By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Hungary’s center-right government is under international pressure to revoke a new church law that critics say resembles the Communist-era, BosNewsLife established Sunday, August 14.
The influential Washington-based human rights group Freedom House has added its voice against the legislation, which restricts the officially recognized churches in Hungary to just over a dozen religious communities.
“It is unconscionable that any democratic country, particularly one that so recently freed itself from a Communist system in which all religious freedom was repressed, could pass such discriminatory legislation,” said Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy at Freedom House.
Under last month’s adopted ‘Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Community’ only 14 of the 358 faith groups in Hungary will be granted formal recognition to operate as churches in this country of some 10 million people.
The law, which passed with 254 votes in favor and 43 against, recognizes Hungary’s predominant Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox denominations, as well as some Jewish groups.
HUNDREDS NOT RECOGNIZED
Hundreds of other groups, including several evangelical churches, automatically lose their “registered” status as of January 1, 2012. While police raids are not expected yet, they will no longer receive key financial support and tax advantages from the state for their social and charitable work.
At least tens of thousands of deeply inpoverished Hungarians receiving church support, including many Gypsies, or Roma, will be impacted by the move, critics say.
Freedom House said it was concerned that groups have to meet seven different criteria and a two-thirds parliamentary majority must approve any registration application.
To become legally recognized, religious groups must obtain 1000 citizen signatures and have a presence in Hungary for 20 years or more.
CHURCH OF GOD
Among those that will have to go through a difficult process to regain registered status is Hungary’s Church of God, which traces its roots to 1907 but was stripped of recognition under the new law.
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“I don’t think anyone will come and tell us we can’t worship God,” added László Debreceni, a leader of the church in a published interview. “But it will raise serious issues that some churches are now on the approved list and others not.”
Hungary’s Methodist Church and a number of Islamic groups are among others being targeted by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has faced Western criticism for his perceived autocratic and nationalistic style.
The government has denied wrongdoing, saying the law is aimed at abuse of state resources at a time of a deep economic crisis.
However, “This kind of legislation that favors certain religions over others is typical of what one finds in countries such as Russia and Malaysia and is incompatible with liberal democracies,” countered Schriefer.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM URGED
“Freedom House calls on the government of Hungary to adhere to the protections enshrined in its constitution, which includes the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice, and get out of the business of evaluating which religions it deems worthy,” she said.
Freedom House earlier urged United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to convey American concerns about the law.
Even Hungary’s former Communists-turned-Socialists, who are now in opposition, have called the law adoption date of July 12 “a day of mourning in church history”.
The Socialists described the vote as “unworthy of the churches or the freedoms of religion and conscience.”
FORMER DISSIDENTS CONCERNED
Prominent members of Hungary’s democratic opposition in the 1970s and 80s agree. They have written to human rights commissioners of the European Union and the Council of Europe (CoE) asking them to intervene.
Over a dozen signatories to the letter requested EU Commissioner Viviane Reding and CoE Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg “to take resolute action in defense of freedom of religion and other fundamental liberties that are presently in great danger” in Hungary.
“Never before has a Member State of the EU so blatantly dared to go against the principles of freedom of beliefs, equality before the law, and separation of church from state. These are all established fundamental rights in our common Europe,” they also wrote.
Those signing the letter included former Budapest mayor and dissident Gábor Demszky as well as prominent writers and thinkers Miklós Haraszti, Gábor Ivány, János Kenedi, György Konrád, Ferenc Kőszeg, Magyar Bálint, Imre Mécs and László Rajk.
The church law is the latest in laws that have concerned the international community. Hungary’s six-month EU presidency this year was overshadowed by criticism over its media law and constitution that rights activists say limits press freedom and government interference in previously independent institutions such as the Constitutional Court.