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
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
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