By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)-- Uncertainty remained Sunday, February 16, over the future of one of Hungary's main evangelical denominations after it lost its church status and the government rejected an expert opinion about its "religious legitimacy."
The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (HEF), known for outreach to Gypsies, or Roma, and aid programs among homeless and elderly, was among hundreds of groups losing recognition under controversial religious legislation imposed by the center-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
In January, the Ministry of Human Resources warned students attending HEF's John Wesley Theological College that they would no longer receive state scholarships, despite reports that Minister Zoltan Balog was a former faculty member.
Balog's Ministry confirmed it had hired a legal expert to examine HEF's activities, but said the findings were "baseless".
In a procedure that critics say resembles Hungary's previous communist-era, the expert was asked to investigate if HEF's main work "constitutes religious activities" and "whether its religious teachings have purposeful faith-doctrine and rituals."
It was not clear whether the expert, who refused to be identified, is an evangelical Christian or knows much about the Bible, the main doctrine of the Methodist confession-linked HEF.
The HEF was also told that it had to operate in incorporated capacity for more than 20 years in Hungary.
Under the 'Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Communities' the matter is referred to the Parliamentary committee for national security, if a the government-appointed expert recommends the church be recognized.
If that committee finds that the church "does not constitute a national security threat", Parliament must vote on whether to recognize the HEF or any other group requesting church status.
HEF Pastor Gábor Iványi has condemned the "official assault" on his church, which claims to have at least 18,000 members.
He said the church was "dedicated to following the teachings of Jesus Christ" by serving the community and made clear that the investigation was painful as his denomination was "persecuted and banned during the communist era."
Under Communism, HEF facilities were raided and followers faced prison sentences or job dismissals. Iványi said, "Those who voted for the [religious] law are not with us....This is called dictatorship."
United States and European Union officials have also condemned the legislation. In a statement obtained by BosNewsLife in December, a senior Democratic member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the Hungarian government investigation into HEF "opens the door" to communist-style "repressive measures" against faith groups.
"This step only reinforces fears that parliamentary denial of recognition as a so-called "Accepted Church" opens the door for further repressive measures," added Senator Ben Cardin.
The government claims it prevents abuse of Hungary's tax regulations and other laws, but critics say the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Orban attempts to impose his ideology on the population while keeping control over groups deemed harmful in the heavily Catholic EU-member state.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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