BUDAPEST - Tamás Lukács chairs the Hungarian parliaments committee for human rights. His committee is also responsible for religious matters, and as its lead figure there were times when he could feel a little godlike himself.
Especially since Lukács, as a member of the Christian Democratic Peoples Party (KDNP), is one of those deciding Hungarys fate: and that now includes the fate of its religions.
The KDNP is the minority partner of Prime Minister Viktor Orbáns conservative Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) party. Since the Spring of 2010, Fidesz and the KDNP have enjoyed a powerful two-thirds majority in Hungarys unicameral parliament, the National Assembly. Theyve used that influence to impose its will across all areas of society the media, jobs market, the judiciary, even the independence of the National Bank.
And another vital part of Hungarian life is also affected: religion. Hundreds of religious groupings now risk losing the right to legally be considered a Church. Being recognized as a Church is not a right but a grace, a favor, Lukács explained. And whoever has not been granted that favor now has the status of association, with all the legal and financial consequences.
Those consequences are being felt first-hand at a homeless shelter in Budapests 8th district. Operated by a group called the Evangelical Brotherhood, the facility provides food and shelter to as many as 1,000 people a day even though its equipped to receive just 300. But because the Evangelical Brotherhood recently lost its official status as a Church, it may soon have to shutter the busy shelter. According to the Brotherhoods own estimates, it has lost half its income due to the withdrawal of government support.
Costly political fallout
Pastor Gabor Ivanyi has headed the Brotherhood for many years. The man with the long white bushy beard is well known in Hungary from public protests and TV appearances. And he has direct ties to Prime Minister Orbán. Ivanyi baptized the first two of Orbáns five children. In the 1990s, both men represented liberal parties in parliament. But as Orbán and his Fidesz party became more and more conservative, Ivanyi moved away from his former political friend.
Orbán doesnt tolerate criticism. But Im not going to hide my opinions, says the man of the cloth whose parish doesnt only care for the homeless but makes it possible for 3,000 Roma children to get an education and trains social workers at its own institution of higher learning. The parish also employs 800 people.
Its possible that Ivanyi will now have to pay an expensive price for his outspoken criticism of the government. The reason is the new law on Churches that Fidesz pushed through last summer, and which came into effect at the beginning of this year. It represents yet another cleansing action on the part of the Orbán government. Orbán sees every reason to put Churches on his very long black list because, he says, a significant number of them were only created to avoid taxes.
Only a few of Hungarys roughly 350 small Churches have been able to survive the new law. At the end of February, after a deadline extension due to outside pressure, parliament recognized just 32 Churches and religious communities, among them the two major Christian Churches, Muslims, Adventists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Anglicans, Copts, Mormons, five Buddhist communities, Hindus, and Jehovahs Witnesses. The petitions of a further 66 Church communities were refused among them, Ivanyis Brotherhood, a Methodist break-away group.
A corrupt state apparatus
Tamás Lukács has no compunctions about airing the reasons for the refusal of Ivanyis petition: Why does he think we would continue to financially support his set-up? Just because the preceding government -- that he had close ties to -- gave him public funds? Does he think thats what being a religion is all about? People have to decide if they want to be involved in religion or in politics, he told German TV channel NDR.
Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton couldnt bring any influence to bear in Budapest. In a letter, she expressed her concern that the requirement for two-thirds approval by Parliament unnecessarily politicizes decisions surrounding a basic human right. To no avail.
The head of the Council of Europe also criticized the law, saying that some of the decisions appeared to be arbitrary and that clear, strict criteria were needed. For her part, Kinga Göncz Hungarys former Foreign Minister and a member of the European parliament, said that Fidesz was attempting to give privileges to some and to shut out others in order to build up a corrupt state apparatus.
Read the original story in German
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