By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)-- Fresh from reelection, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán already faced an international hurdle Wednesday, April 9, after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemned a controversial church law.
The Strasbourg-based court said the 'Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Communities', rushed through Parliament by Orbán's Fidesz party, "violated" religious rights.
Under what critics view as the European Union's most restrictive religious legislation, only 32 of over 300 faith groups in Hungary received formal recognition by Parliament to operate as churches.
However religious communities’ loss of full church status breached their rights "to freedom of assembly and association" and their rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the Court said in a statement.
Hungary's government said the legislation was aimed at preventing abuse of tax regulations and other laws, but that argument was rejected by the ECHR, which upholds the 47-nation European Convention on Human Rights.
"The Court found in particular that the Hungarian Government had not shown that there were not any other, less drastic solutions to problems relating to abuse of State subsidies by certain churches than to de-register the applicant communities," it said.
"Furthermore, it was inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain reregistration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds," ECHR added.
Critics, including former Communist-era dissidents, said the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Orbán impose his ideology on the population while keeping control over groups deemed harmful in this heavily Catholic EU-member state of 9.9 million people.
The ruling came as a victory for the Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház, or 'Hungarian Christian Mennonite Church' and several other faith groups who launched the case. "Governments should not play favourites when recognizing churches," said Roger Kiska, senior legal counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) advocacy group, which supported the case.
"A Council of Europe member state cannot show such favouritism nor can a country discriminate against other churches and ministries with which it may disagree," he said in a statement monitored by BosNewsLife.
"Europe’s highest human rights court upheld that very principle in this decision, which makes it a historic victory not just for Christians in Hungary, but for all Europeans.”
Szabolcs Hegyi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) called the legislation "one of the most serious restriction of rights since the fall of Communism" in 1989.
Last year Hungary's Constitutional Court ruled that churches operating legally were to have their status and legal rights restored, but observers said the government has so far refused to implement the ruling.
TASZ said the European Court's decision also obliges Hungarian authorities to compensate the outlawed churches for damages.
The court ruling was expected to put pressure on powerful Orbán, whose rightwing Fidesz party won Sunday's elections, to allow non-traditional groups to operate as churches, including the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (HEF).
HEF, known for outreach to Gypsies, or Roma, and aid programs among homeless and elderly, was among hundreds of groups losing recognition under the law.
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 Zoltán 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.
Yet Vera Molnár, a Christian political analyst residing in Budapest, has mixed feelings about calls for recognition.
"As a personal note, I am happy that my own congregation, one of the most vibrant evangelical churches in Hungary was left unrecognized," she wrote in a commentary on the Paprika Politik website.
"Undoubtedly congregations with a truly vibrant base will be supported financially and otherwise by those who worship there. After all, the early Christians persecuted by Rome wanted little other than to be left alone by Caesar."