The Latest Target In Viktor Orbán's 'Clean Up' Of Hungary? Religion

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s conservative Fidesz and KDNP parties are using a two-thirds majority in Parliament to govern at will. After new controls over the media, the government wants new regulations over religious gro

Pastor Gabor Ivanyi of Hungary's Evangelical Brotherhood (Wikipedia)
Pastor Gabor Ivanyi of Hungary's Evangelical Brotherhood (Wikipedia)
Stefanie Bolzen

BUDAPEST - Tamás Lukács chairs the Hungarian parliament's 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 People's Party (KDNP), is one of those deciding Hungary's fate: and that now includes the fate of its religions.

The KDNP is the minority partner of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's conservative Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) party. Since the Spring of 2010, Fidesz and the KDNP have enjoyed a powerful two-thirds majority in Hungary's unicameral parliament, the National Assembly. They've 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 Budapest's 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 it's 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 Brotherhood's 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 Orbán's 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 doesn't tolerate criticism. But I'm not going to hide my opinions," says the man of the cloth whose parish doesn't 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.

It's 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 Hungary's 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 Jehovah's Witnesses. The petitions of a further 66 Church communities were refused – among them, Ivanyi's Brotherhood, a Methodist break-away group.

"A corrupt state apparatus'

Tamás Lukács has no compunctions about airing the reasons for the refusal of Ivanyi's 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 that's 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 couldn't 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 Hungary's 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

Photo - Wikipedia

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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