into World War II. It was the year Germany attacked the Soviet Union. It was the year the United States entered the war. It is an affront to Romania, to Russia, and indirectly to all the countries who fought Nazi Germany and her allies–including, of course, Hungary. Just like his spiritual adviser, Orbán has no sense. A few years ago he proudly displayed a Greater Hungary decal on his car!

I would also like to mention that since leading American newspapers raised their voices in critical editorials against Viktor Orbán’s designs to transform Hungary into an illiberal state, the whole right-wing media has begun an anti-American campaign. At least three leading Fidesz opinion makers spoke out–István Tamás (Nemzeti.net, July 30), Tamás Fricz (Magyar Nemzet, August 4), and Zsolt Bayer (Magyar Hírlap, August 6). Soon I will devote a full post to the Orbán government’s anti-American propaganda campaign.

Here is another timely topic: the fate of some Roma families in Miskolc. On June 25 I wrote about the local Fidesz leadership’s plans to evict Roma families from their homes in order to make space for a new football stadium. The city was ready to pay 2 million forints to each family if they moved out of Miskolc altogether. Well, the evictions have begun. A young couple with a small child were the first victims. Then came an older woman who is disabled. Roma activists are trying to prevent the forceful removal of hundreds of families, but I doubt that they will be successful.

And finally, the situation of the NGOs. Viktor Orbán declared war on them in his speech and he was not kidding. Only yesterday papers reported that, although the Hungarian government made some concessions concerning the distribution of funds, the Norwegian authorities refuse to release the funds until the investigation of these NGOs stops. Viktor Orbán is not backing down. A criminal investigation of Ökotárs Alapítvány, the firm that distributes the Norwegian funds to NGOs, has begun. The charge is embezzlement.


An “abomination”: the Orbán government refuses to recognize Gábor Iványi’s church

More than two years ago I wrote a post entitled “The vindictive Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.” In this piece I talked about the two men Viktor Orbán hates most: Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gábor Iványi. We all know why Orbán hates Gyurcsány: Gyurcsány trounced him in the television debate that preceded the 2006 national election. But why does he hate Gábor Iványi, head of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship/Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET), an offshoot of the Hungarian Methodist Church? Iványi, a bearded bear of a man, is outright saintly. Or at least he strikes me as such, and I am rarely impressed by churchmen. What does Orbán find so objectionable about Iványi, whom at one point he admired? They were such close friends that it was Iványi who persuaded Orbán and his wife, who in their youth were anything but religious, that they should allow him to baptize their two small children.

H. David  Baer, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Texas Lutheran University who is an expert on church-state relations in today’s Hungary, thought it was Iványi’s fierce anti-communist stance during the 1980s that attracted the young Orbán to him but that after the regime change they parted ways. Iványi became one of the founders of SZDSZ and served as a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994 and again between 1998 and 2002. A few years later, when Orbán’s political views turned toward the right, he didn’t want to be associated with a small religious community. He was interested in developing good relations with the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed churches. The first two Orbán children were therefore “released” by Iványi at Mrs. Orbán’s request. The girl was rebaptized in the Catholic church and the boy in the Hungarian Reformed church according to a nineteenth-century arrangement devised for religiously mixed marriages. Meanwhile, Iványi, sticking with his own liberal views, remained a severe critic of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

Gábor Iványi

Gábor Iványi

The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship has a small membership but a large social presence. The church runs several kindergartens, elementary schools, a college, old folks homes, and homeless shelters. But since the Fidesz government refused to recognize MET as a church, it was not eligible to receive any subsidies from the government to continue its educational and social activities with the underprivileged, the Roma, and the homeless.

The first excuse for excluding MET from the list of accepted churches was that MET’s membership was under the required 10,000. At that point Iványi conducted a membership drive of sorts, and soon enough the church could show that MET had 22,000 members, more than sufficient to qualify.

But, as David Baer pointed out in his article published in Hungarian Spectrum, the process of deciding which church will be recognized has nothing to do with membership or any other formal requirements. It all depends on whether the government, in this case specifically Viktor Orbán, likes the leader of that church or not. And he definitely does not like Gábor Iványi and what he stands for. Baer quoted a telling paragraph from a Heti Válasz interview with Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources responsible for recommending churches for consideration to the parliamentary committeeThe reporter brought up the fact that it now seems that Orbán’s children were 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?

So, basically, the recognition of a religious community depends on the whim of Viktor Orbán. And it matters not whether the formal requirements are fulfilled.

At the end of May Iványi decided to write a letter to László Kövér. In the letter he noted that Zoltán Balog, already in February, stated that MET had fulfilled the requirements for official recognition but that sixty days had gone by without any action. He asked Kövér to expedite matters. Meanwhile, during the past few months the Orbán government tried its best to find something that could make MET ineligible. Even the Office of Defense of the Constitution (Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal [AH]) was sent to snoop around in order to find out whether MET “posed a national security risk” to Hungary. Surprisingly, it did not.

At last, on June 12, the parliamentary committee on judicial matters decided to take up the case of MET. Gábor Iványi was called in. Iványi told about the billion forint loss the church suffered because its educational and social activities are not, unlike those of the official churches, compensated by the state. MET, not being one of the official churches, cannot even receive gifts from taxpayers who would like to donate 1% of the tax they owe to MET.

I should add that MET is not the only religious community that was in this predicament. There are nine others. Without translating them all, here is the list:

  • Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség,
  • Szabad Evangéliumi Gyülekezet,
  • Evangéliumi Barátság Vallási Egyesület,
  • Magyar Evangéliumi Egyesület,
  • Mantra Magyarországi Buddhista Közösség,
  • Magyarországi Szabadkeresztyén Gyülekezet Egyház,
  • Magyarországi Názáreti Gyülekezetek Hitéleti Egyesülete,
  • Magyarországi Bahá’í Közösség,
  • Szim Salom Progresszív Zsidó Egyesület,
  • Magyar Reform Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége

Surprise, surprise, all ten were again rejected on July 11. By now even the saintly Iványi was outspoken. He told Népszava that “today in Hungary there is tyranny because the pathological will of one man becomes the law.” He also gave a long interview to the Amerikai Népszava, where he called the Hungarian situation ” an abomination.” One can only agree with him.


László Székely, the new ombudsman

There are times when governments can go very wrong with an appointment. It can happen anywhere. The famous American case was George H. W. Bush’s appointment of  David Souter to the US Supreme Court in 1990. Souter was supposed to be a conservative but turned out to be a “closet liberal.”

Something similar happened to Fidesz twice lately with appointments to the position of ombudsman. Prior to 2010 there were several ombudsmen, each responsible for a specific field: environmental issues, human rights, data protection, minority rights, etc. Vikor Orbán wanted to have only one ombudsman, and he picked Máté Szabó, the man responsible for human rights before 2010. At the time I was not particularly impressed with Szabó who, in my opinion, didn’t distinguish himself in his earlier position. Most of the issues that interested him sounded petty to me. In fact, it might have been this very aspect of Szabó’s activities that appealed to Orbán. Perhaps he thought that Szabó would get bogged down in picayune issues and would be too busy to spend much time on the constitutionally questionable legislative work of the Fidesz voting machine. To everybody’s surprise Szabó became a very active ombudsman who resolutely fought to salvage the remnants of Hungarian democracy.

Szabó’s tenure ended on September 24, 2013, and János Áder nominated László Székely, who had held government positions in both the first and the second Orbán governments. In fact, way back in 2001 his name came up as the nominee of President Ferenc Mádl to the position of ombudsman responsible for data protection but then, because of MSZP’s opposition, Viktor Orbán couldn’t give the job to his favorite candidate. Once he had a two-thirds majority, however, he didn’t have to worry. Székely’s appointment was assured.

When Székely’s name surfaced as the potential nominee the opposition parties had all sorts of objections. They were worried about his long, close association with the current government. Some people pointed out that his knowledge of constitutional law was scanty. Népszava described the departure of Szabó as the fall of the last bastion in the defense of democracy. I ended my earlier post on this appointment with these words: “For the time being it is hard to say what kind of ombudsman Székely will be. After all, Szabó turned out to be excellent despite earlier indications and predictions to the contrary.” I added: “It may happen again, but Viktor Orbán rarely makes mistakes on personnel choices.” Well, it seems that he did.

Ombudsman László Székely / Source: hirma.hu

Ombudsman László Székely / Source: hirma.hu

After his appointment Székely gave a number of interviews in which he emphasized that in spite of his government jobs and close association with Fidesz he will be an independent and judicious ombudsman. That assurance was to be expected. But, looking back at these interviews, we can already find signs that Székely might be less of a Fidesz clone than some expected. For example, he told the reporter of Népszabadság that “a good ombudsman must show solidarity with the dejected, the defenseless and must be sensitive to problems of destitution and poverty.” Not exactly the philosophy of the Fidesz ideologues. A few days later in a longer interview, also with Népszabadság, he said: “Believe me, I will jealously guard my professional prestige acquired in the last thirty years.”

During his interviews he kept repeating his belief that after the 2014 election the burden on the lone ombudsman will be lighter because he will not be the only person who can turn to the constitutional court for remedy. He seems to have been convinced that the opposition parties would get at least 25% of the seats, which would allow them to turn to the constitutional court themselves. As we know, this is not how things turned out.

Székely carefully avoided criticizing his predecessor and stressed the necessity of continuity. Indeed, he left the structure of the office pretty well intact. He kept emphasizing, however, that he will try to improve the score card in favor of the ombudsman’s office when dealing with the constitutional court. That is, he wanted to have more cases decided in his office’s favor. Given the composition of the constitutional court, I doubt that Székely’s hopes will materialize, but it is certainly a worthy goal.

Székely took over the position at the end of September. I began to notice increased activity in his office already in early February. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission turned to Székely to investigate the “three-strike law” which their lawyers regarded as unconstitutional. Székely concurred and called on the Ministry of Administration and Justice to discuss how to change the law to make it constitutionally acceptable. The ministry’s reply came swiftly: they are not changing the law and they are not ready to negotiate.

Székely seems to be interested in education. He turned to Zoltán Balog’s ministry several times, pointing out the inadequate teaching and equipment in segregated schools. He complained about the curriculum, saying that he finds it worrisome that students encounter the heinous effects of ideas of hatred only in the last year of high school. In his opinion societal change is necessary in this respect and here education has a large role to play. Although the government denied that there were serious problems supplying schools with textbooks, Székely’s office investigated and found that the government didn’t tell the truth. There were schools where some of the textbooks didn’t arrive until late December.

He also pays attention to the homeless. About a week ago he turned to the Kúria for remedy. In his opinion the local administration in Budapest designated far too many places as forbidden territories for the homeless. The ombudsman asked the Kúria to change some of the regulations and invalidate others.

As for the organic farm of Kishantos, Székely’s office began to investigate the situation already in December and turned to Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture, for information. The ombudsman expressed the view that the organic farm, the result of twenty years of careful attention, deserves constitutional protection. At that point Fazekas assured Székely that he would call together a forum of experts and civic groups to work out a strategy for the constitutional protection of environmental values. Of course, there is no forum, no strategy, only a ruined crop.

These are only a few of the many cases Székely has handled since October 2013. His appointment is for six years, and he will be the only person who can do battle with the government and the constitutional court. Not an enviable position to be in.