Zoltán Balog

The Hungarian Reformed Church and the extreme right

I don’t want to bore readers with a history of Protestantism in Hungary, but I often find that at least in the United States people are surprised to learn that there is a sizable Protestant minority in Hungary. They are convinced that all of East-Central Europe is Catholic.

We have only estimates on religious affiliation of the current Hungarian population, but these estimates indicate that about 20% of Hungarians were at least baptized in a Protestant church. About 17% are Calvinists (Magyar Református Egyház) and 3% are Lutherans (Magyar Evangélikus Egyház).

I’m sure that people will also be surprised to hear that at the end of the sixteenth century 80-90% of the inhabitants of historic Hungary were Protestant. And Hungary was not alone in the region: Poland, now the most Catholic country in the area, was solidly Protestant. Ninety percent of the members of the Polish parliament, the szejm, were Protestants. Such a rapid spread of the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1564) and John Calvin (1509-1564) in this particular part of Europe was indicative of serious societal and political upheavals and general dissatisfaction with the status quo. The new faith was spread by itinerant preachers, both Calvinists and Lutherans. At the time the two branches of early Protestantism were not separated. It was only in 1567 that the Calvinist and the Lutheran churches went their separate ways.

One could ask how it was possible that while the Counter-Reformation managed to completely eradicate Protestantism in Poland, in Hungary the Catholics were less successful. Despite the efforts of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty, large pockets of Protestantism remained. In fact, the answer is quite simple: during the sixteenth century historic Hungary was divided into three separate entities. A smaller part in the north, an area called Royal Hungary, remained in Habsburg hands while Transylvania became nominally independent, only paying tribute to the Ottoman Empire. The rest, a large chunk of today’s Hungary, was occupied by the Turks who had no interest in converting the population to Islam. It didn’t matter to them whether the infidel was a Catholic or a Protestant.

magyar reformatus egyhazAfter the expulsion of the Turks Vienna tried to reconvert Protestants, and they often used rather brutal methods to make Protestant worship impossible. The Protestant communities were beleaguered and persecuted; Calvinists in particular came to represent the true Hungarian spirit against Catholic dominance in the Habsburg Empire. And that differentiation of Calvinist and Catholic Hungarians didn’t end with the Compromise of 1867. Voters in Calvinist areas were more apt to vote for the Party of Independence. Given this history, one shouldn’t be terribly surprised that today’s Hungarian Reformed Church is even more nationalistic than the Catholic Church.

While I’m not surprised by the Church’s nationalism, I am surprised about their right-wing rhetoric. I gained the impression from my readings and also from personal experience that Protestantism at one time was more enlightened than the official line of the Catholic Church. Less bigoted, more open-minded. What I see now is a shift of Hungarian Calvinist leaders toward the extreme right while the Catholic leaders are just deeply conservative and wholehearted supporters of the current government party.

Perhaps my views are influenced by the prominent political roles played by church leaders as László Tőkés, who gained worldwide fame as a key player in the events that eventually led to the Romanian “revolution” and the removal and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nominally he is considered to be a Fidesz man, but in fact his ideology puts him to the very right edge of the Fidesz spectrum where the differences between Fidesz and Jobbik are blurred. The other person who is much more obviously a man of the extreme right, in fact an outright neo-Nazi, is Lóránt Hegedűs. He has been in the limelight for at least fifteen years and his views should be unacceptable to the church by any standards. His own wife is a member of the Jobbik parliamentary delegation. Yet the Reformed Church refuses to expel him from the church. There were attempts but no final resolution.

In 2007 Gusztáv Bölcskei, the clerical president of the Synod of the Hungarian Reformed Church and the bishop of Debrecen, tried to remove him but failed in an internal legal procedure. Then came the erection of a Horthy statue, but Bölcskei himself was guilty of having too tender feelings toward Hungary’s governor between 1920 and 1944. Bölcskei unveiled a plaque of Horthy in Debrecen. It seems that the Church either can’t or doesn’t want to act.

The latest upheaval in Hegedűs’s church in the heart of Budapest again prompted calls to do something with Hegedűs. It was in early November that Horthy’s bust was unveiled and placed close to the entrance to be seen by all passers-by. This time the church leaders promised real action. A serious investigation of the case was going to take place, they promised. Attila Jakab, who often writes on church affairs, predicted more than a month ago that most likely nothing will happen because if Hegedűs is considered to be guilty of political activities Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, will also have to be investigated. After all, Balog is also in politics. On paper he suspended his religious activities and can’t use his title “minister” (lelkész), a status that allows him to conduct religious services only occasionally and only by special request. But, in fact, Balog regularly holds services in his old church.

Jakab turned out to be right. Nothing will happen to Hegedűs but not because of Balog’s services in his old church but because the Hungarian Calvinist Church doesn’t really want to pursue the case. A few days ago Index reported that György Horváth, who is the legal counsel to the Hungarian Reformed Church, resigned his position in disgust because the diocesan court refused to take up the case, claiming a conflict of interest.

Horváth suggested expelling Hegedűs from the Hungarian Reformed Church. This was not the first time that Horváth recommended such an action, but each time the members of this particular diocesan court refused to hear the case. After his third attempt, Horváth had had enough. He announced that he “will not assist in this opportunistic practice.” He claimed that the church leadership is afraid of Jobbik and that members of the court are worried that their names might appear on kuruc.info, the virulently anti-Semitic neo-Nazi internet site.

This is not the end of the story. The case will be transferred to another diocesan court. But don’t hold your breath. The same thing happened in the earlier investigations as well. Clearly, the Hungarian Reformed Church refuses to deal with the problem and in my opinion not only because they are afraid of Jobbik. Rather, because they sympathize with this clearly neo-Nazi party. This is a sorry end to a church with a glorious past of fighting for freedom of religion and suffering persecution over the centuries. It is a real shame.

The poor in the Budapest Hilton

Somewhat belatedly I will spend some time today on a singularly distasteful event that took place on December 22, the fourth Sunday of Advent.

Advent is now celebrated widely in Hungary. When I was growing up I never heard of it. The first time I encountered an Advent wreath with four candles was in Canada in the home of a German-Hungarian Lutheran family. But then one never heard of Santa Claus or Halloween in those days either. Life has changed a lot since.

In any case, the Hungarian Reformed Church Charity (Református Szeretetszolgálat) came up with a “fantastic” idea. They collected forty kids ranging in age from six to eighteen who live in poverty and organized a luxury dinner for them in the Budapest Hilton Hotel. The chief sponsor of the event was Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and himself a Hungarian Reformed minister. The reaction to the event was eerie silence on the right and loud condemnation on the left.

One thing is sure. It was a singularly disgusting affair that included a close to incomprehensible and offensive speech by Balog. Naturally, MTI simply reported the bare news, but it seems that even Magyar Nemzet thought that perhaps mentioning the name of the hotel was too much and only announced that the dinner took place “in a Budapest hotel.” Magyar Hírlap ignored the event altogether, and therefore readers of this far-right paper learned about it only yesterday when an MSZP politician condemned the Hilton gathering in connection with the general poverty of the population. She called the invitation of forty poor children to the Hilton Hotel a sign of “government cynicism.” Fidesz’s website also failed to mention the lavish dinner.

Origo was the first to express the disgust journalists who were invited to witness the event felt. Here are forty poor children who most likely have never been inside any hotel, and here is the five-star Hilton’s unimaginable luxury. The children looked not just ill-at-ease but outright sad and perplexed. One child was quite honest and said that he really didn’t want to attend but “my mom told me that I must.” It turned out that his “mom” isn’t his own. His father is an alcoholic and the mother is mentally ill. He was referring to his foster mother whom he likes very much. As for the food, he loves pizza, hamburger, and gyros. Another one, after seeing the menu, announced that he doesn’t like mushrooms and can hardly wait for the dessert. A twelve-year-old girl announced that her favorite is “túros tészta,” a Hungarian dish made out of egg noodles, sour cream, cottage cheese, and bacon. But, she added, she will manage to get the dinner down somehow.

The enthusiasm is overwhelming

The enthusiasm is overwhelming

The menu was not exactly kid-friendly. The first course was goose consommé served with vegetables and rottini. Then came chicken breast with a mushroom sauce prepared with Calvados, an expensive French cognac made out of apple cider. A bottle here costs between $50 and $80. In addition there was vegetable lasagna, broccoli, and rice. The dessert was yogurt strawberry cake. But for a while they were unable to taste these “delicacies” because first they had to listen to the Reverend Balog’s elevating speech about darkness, disorderliness, light, and order. A fascinating story followed about his own church’s explanation of what Advent is all about. Then came the story of a darkened room in which all sorts of obstacles were set up by the adults but as one candle after the other was lighted, the children instinctively began to put things in their proper place. Order was restored.

So what is the lesson one learns from this elevating story? Right now there are poor people in Hungary, the cause of which is “disorder.” But one day this will change and perhaps these children when they have a job or “perhaps even go to college, who knows” will be able to afford to eat in a restaurant like this. Or perhaps they will be able to visit Paris or Cluj/Kolozsvár. Why Cluj? I guess he realized that Paris is too western and one must pay attention to those territories lost in 1920. They will be able to go wherever they want to. All this was told in a way that demonstrated Balog’s total inability to talk to children in a non-condescending way. The best was when he turned to a child who looked about six and asked him how many corners a room has. Do these people really think that these children are not just poor but also imbeciles?

At the end each child received a box of gifts, but the wonderful organizers of the Hungarian Reformed Charity didn’t even bother to personalize the parcels. The labels simply said: “For a 6-8-year-old girl,” “For a 8-12-year-old boy,” etc.

Yes, the parcels. The organizers decided to call them “the Misi Nyilas packets.” And now we must turn to Hungarian literature. One of the great Hungarian prose writers of the twentieth century was Zsigmond Móricz (1879-1942). In 1920 he published one of his early novels, Be Faithful unto Death /Légy jó mindhalálig), whose young hero is Misi/Mihály Nyilas, a very poor boarding student at the famous Debrecen Reformed College. Clearly Misi is Móricz himself, who studied there between 1891 and 1893. He was one of seven children of a family who fell on hard times. They were poverty stricken. His tuition was paid by his maternal uncle, a Reformed minister.

A large portion of the second chapter in the novel is about the incredible excitement that a package from home caused in Misi’s life. He was told that he cannot expect to get care packages because the family can barely scrape by. But comes the day when he is told that there is a package for him at the post office. For all sorts of reasons Misi can’t open his parcel immediately, and in his absence his fellow boarders eat all the food in the package, including, as it turned out, some cream his mother sent him to put on his chapped hands and shine his shoes with during the winter. One can only wonder why these good Calvinists decided to name their Christmas boxes “Misi Nyilas packets.” Most likely they didn’t even read Móricz’s book. After all, Misi got nothing out of the package.

Few politicians said anything about the whole sordid affair, but the few who did didn’t hide their feelings. One MSZP politician sent Balog and his whole gang straight to hell. Actually it was a bit stronger. Today Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP) came out with an op/ed piece entitled “Cinderellas in the Hilton.” Lendvai admits that “Cinderella” was not one of her favorite tales when she was little. She simply couldn’t understand how a fairy who is also a godmother could allow Cinderella to be treated so badly by her stepmother and stepsisters. How could she think that sending her a fancy dress and a glass slipper could make up for all that suffering? Lendvai was certain that if the prince didn’t show up, the poor girl most likely would have had to return to her earlier miserable existence. Princes don’t show up very often.

Something like that happened to the forty little Cinderellas the other day who don’t even have names, faces, characters, talents. Each is simply called “a poor child.” As for naming the boxes these children received, perhaps it wasn’t a mistake because earlier this government took away benefits children had previous received automatically. Just this year parliament voted on 1,700 bills but not one had anything to do with feeding the 200,000 children who are malnourished. Instead they busied themselves with employing school policemen, lowering the age of compulsory education, making sure that even fourteen-year-olds can end up in jail for minor misdemeanors. Elsewhere Balog told 300 Roma children in state custody that “the government works hard to better the lives of children.” Ildikó Lendvai very much hopes that during the holidays the government will take a little rest.

The Hungarian far right’s attack on the United States

It was only a few months ago, on March 15, 2013, that Ferenc Szaniszló, a so-called journalist who has a show twice a week on Echo TV, received the Táncsics Prize, the highest award that can be given to a Hungarian journalist. You may recall that the minister of human resources, Zoltán Balog, first claimed that he was not familiar with the work of Szaniszló and that eventually, when the whole Hungarian media was up in arms, he practically begged Szaniszló to return the award. He did, but as often happens with members of the Orbán government, Balog didn’t tell the truth. It wasn’t an oversight that Szaniszló, who is an anti-Semitic extremist, was chosen. On the same national holiday the lead guitarist of a far-right rock group called Kárpátia and the composer of the Hungarian Guard’s anthem, also received a state decoration.

So, let’s first say a few words about Echo TV. Wikipedia describes it as “a conservative Hungarian television channel” (although Wikipedia’s entry does go on to say that the channel “is a favorite among neofascists in Hungary”). “Conservative” is not an adjective I would use in connection with Echo TV. The channel was established in 2005 by Gábor Széles, one of the richest men in Hungary. Széles also purchased the financially ailing liberal Magyar Hírlap and transformed it into a far-right newspaper where one of the regular contributors is the anti-Semitic Zsolt Bayer. He is also one of the chief organizers of demonstrations called Peace Marches in support  of the present Hungarian government.

Szaniszló’s  half-hour program is called “Világ–Panoráma.” It airs twice a week, on Monday and Friday, in prime time between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m and can be seen by everyone who has a cable connection. Most people do.

What kind of information do devoted right-wingers receive about world affairs through Szaniszló’s interpretation of twentieth-century history and more recent events? We regularly complain about the general lack of knowledge of the vast majority of Hungarians and express our astonishment that they seem to believe all the propaganda they receive from their own government. If you listen just once to Ferenc Szaniszló, you will not be at all surprised.

Since non-Hungarian speakers don’t have the benefit of listening to this man in the original, I took copious notes on his ten-minute-long attack last Friday on the United States and on Jews, although he doesn’t refer to them explicitly. In the past Echo TV wasn’t that shy. I suspect the word came from above that the Orbán government is working very hard to convince the world that it is doing everything in its power to curtail anti-Semitic occurrences, so please refrain from being too obvious about the subject of international Jewry. As for attacks on the United States, Magyar Nemzet, Fidesz’s own favorite newspaper, has also been full of anti-American articles for some time. So, don’t think that only the far right specializes in U.S. bashing.

Ferenc Szaniszló on the set of his program on Echo TV

Ferenc Szaniszló on the set of his program on Echo TV

Szaniszló’s harangue begins with a rehash of the Kennedy assassination, a topic he talked about earlier. Here the story serves as an introduction to the main theme. Kennedy was assassinated by “financial powers that conquered the United States.” According to Szaniszló, Kennedy was not the first victim of this financial power group because “there were earlier presidents, vice presidents, and secretaries” who were killed by these people. I myself couldn’t come up with any president whose assassination was in any way connected to the financial world. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Southerner; James Garfield’s assassin was mentally unbalanced; and William McKinley was killed by an anarchist. As for vice presidents, no vice president of the United States has ever been assassinated. And as for secretaries, there was an assassination attempt on the life of William H. Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, at the same time as the president’s assassination, but he survived.

Soon enough Szaniszló moves to more dangerous grounds. With a quick turn we are at 9/11, which is according to him “the biggest lie of world history” because it was a “willful self-provocation, one of many.” In plain English, the United States government itself attacked the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. And there were many similar faked attacks.  The same thing happened with the Lusitania, the British ocean liner, which according to Szaniszló was not torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat but by the United States to have an excuse to enter World War I. Just as the United States bombed and destroyed practically the whole U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor to justify entering World War II.

Those who committed atrocities in New York disappeared because “they became extinct in the fire of 9/11,” but “the Arab passport remained among the ruins of the Twin Towers where even steel beams became dust. And naturally they kill Osama bin Laden, but quickly they throw his body into the bottom of the ocean. They destroy his house. These financial conspirators consider people idiots and indeed they are right because they are duped by those who possess all the power, all the money, the media, the film industry, the propaganda, and the brain washing machinery.” Yet, this is all so clear. “The plane that few into the Pentagon simply disappears, Building # 7 collapses on its own without any attack, and the helicopter that was used in the Osama raid is destroyed by a nonexistent Taliban anti-aircraft defense force.” That is not all. After the Boston marathon attack two American agents fall out of an airplane because they know the truth about Chechnya. Two other agents are killed for the same reason. In brief, the politicians who run the United States are murderous criminals.

Szaniszló goes so far as to say that all the terrorist attacks were fakes. Every time there was an attack an official anti-terrorist exercise took place. For example, on September 11, 2001 planes of the American Air Force were not flying between New York and Washington because of exercises. The Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut was staged by the American anti-terrorist group. “They sacrificed their own children and their teachers.” During the Boston marathon the same thing happened. The U.S. Air Force was doing routine exercises “in order to hide the truth which was a murderous attack organized from above.” All that to incite anti-Muslim feelings in the United States. “These were attacks against their own people disguised as anti-terrorist exercises. Their goal is to acquire more oil and gas fields and gold mines.

“What kind of morality is this? And the West builds its fortune on that? On this filth, on this garbage? Is this supposed to be the liberal democracy? This morass?” Thanks to Edward Snowden we now know that “they don’t even trust their closest friends, they spy on their own henchmen, and they even record when Angela Merkel does her number one and number two in the Reichstag or what Queen Elizabeth wears under her train.”

Once Szaniszló finished with the United States he moved on to Ukraine, a country that doesn’t want to supply slaves to the European Union. It would rather turn to Russia, which at the moment is trying to undo its own Trianon.

This is what Hungarian television viewers learn about the world. Hatred against the United States, the European Union, the West in general. And then we are surprised at the general ignorance and hatred of foreigners? We shouldn’t be.

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.”

“Unless blood flows”: Human Rights Watch’s report on Hungary

Lately I have been struck by the high number of incidents, often resulting in death, involving relatives or people living in the same household. A daughter kills her mother, an 85-year-old former high-ranking police officer kills his 79-year-old wife, a professional soccer player kills his partner and her son in a family dispute. These are only three cases I remember from the last two weeks or so.

In addition, it was only yesterday that the public at last learned that it was not the blind komondor that knocked over “Terike,” the domestic partner–since then wife–of József Balogh, mayor and member of parliament (Fidesz). Balogh admitted that he hit her in the face several times, grabbed her by the hair, and hit her head on the porch railing.

domestic violence2I’ve dealt with the subject of domestic violence, a very serious problem in Hungary, several times. The first reference I found on Hungarian Spectrum is from January 2009 when a bill was adopted by parliament which introduced the widely used practice outside of Hungary of a restraining or protective order. At that time President László Sólyom refused to sign it and instead sent it to the Constitutional Court. His objection was based on a section in the Constitution [58. § (1)] that guaranteed the right to choose one’s place of residence. I guess that needs no additional comment. The Constitutional Court naturally found the president’s legal opinion brilliant. After all, he was the chief justice of the court between 1990 and 1998.

In September 2012 the question came up again after Fidesz initially refused even to consider the issue. When public opinion forced the government party to act, they tried to make the law as weak as possible. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and in his former life a Protestant minister, was upset about the opposition’s “bluestockings attitude” and objected to talking about “violence within the family” because the family is sacred. Instead of family, the government insisted on “violence within the confines of partnership or relations.”

Eventually, after a long and rather fruitless discussion, the bill became law in July 2013, but it has serious shortcomings. For example, an assault against an intimate partner will be classified as an instance of domestic violence only if there are at least two separate occasions of abuse. Moreover, the new legislation does not cover non-cohabitating partners.

All in all, the Hungarian situation was considered to be so serious that Human Rights Watch (HRW) decided to issue its findings in a lengthy situation report. It was written by Lydia Gall, researcher on the Balkans/Eastern Europe in the Europe and Central Asia Division of the organization. Those who are interested in the details should read the report itself. Here I will concentrate on the official Hungarian reaction to it.

First, it is evident that the Hungarian government received a copy of the report before November 6, the official release date, because they were prepared to combat HRW’s “allegations” within hours after the appearance of the report. The very first reaction, a legal rebuttal, came from the Hungarian police. In my opinion it is almost certain that the author of the rebuttal is not a policeman. I rather suspect that it is the work of some government lawyer in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. In it the Hungarian government complains about “the several factual errors” and “the lack of sources.” From the document it becomes clear that the representatives of HRW did pay a visit to the Hungarian police headquarters, but it seems they were not convinced by the assurances of the policemen they met. The police’s “Communication Service” spent the rest of its document listing all the government resolutions to battle domestic violence, starting in 2003. Even this glowing report on the excellence of the Hungarian law, however, had to admit that charges against someone who commits domestic violence can be brought only by the victim.

The Hungarian police are especially sensitive about the issue of their officers’ preparedness in cases of domestic violence. The document states that there are “several forums” where a victim can complain in case the policeman refuses to act in the manner expected, but it doesn’t identify any of these forums by name.

A couple of hours after the release of the police communiqué, Zoltán Balog’s ministry also raised its voice against HRW’s claims that the Hungarian government’s system of handling domestic violence “simply doesn’t work.” The HRW report contends that because of police inaction and the lack of legal safeguards, women who are victims of domestic violence don’t get proper protection. Naturally, the Hungarian government doesn’t accept this verdict. Moreover, the ministry spokesman pointed out that too little time has passed since the law took effect and therefore no meaningful evaluation of the system can be undertaken. The ministry also said that the representatives of Human Rights Watch had assured the ministry earlier that the report would not be a comprehensive picture of the Hungarian situation but would only mention the most flagrant cases in order to inspire the Hungarian government to take further steps. I might add that throughout its reply, Balog’s ministry refused to refer to domestic violence by its common name (in Hungarian családon belüli erőszak) but instead used “kapcsolati erőszak,” a word combination cooked up by Balog in order to avoid the word “család” (family).

Then came the official spokeswoman of Fidesz, Gabriella Selmeczi, who charged that the criticism of Human Rights Watch is not really about the shortcomings of Hungary’s handling of domestic violence. In this case, as usual, Selmeczi continued, “we are witnessing an artificially generated international pressure” on Hungary. She can’t help thinking of the relationship between HRW and George Soros, the American financier with Hungarian roots. After all, last year Soros gave 20 million dollars to the organization. Selmeczi also added that the same Soros “has given millions to Gordon Bajnai’s foundation and has business dealings with Ferenc Gyurcsány’s firms.”

It doesn’t seem to matter to the Fidesz propagandists that Gyurcsány’s firms have nothing to do with the finances of the party. Moreover, the so-called millions given to Bajnai’s foundation turned out to be a small grant for a few thousand dollars from one of Soros’s foundations. The same is true about the money Gyurcsány’s firm got. Soros has been since 2010 financing projects aimed at Roma integration throughout Europe. Altus, Gyurcsány’s firm, is involved with such projects in the Balkan region and this received $13,800 toward the financing of the project.

So this was yet another Fidesz attempt to discredit a respectable NGO, this time Human Rights Watch, by claiming that it is an instrument of George Soros aimed at bolstering the political chances of the opposition. Gabriella Selmeczi most likely forgot that in 2010 George Soros and Viktor Orbán actually, after many years, met again to discuss his Roma integration project. At this meeting Soros offered one million dollars to the Hungarian government after the red sludge accident in 2010. Soros apparently also offered financial assistance for the Orbán government’s efforts at Roma integration. I don’t know what happened afterward. It is possible that Soros changed his mind once he realized that Roma integration was transformed into Roma school segregation with the active assistance of Zoltán Balog.

In brief, the Orbán government’s commitment to seriously combating domestic violence is lukewarm at best. I highly doubt that the government will try to improve the existing ineffectual laws as a result of Human Rights Watch’s indictment of their shortcomings. I also doubt that the police’s reluctance to interfere in domestic disputes will change any time soon.

Viktor Orbán’s state visit in India

What a happy day for Viktor Orbán. He is on an official state visit to India, with all the attendant pomp and circumstance. I can well imagine his pride when he walked down the red carpet accompanied by a Indian officer, dressed all in white, with sword drawn. And that long line of soldiers several rows deep. I suggest that you take a look at the official photos on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Viktor Orbán in his element / Source: Viktor Orbán Facebook page

Viktor Orbán in his element / Source: Viktor Orbán Facebook page

In keeping with the Orbán government’s standard practice, the official word of his three-day visit to India came only yesterday afternoon, after he boarded the plane. The trip was announced both in Hungarian and in English. Mind you, the English version sounds a bit odd because it says that “the prime minister holds official visit in India.” (You see, this is what can happen when politicians buy certificates of foreign language proficiency, as we found out a few days ago. Language professors at the Hungarian Reformed University did a brisk business selling these phony certificates. Among their clients they had a VIP group that was handled separately.)

As soon as the news of Orbán’s trip was out, sarcastic headlines appeared in blogs and other Internet sites. I liked the one that read:  “Viktor Orbán will fight for three days in India.” Actually, ever since August when Péter Szijjártó visited New Delhi one could sense that something was in the offing even though in the past Szijjártó’s extensive travels seldom resulted in an invitation for a state visit. This time he was successful.

Orbán was accompanied by Mihály Varga, minister of economics, Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, and Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of  external economic relations and foreign affairs. The schedule is rather tight. Today Orbán delivered a lecture at the Indian Foreign Policy Institute entitled “Hungary and Europe in a Changing World,” and later in the day he will address the Hungary-India business forum. After meeting with Shree Pranab Mukherjee, India’s president, he will also “exchange views” with Sonia Ghandi, the chairman of the United Progressive Alliance. Tonight he will be meeting with India’s prime minister, Mamohan Singh, to sign several bilateral cooperation agreements in R & D, medicine, culture, sports, and aviation. Hmmm! Not exactly heavy-weight business cooperation between the two countries. Tomorrow he will open the Mumbai stock exchange and later in the day will inaugurate the opening of a Hungarian consulate in Mumbai.

“More than seventy Hungarian and several dozen Indian businessmen” attended his speech at the Foreign Affairs Institute. Considering that 66 Hungarian firms went along with the prime minister’s entourage, it looks as if Hungarian business interest in India may be greater than Indian business interest in Hungary. I would like to see the list of businessmen who went along with the official Hungarian delegation.

Orbán clearly would like to have more trade with non-European countries. He explained that 82% of Hungary’s exports go the countries in the European Union and three years ago only 8% went to non-European countries. This number by now is 12%, and “by 2018 he would like it to reach 33%.” He was always an ambitious man. He emphasized his own “re-industrialization” project which would provide great opportunities for Indian businessmen. Although the large business contingent indicates that he would also like to increase Hungary’s business footprint in India, the speech emphasized investment in Hungary where there are already a few Indian businesses. I do hope, however, that not too many Indian businessmen remember Apollo Tyres’s attempt to set up a factory in Gyöngyös in 2008, which Orbán managed to wreck.

Orbán spent a great deal of time expounding his long-held belief that European economic success will come only from the Central European region. He claimed that Hungary is one of those countries that have already left behind their economic woes and are on the road to spectacular near-term growth. He asked Indian businessmen and politicians “to put Central Europe on their map.” (The prime minister’s upbeat economic pronouncements came at about the same time a business analyst announced that there are two countries that aren’t following the Central European growth pattern: Hungary and Romania.)

It’s hard to imagine, but he even managed to squeeze into his speech his favorite theory of late: Europe’s past greatness derived from its Christian roots as formulated by Saint Benedict in his rules of monastic life “Ora et Labora” (Pray and Work). Today the old rule is still applicable. Only hard work and a return to its Christian roots will make Europe great again. The Indian audience  must have been impressed considering the religious diversity of their own country where one can find followers of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, and the Bahá’i Faith, just to mention the most important.

Of course, there will be more speeches and a lot of boasting about the successes of Hungary, but only time will tell how useful this trip was. Similar attempts in Russia, China, and the Middle East have brought only meager results thus far.

Joint effort of the Hungarian state and the churches to keep some schools segregated

It was about a week ago that I wrote a post about “the growing influence of the Catholic Church in Hungary.” In that post I mentioned that both the Church itself and Catholic lay organizations had acquired schools in Hungary. For example, the Kolping International has taken over at least three schools.

No one knew at that time that a school acquired several months ago by Kolping International in Szászberek (pop. 987) would soon be the focus of a huge controversy as it expanded its “campus” to take over part of the segregated public school of nearby Jászladány.

Jászladány has been in the news off and on since 2000 when the “independent” mayor of the town (pop. 6,000) decided that the single eight-grade elementary school was not big enough for both Gypsy and non-Gypsy children. I might add that according to the official statistics 11% of Jászladány’s population is Roma. So came the ingenious plan of establishing a private school, to be housed in part of the enlarged school building, where students had to pay tuition. The bulk of the expenses, however, were covered by the municipality.  For example, the newer half of the school building was given free of charge to the private foundation that ran the school. The town also allowed the new school to use all of the equipment that had earlier belonged to the public school. There was a door between the two wings of the school building, but it was locked for six solid years.

Those children whose parents could afford the tuition fees went to the good school; the rest, like the Roma, went to the inferior school. The “private school” children received all sorts of privileges. For example, a free lunch regardless of need. They were the first ones to receive free textbooks; the children in the “Gypsy” school got them only once everybody was served in the “private school.” At one point the Open Society Institute offered to pay the fees for those children who wanted to attend the private school. The Institute was told that it had missed the deadline.

Erzsébet Mohácsi, director of CFCF and lawyer for CFCF, Lilla Farkas after the Supreme Court's favorable decision

Erzsébet Mohácsi, director of CFCF, and lawyer for CFCF, Lilla Farkas, after the Supreme Court’s favorable decision

The head of the local Roma organization is an energetic man who soon enough called the attention of Esélyt a Hátrányos Helyzetű Gyermekekért Alapítvány (Foundation for Equal Opportunity of Underprivileged Children), popularly known as CFCF, to the situation in Jászladány. For ten years CFCF fought against the barely disguised segregation in Jászladány, losing one case after the other, until June 2011 when at last the Supreme Court (today the Kúria) ruled in favor of CFCF and Jászsági Roma Polgárjogi Szervezet (JRPSZ), a Roma organization in the area. The court ordered the town to work out a plan to integrate the two schools.

The new mayor, Katalin Drávucz (Fidesz), whose own child attends the “private school,” ostensibly complied with the court order. She began negotiations with the plaintiffs’ representatives to work out the details of the integration of the two schools. But behind their back she also began negotiations with the county’s “government office,” a newfangled institution that is supposed to be the arm of the central government in every county. Her real goal was to avoid the integration of the school in Jászladány.

They came up with a splendid solution: they decided to pass the private school over to Kolping International, which functions under the authority of the Archbishopric of Eger. The idea was to automatically transfer the pupils of the “private school” to the new Kolping Katolikus Általános Iskola. Although negotiations between the town and the “government office” began more than a year ago, the deal materialized only on August 30. Since Szászberek is only 10 km from Jászladány, the deal stipulated that the Szászberek Kolping school will simply “expand” and take over the former “private school” of Jászladány.

This new-old school will not charge tuition, but the Roma parents were not notified of this rather important change. By the time, practically on the day that school opened, the CFCF learned about it, it was far too late. They managed to get in touch with about twenty families, and a handful of children enrolled. The new Catholic school has no more places. As the spokesman for Kolping International said, their first obligation is to the children of the “private school.” Segregation remains intact in Jászladány. With the active participation of the Catholic Church.

And now let’s move back in time to the first months of the Orbán administration. Zoltán Balog, a Protestant minister and now the head of the mega-Ministry of Human Resources, was in charge of Roma integration in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. He often expounded on the plight of the Gypsies and promised all sorts of remedies. These remedies did not, however, include school integration. In his opinion, segregation works to the advantage of the underprivileged, most of whom are Roma. They need special attention to catch up with the other students. Of course, we know that this is a myth. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court declared when rendering its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” And, indeed, the special classes into which Roma children were herded in the past almost guaranteed failure. Balog, however, remains unrepentant. Only recently he repeated this mistaken notion when he sided with the Greek Catholic Church in a suit brought against it by the same CFCF that handled the Jászladány case.

What happened in this instance? In Nyíregyháza there was a school in a largely Roma inhabited section of town that was closed in 2007 because of its blatant segregation. In 2011, however, the new Fidesz administration in town reopened the school and it was given to the Greek Catholic Church. CFCF pointed out that only a couple of bus stops from this segregated school there was another school that is also run by the same Greek Catholic Church. It is a newly refurbished modern school. The Roma children could certainly attend that school. Balog offered himself as a witness on behalf of the Greek Catholic Church which refused to close the segregated school and refused to integrate the Roma children into their modern facilities.

There is more and more criticism of the churches lately because they seem singularly insensitive to social issues. Criticism of the Hungarian Catholic Church has grown especially harsh since the installation of Pope Francis, who has been a spokesperson for the downtrodden. Critics complain about the extreme conservatism of the Catholic hierarchy and point out that their involvement with charity work is minimal. It is quite clear from these two cases that the churches are reluctant to deal with disadvantaged children, Roma or not. And the good minister, Zoltán Balog, advocates keeping the disadvantaged separate from “mainstream” Hungarian children. The state and the churches are working hand in hand to keep segregation alive in the Hungarian public school system.

The growing influence of the Catholic Church in Hungary

A few days ago I wrote about Ágoston Sámuel Mráz’s Nézőpont Intézet which, among other things,  tries to refute foreign newspapers’ descriptions of Hungary under Viktor Orbán. I mentioned that Nézőpont really takes offense if someone accuses the Hungarian government of trying to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. Well, I wonder what will happen if one of these antagonistic foreign journalists finds out what Sándor Lezsák, one of the deputy speakers of the House, had to say in Kenderes on the twentieth anniversary of the reburial of Miklós Horthy. Lezsák expressed his wish that a new research institute be established in Kenderes in which all the documentation relating to the Horthy family would be gathered and where young historians could become acquainted with the true history of the Horthy regime.

The rehabilitation of the Horthy regime goes on in practically all facets of life. For example, what’s going on in the field of education is also reminiscent of the pre-1945-46 period when the overwhelming majority of schools, especially gymnasiums, were in the hands of the churches. There were some Hungarian Reformed and Lutheran schools but not too many for the simple reason that these churches were not as rich as the Hungarian Catholic Church. It could easily happen that even in a larger provincial city children wanting to attend gymnasium had to enroll in the Catholic school because there was no public school in town. It seems that, if it depended on Rózsa Hoffmann, very soon a similar situation will occur in “Christian” Hungary.

Rózsa Hoffmann wasn’t always that devoted to the service of God and the Catholic Church, but sometime after the regime change she saw the light. Nowadays she acts as the instrument of the Hungarian Catholic Church, her goal being “to educate more and  more children in the Christian faith.” Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that the pious undersecretary for public education gave one of her many speeches marking the beginning of the new school year in the Basilica of Eger. I wouldn’t be surprised if soon enough all public school children were herded into one of the nearby Catholic churches for Veni Sancte as I was in grade one. Quite an experience for someone who hadn’t seen the inside of a church, any church, until then.

medieval school

Hoffmann is working assiduously to achieve this goal. She was rapturous over the growing number of parochial schools and expressed her hope that soon enough Christian education will begin in kindergarten. It’s never too early to start, and since all children from here on must attend kindergarten from the age of three we can be sure that if the government decides on universal Christian education it will be done. After all, the school system is totally centralized. In fact, terribly overcentralized. While she was at it, Hoffmann proudly announced that 52% of first graders opted for religion over ethics. It is now compulsory to take one or the other.

Many Hungarians are a great deal less enthusiastic about this transformation of secular public education, especially since Hoffmann’s missionary work is being paid for by the Hungarian taxpayers who are not necessarily Christians, or even believers. Because one cannot emphasize enough that this expansion of the parochial school system is financed exclusively by the central budget. At least in the Horthy regime the Catholic Church and parents footed the bill.  A somewhat radical critique of the Orbán government’s support of the Catholic Church can be found on one of the well known Hungarian blogs, Gépnarancs, whose name is a take-off on Fidesz’s official color, orange, and Lajos Simicska’s Közgép, considered to be the financial lynch pin of the Orbán system.

It is not only the Catholic Church that has been acquiring schools. Just lately I read about three schools that had been taken over by Kolping International, a lay organization whose members allegedly “participate in a socially just transformation of society.” The organization is named after a nineteenth-century German Catholic priest Adolph Kolping. Kolping International has over 400,000 members. One these new Kolping schools is an elementary school in Pócspetri. Another is opening in Szászberek where even the school’s new name gives it away. It is called Szászbereki Kolping Katolikus Általános Iskola.  And naturally Rózsa Hoffmann was on hand in Csurgó where the Kolping Foundation will run a high school for 600 students. I guess it was time to open a Catholic school in Csurgó because there is already a Hungarian Reformed high school in town. Here Hoffmann lectured about the “morality” that had been cast aside. She promised that the new Hungarian school system will make sure that Hungarian children will return to the world of morality because “one must not live without values.” I agree in principle, but what kinds of values is Hoffmann talking about?

After Hoffmann visited several Catholic parochial schools it was time to go to a Hungarian Reformed school, the famous Debreceni Református Kollégium established in 1538. After all, Hoffmann’s boss, Zoltán Balog, is a Hungarian Reformed minister whose son happens to be a student there. Given the government’s political grip on education, it was not amusing to hear Balog ask the teachers not to allow politics to infiltrate the schools. It was also somewhat ironic to hear within the walls of a parochial school that “the government believes in public education.” But I guess if parochial schools are being funded by the public, they by default become public schools.

Rózsa Hoffmann spent most of her time defending the complete reorganization of the Hungarian school system. I was astonished to hear that this school year is the 1018th in the history of the nation. It seems that Ms. Hoffmann believes that the first “school” in Hungary was established in 995. A brave assumption. What I know is that it was in this year that Saint Adalbert of Prague arrived in Hungary to begin his missionary work. Otherwise, Hoffmann praised her own accomplishments, including personally appointing all new school principals. Such an arrangement “symbolizes greater respect for the principals than before.” Hoffmann also announced that it is “wise love (okos szeretet) [that] distinguishes [the Orbán government’s] pedagogical philosophy from others in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” “Wise love” will be taught in religion and ethics classes.

Of course, I have no idea what “wise love” is. I trust it is not “tough love.” What these kids will learn in religion or ethics classes I have no idea. I just hope more than we learned during compulsory religion classes before the communist takeover. Then it was tough love all right. The minister who taught us didn’t spare the rod; boys who misbehaved were caned.

In the last minute, Hungary’s teachers received a modest raise

An extraordinary parliamentary session had to be convened because a 2011 law mandating a substantial increase in teachers’ salaries was in need of modification. The law was supposed to take effect on September 1, 2013, so time was in short supply. Yesterday the honorable members conducted an abbreviated version of the usual parliamentary debate and today came the vote. All went smoothly: 257 people voted for it, 34 against it, and 2 abstained. MSZP, LMP, and PM had great reservations but in the end voted for it. DK announced early on that their members would vote against it. One of the abstentions was Zoltán Pokorni, former Fidesz minister of education, who has had a longstanding battle with Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of education in the current Orbán government, over this government’s ideas about education in general.

Why was it necessary to modify the bill? The answer is simple. The original law that was enacted in December 2011 promised a substantial increase in teacher’s salaries. But then came 2012 and the first six months of 2013 and it became obvious that there was no money for it. But some boost in compensation had to be given to the teachers who by and large were Fidesz supporters in 2010. And the next election is not so far away. Thus came the “solution”: 150,000-160,000 teachers will receive 60% of the promised amount. The rest will be handed out in 10% increments until 2017. That, of course, is just another promise; the final decision will depend on the state of the budget. So Dóra Duró (Jobbik) was right when she complained that the extraordinary session was convened not to discuss “the increase in teacher’s  salaries” but rather their decrease.

Mrs. István Galló, leader of the Teachers' Union, Zoltán Balog, and Rózsa Hoffmann, January 2013

Mrs. István Galló, leader of the Teachers’ Union, Zoltán Balog, and Rózsa Hoffmann, January 2013

Moreover, the extra salary will entail more work. Instead of 21-22 hours of teaching a week, teachers will have teach 26 hours after which, whether they have formal obligations or not, they will have to spend an additional six hours inside the school. As Hoffmann said, it is not right that teachers can go home after they are finished teaching. I must say that one doesn’t expect such a stupid remark from someone who was trained as a teacher although admittedly she didn’t spend much time in the job. A teacher must correct tests, essays, and homework which he can certainly do at home. A conscientious teacher must prepare his lectures for the next day or write a study plan. I would say that one can do all this better at home than in the teachers’ room where most of the teachers don’t even have a separate desk. School teachers are not in the same position as university professors who normally have offices where they can work in peace surrounded by their books.

All in all, teachers will have to spend 32 hours a week or almost 6.5 hours a day inside the school building. Until now those who taught more than the base 22 hours got extra pay. This will no longer be the case. Under the new system only those teachers who have “homeroom” duties (osztályfőnök) or who supervise students who live in dormitories attached to the schools will get added compensation.

According to calculations, on average teacher salaries will grow by 34 percent.  There will, however, be significant variations. For instance, a twenty-seven-year-old teacher will get a larger raise than will a 53-year-old who had extra pay because he was also a vice-principal. As one teacher’s union leader said, the new system doesn’t reward more work, more diplomas, or better quality teaching because for none of these will a teacher receive extra remuneration.  Moreover, some teachers will receive even less money than before. According to estimates, there might be as many as 4,000-5,000 such individuals. Yesterday Zoltán Pokorni (Fidesz) tried to remedy this situation by offering an amendment that would have kept some of the extra pay for extra work, but by last night he withdrew his suggestion, most likely because of pressure from party and government officials. At that point Gergely Farkas (Jobbik) turned in the same amendment, which naturally the government majority voted down.

Fidesz used this partial fulfillment of the promised salary increase for teachers as an occasion to boast about its fantastic accomplishments. Antal Rogán, head of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, touted the sharp rise in real wages in 2013. He claimed that between the second quarter of 2010 and the same period in 2013 real wages grew by 13.1%. He also announced that the salaries of government employees can finally be raised substantially, thanks to the freedom Hungary achieved by paying back early and in full the loan it received from the IMF and the EU. If that hadn’t happened, Rogán claimed, the Hungarian government couldn’t have raised the salaries of doctors and teachers. I think it is unnecessary to point out that this is an outright lie. But, unfortunately, most Fidesz and government propaganda has no basis in reality.

How much is how much when it comes to teachers’ salaries in Hungary

As we know only too well, teachers’ salaries are extremely low in Hungary and teachers haven’t had a raise since the 2008 financial crisis. Given the fairly high inflation rate, at least until recently, the already very low living standards of teachers have further deteriorated in the last five years.

For some time it looked as if the Orbán government had no intention of raising salaries this year. Undersecretary Rózsa Hoffmann kept promising the raise, but the date kept getting pushed out. Eventually, it seems, the Fidesz politicos came to the conclusion that something must give, especially since the election is less than a year away.

The Orbán government had already mandated an increase in teacher work loads. They raised the number of classes teachers have to give each week. When not actually teaching, teachers from here on will have to remain within the walls of the schools for at kleast 32 hours and do whatever the principal asks them to do. And, in addition, the government insisted that if there is a salary raise the practice of paying extra for teaching classes over and above the compulsory work load must come to an end.

Source: qalapwu.com

Source: qalapwu.com

The long, complicated negotiations over salaries split the two teachers’ unions. But now even the more pliant Mrs. István Galló concedes that, although some teachers will do better than before, the majority will see mighty few benefits from the promised salary raise. Mrs. Galló, however, felt that her union had no choice but to reach an agreement with the government because otherwise even those few benefits wouldn’t have materialized. She was convinced that she couldn’t credibly threaten the government with a general teachers’ strike. Teachers are so worried about their jobs that they will settle for very little as opposed to nothing.

According to the final settlement, the raise will be given out gradually between September 1 of this year and 2017. Zoltán Balog promised that come September the teachers will receive 60% of the full amount. That would mean, he claimed, a 34% raise on average.

But then some investigative reporters began scrutinizing leaked documents and came to the conclusion that the numbers didn’t add up, that another 7 billion forints was necessary to reach the 60% figure in September. They concluded that the most the government is planning to give in September is only 50% of the total amount promised.

A few days later Népszava received a leaked document in which they found an 11 billion forint gap between the ostensibly negotiated raise and the actual figures that will appear as a budget item. They came to the conclusion that the government is planning to let several thousand teachers go over and above those who have already been barred from teaching because they either reached or are over the compulsory retirement age of 65. Naturally, the Ministry of Human Resources announced today that not a word of this speculation is true and that “the government counts on the work of teachers who are employees of the state at the moment.”

I myself have no idea how much more money teachers will get from September 1 on. One thing the teachers are already sure of–there will be great disparities in pay. As for the children, they will spend a lot more time in school. So will the teachers. From here on they will have to spend 32 hours in the school itself, during which they will be obliged to teach if necessary. Without additional compensation. So, in the end the salaries might be higher but the amount of work will also be greater. If a teacher until now had to teach only 22 hours and will have to teach 26 hours (and possibly 32), the raise, viewed as forints per hour, might not be much of a raise at all.

Admittedly, there’s a fair amount of fat in the Hungarian educational system. It’s inefficient, and deleterious to educational attainment, to have a school in every village instead of busing kids to regional schools. And having an average class size of 13-14 students in Budapest schools is a real luxury. For instance, in Westport, CT, which is one of the wealthiest communities in the state with a median family income of around $200,000 and a school system to match, the average class size is 21. Admittedly, not all Hungarian schools have such a high teacher: student ratio as the ones in Budapest. I checked out Viktor Orbán’s old high school in Székesfehérvár and found that the average class size there is about 35. Apparently, class size can be adjusted “according to need.”

But not properly compensating teachers may be counterproductive. Thanks to Rózsa Hoffmann, teacher education falls outside of the by now generally accepted Bologna system. It is a six-year course of study. How many bright 18-year-olds would want to commit themselves to paying high tuition fees for six years only to end up in a career that pays miserably and carries little prestige? And that, by the by, doesn’t port well if they decide to leave the country.