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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)-- Hungary's parliament is to vote Monday, March 11, on constitutional changes that critics claim will turn the nation into a dictatorship and threatens religious freedom. The lengthy amendment of an already controversial constitution is expected to be adopted, despite protests in Hungary and abroad.
"A real constitution, democracy and the rule of law" shouted thousands of Hungarians over the weekend in Budapest, where they rallied to protest the planned fourth amendment since the constitution took effect in January 2012.
Demonstrators said lawmakers from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's right-wing Fidesz party want to strengthen his government's power over all key institutions ranging from churches to the media, the judiciary, universities and the central bank.
Evangelical Christians are especially concerned as Fidesz legislators want to reinstate policies struck down by the Constitutional Court including parts of a religious law under which only 32 of some 350 faith groups in Hungary received formal recognition by Parliament to operate as churches.
Last week, Gábor Iványi , head pastor of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, an independent Methodist congregation in Budapest, expressed hope that his battle for recognition was over after the court said the law could lead to "politically motivated decisions on recognition."
Pastor Iványi said his group lost its church status and was forced to become an association, hitting its funding and relief work including tending daily to 1,000 homeless people. “The Fellowship, in God’s name, welcomes the constitutional court ruling with joy. [The church law] destroyed the right to freedom of conscience and religion,” he said in published remarks.
However under the amendment seen by BosNewsLife his group and other faith organizations will need parliamentary approval to be recognized as churches. Among the requirements is their collaboration with the state, something rights activists fear will mean the end of religious freedom in Hungary.
Additionally, the amendment reinstates other measures overruled by the Constitutional Court, such as restricting election campaigning to only state media and forcing university students who accepted state scholarships to work in Hungary for years after they graduate.
The Constitutional Court's objections will be rendered invalid.
Philosopher and writer Miklós Tamás Gáspár suggested to demonstrators that Hungary will be turned into a dictatorship. "This constitution violates people's rights and freedom," he said. "Is this the government for the people?"
Earlier protesters screaming "the constitution is not a game!" climbed over the fence of the ruling party's headquarters where an activist warned the amended constitution would also target the most vulnerable people, including the homeless.
"The constitution will say that homelessness is a crime. But we think they should fight against poverty not against the poor people," he said, referring to plans to jail or fine them.
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The United States and the European Union share the protesters concerns. "These amendments deserve closer scrutiny and more deliberate consideration, as they could threaten the principles of institutional independence and checks and balances that are the hallmark of democratic governance," said the U.S. State Department in a statement obtained by BosNewsLife.
In a phone call Friday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso urged the prime minister to ensure the constitution, or Fundamental Law as it is known in Hungary, is "in accordance with EU democratic principles."
Yet, the faction leader of the ruling Fidesz party, Antal Rogán, rejected international criticism.
"We can not accept pressure politics. It is impossible to imagine that outsiders from abroad dictate what Parliament has to do," he added.
"Parliament is a sovereign institution with accountability only to the voters."
Yet, many of them apparently wonder whether the government they elected will respect their previously constitutional rights, with opinion polls showing a decline in support for Fidesz.
There is little the opposition can do as Orbán already neutralized domestic challengers by putting allies in the media council, the state audit office, the central bank and other organizations. And, his party has a comfortable two-thirds majority in Parliament.
Commentators have said that the 49-year-old Orbán's repeated attempts to concentrate power and carry out what he calls the "revolution in a voting booth" seem to contradict his past.
Once known as an anti-communist dissident, he entered the political stage in 1989 by publicly calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary and the end of the Communist dictatorship.
He made those comments during the historic reburial of Prime Minister Imre Nagy, who was executed by Hungary's Communist-era regime for his role in the 1956 Revolution against Soviet domination.
Yet, the dissident-turned-power-eager Prime Minister Orbán defends his perceived autocratic policies, saying they are aimed at overcoming the legacy of Communism.
His government claims it also protects Hungarian families in this heavily Catholic country, by recognizing marriage in the constitution as a "union of a man and a woman."
But with many youngsters saying they want to leave, according to research, questions remain as to how many Hungarians familie are willing to stay in what critics call 'Orbánistan'.
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