By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)-- A key official of Hungary's ruling center-right Fidesz party has submitted a draft law to parliament that is expected to make it potentially impossible for newer evangelical churches to be recognized by the state.
Fidesz caucus leader János Lázár asked legislators to ensure that only churches with at least "100 years of international operations" can be recognized, with others being forced to re-register themselves in front of parliament's religious committee if they want to continue as an official church.
Officials said so far over 70 communities have submitted such requests, but Fidesz legislator Gergely Gulyás acknowledged that only "about 12 new churches" could be recognized by late February.
Lázár's initiative, revealed Friday, December 23, comes just days after the Constitutional Court struck down the previous version of the restrictive church legislation, which only recognizes 14 of the 358 faith groups in Hungary.
The draft law, which critics say resembles Hungary's previous Communist-era, is similar to the legislation the Constitutional Court rejected "on procedural grounds".
One new element makes official recognition of the Hare Krishna sect impossible, though another takes away a clause that would have deprived the group of its land. Another group, the Church of Scientology, will also not get official status amid security concerns, Gulyás said, refecting view in several other countries including Germany where it has been investigated by authorities for alleged wrongdoing, charges denied by the group.
Yet, newer Hungarian evangelical churches, who emerged publicly after the collapse of Communism in 1989, can also expect difficulties because the proposed law only recognizes Hungary's traditional Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox denominations, as well as some Jewish groups.
Several evangelical congregations and other groups operating outside the state-approved denominations, held underground worship services under Communism, an era when some were raided by police and several Christians were jailed, put under house arrest or under surveillance, and lost their jobs.
While police raids are not expected yet, newer churches 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 impoverished Hungarians receiving church support, including many Gypsies, or Roma, are among this be impacted by the move in this predominantly Catholic nation of 10 million people, the opposition says.
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 law was condemned as a "serious setback for religious freedom in Hungary" in a petition to parliament by the Southern Baptist Convention, Hungary's Civil Liberties Union and Helsinki Committee and other groups.
Hungary's smaller Church of God, said recently the law's final text had been "very different" than the version shown to faith groups during a May consultation. "I don't think anyone will come and tell us we can't worship God," explained Laszlo Debreceni, a leader of the church, which claims to have been in Hungary since 1907 but was stripped of recognition under the law. "But it will raise serious issues that some churches are now on the approved list and others not."
Lazar said however he had asked the Hungarian Reformed Church and the Hungarian Lutheran Church to name the "global religions and religious communities" which they believe should be added to the circle of recognized churches in Hungary. Both churches had urged the government to expand the church status to other faith groups.
In a letter, Lazar urged them to identify those communities who “have demonstrated that their teachings promote values and their social services benefit the community.”
However advocacy group Freedom House has condemned the 'Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Community' as government interference in faith.
"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," said Paula Schriefer, the group's director of advocacy.
The United States also expressed concerns with 13 members of Congress urging Prime Minister Viktor Orban to change the law. In a letter this month they repeated demands by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to bring the law into line with international human rights agreements.
And, in one of her strongest remarks yet, US ambassador Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos expressed concerns about the government's policies. "I urge the government to look again. A number of credible voices are raising questions. Are there sufficient checks and balances built in to the new system such that the
independence of democratic institutions is maintained for future generations of Hungarians?"
Despite an international outcry, the 'Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Community', was expected to be adopted after Christmas ahead of the January 1 enforcement of a controversial constitution, which limits the powers of the Constitutional Court and other institutions.
The Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has a two-third majority in parliament and already pushed through several laws, ranging from media legislation requiring "balanced reporting" to election laws that the opposition says ensures its rule for years to come.
US, EU CONCERNS
Additionally, the European Union and United States have also expressed concerns over financial legislation, including a law limiting the independence of the Central Bank.
Thousands of people demonstrated late Friday against "the end of democracy" in this nation fo 10 million people amid Western concerns over the alleged autocratic and nationalistic policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Some 26 activists, including legislators and former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, were briefly detained Friday, December 23, after they blocked access to the parliament building with several demonstrators chained to the entrance of the parking area.
Yet, Fidesz legislators managed to get into the parliament building, rubber stamping laws about the economy and elections, despite a call from European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso not to adopt the legislation amid fears it could undermine the independence of key institutions.
Prime Minister Orban Viktor Oban has rejected international criticism questioning his democratic credentials. " I told him (President Barroso) that there was no possibility to delay [the laws] as our Constitution will take effect on January 1 ... and both laws are important bricks in the new constitutional order,"
Orban told HirTV in an interview.
"Brussels is not Moscow", he said in reference to the time when Hungary was forced to be a sattelite of the Soviet Union. "There are over 700 such disputes between member states and the Commission in which the Commission attacked the given member state and said some of its legislation went against EU law."
Hungary became a member of the European Union on May 1, 2004 with nine other mainly ex-Communist countries.