By Stefan J. Bos, BosNewsLife Chief International Correspondent reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)-- Hungary's worst snowstorm in living memory forced the opposition to cancel rallies against a perceived autocratic amendment to the Constitution that critics claim threatens religious freedom and democratic principles.
Thousands of Hungarians were forced to spend the night in their cars or roadside buildings after being stranded by the unusual weather on major Hungarian highways, including the M1 between Budapest and Vienna, the capitals of Hungary and Austria. At least 40 cars crashed on the M7, another motorway running from Hungary's capital to Croatia.
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Amid the chaos, the Together 2014 Party of Gordon Bajnai, a former prime minister, was among those changing plans to organize protests on the day Hungarians commemorate the 1848 Revolution against Habsburg rule.
"Its just not safe to come," Bajnai said in a statement. Hungary's Interior Ministry send out text messages to millions of mobile phone users warning them to stay inside their cars when running out of fuel.
Tanks drove through snow-stricken streets and highways Friday, March 15, as the military was involved in a nationwide effort to rescue Hungarians.
The battle against the forces of nature isn't easy admitted Hungary's Interior Minister Sándor Pintér "There are wind gusts of 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles) and snow is three meters (10 feet) high at several places," he said. "Rescue workers could free hundreds of cars with passengers stuck in the snow."
However Pintér warned that many more were still stranded on highways. "We try to reach them with water, food and fuel to stay warm inside" their snow covered vehicles, the minister explained.
Some 100.000 Hungarians were without electricity. Similar reports emerged from neighboring nations, including Slovakia, where about 20,000 households in the east were without electricity after high winds damaged the grid.
In the Balkans in neighboring Serbia and south across Montenegro, melting snow caused rivers to burst their banks and flood some villages, residents said. Elsewhere in Kosovo an 8-year old girl reportedly drowned when a river burst its banks and swept her downriver.
In Hungary there were also massive accidents involving cars, trucks and buses killing at least one person and injuring some 100 people, authorities said.
It was almost impossible to leave the capital Budapest, as police blocked key high ways around this city of some two million people, amid fears of more victims.
The snow storm came as a major setback for the Hungarian opposition pushing for outdoor protests against a constitutional amendment rushed through Parliament this week by the ruling Fidesz party and its tiny Christian Democratic ally.
Critics say the changes to the Constitution, or Fundamental Law as it is called in Hungary, will consolidate power of the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his supporters over key institutions, ranging from the media, judiciary, central bank and even churches.
Evangelical Christians fear 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.
Gábor Iványi , head pastor of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, an independent Methodist congregation in Budapest, said the law could lead to "politically motivated decisions on recognition."
The leader of Liberals in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, shares concerns over the Constitution, urging Europe to act against the latest constitutional changes. "What is happening is that Mr. Orbán is laughing and joking with us by in fact doing this," he told this week's parliamentary session in Strasbourg, France.
Prime Minister Orbán denies wrongdoing saying Europe doesn't understand that his government has replaced the previous Stalinist-era Constitution with a document that he says defends families and Christian values.
However evangelicals point out that these "values" should be in line with Orbán's playbook, not necessarily the Bible. Among demands towards faith groups is that they "collaborate" with the state, according to the amendment seen by BosNewsLife.
Orbán counters that the Constitution is in line with European norms.
Yet, for now he faces turbulence in Brussels...and a snowstorm at home.
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