By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Hundreds of protesting pastors and other evangelical Christians failed Friday, December 30, to prevent the adoption of the European Union’s most restrictive church law, limiting the number of faith groups recognized, and supported, by the state.
Under the ‘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 on New Year’s Day to operate as churches.
Those recognized include “traditional” Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran and Orthodox Churches as well as some Jewish groups.
Newer evangelical churches as well as Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu religious groups, will have the opportunity to apply for recognition in parliament if they are 100 years old or operate for at least 20 years in Hungary.
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That will prove difficult for several evangelical congregations who emerged publicly following the collapse of Communism when thriving churches often faced a crackdown by authorities.
And, whether they can be recognized and receive state support depends on a two-third parliamentary majority.
The church law passed Friday, December 30, with a two-thirds majority of mainly Prime Minister Viktor Orbán center-right Fidesz party, despite concerns it will lead to religious policies similar to Hungary’s previous Communist regime.
Outside the parliament building, evangelical Christians were seen praying, singing songs, and holding banners including “Jesus Lives”. Pastors told the crowd to expect difficulties under the adopted legislation, which resembles the law overturned last week by the Constitutional Court on procedural grounds.
“Those who voted for the law are not with us,” said Pastor Gábor Iványi, president of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (HEF), an umbrella group of evangelical groups and churches. “This is called dictatorship”, he added.
He isn’t alone in his concerns. In a letter, leaked Friday, December 30, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “deeply concerned” over the law on religion.
The law “makes the recognition of churches and religions difficult or even impossible, and the fact that … the approval of two-thirds of the parliament is necessary makes the decision on fundamental human rights unduly political,” Clinton said in her letter, published by Hungarian media.
In an open letter to the Human Rights Commissioners of the European Commission and the Council of Europe, former political dissidents who opposed the Communist era, warned this year that the legislation will have far reaching social consequences.
“Many of the now de-registered churches have been leaders in social services for the homeless, the elderly and the poor. They have provided assistance for tens of thousands of persons in need, including the Roma, inmates, children and young people. Withdrawing their subsidies leads the way to a social disaster,” they wrote.
“Several of the cast-out churches have been running successful middle and higher education schools which now will be denied accreditation.”
Iványi said the law comes as a major setback for his HEF, which was founded in the 1970s by pastors and congregations that were driven out of the Methodist church by what he called “that times’ anti-religious secular authorities.”
HEF, he said, “founded several homeless shelters, various homes for elderly, provides child welfare services, and runs numerous other social, health and educational institutes that serve more than 6000 people.”
The new law comes into effect on January 1, the same day when a new constitution is introduced, which critics say has been designed to keep Fidesz in power.
GOD AND CHRISTIANITY
Commentators have noted that the constitution cites God and Christianity, although only about 13 percent of the population regularly goes to church in this heavily Catholic nation.
The constitution also refers to marriage as a union between a man and a woman and to life as beginning at conception.
Orbán has defended the policies and warned Friday, December 30, that “Nobody can interfere with Hungarian legislative work, there is no one in the world who might tell the elected deputies of the Hungarian people which act to pass and which not to.”
He indirectly referred to international concerns about his policies. Besides issues such as the church law, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso had demanded in a letter written to Orbán to withdraw contested legislation including a law critics claim amounts to a government take over of the Central Bank.
The legislation was adopted Friday, December 30, with a massive majority in the Fidesz-dominated parliament.