By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– In a major shift from their past policies Hungary’s former Communists, now Socialists, want the country’s top court to overturn religious legislation that they claim will make it difficult for smaller congregations to be recognized as churches and threatens social programs and religious education.
Legislator Ildikó Lendvai told reporters that her Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) would ask Hungary’s top official for human rights, the ombudsman, to turn to the Constitutional Court if President János Áder signs what is known as the ‘Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Community.’
In comments, monitored by BosNewsLife Wednesday, July 10, Lendvai expressed concerns that the required minimum membership of recognized churches will be raised from 1,000 to 10,000, while “there is no opportunity to appeal against a rejection of a group’s church status” by Parliament.
She also warned that authorities would be allowed to monitor the number of members of a church “raising data protection concerns”.
Under the legislation only 32 of over 300 faith groups in Hungary received formal recognition by Parliament to operate as churches.
The Constitutional Court said recently that the legislation failed to “stipulate that detailed reasons” must be provided when a request for church status is refused, but Parliament, controlled by the right-wing Fidesz party, voted again last month for the slightly changed law.
“The ‘church law’ is bad for all the parties it affects,” Lendvai said, using the short name often used for the religious legislation.
She claimed the measures could also harm larger programs of traditional churches, including the Catholic, Reformed and Lutheran denominations, because details of religious education or the demand to work with government agencies were not clear.
The adjusted law appears to revive Communist-era rhetoric, demanding that recognized churches must “not pose a risk to national security” and “cooperate with government agencies for community purposes”.
Though Lendvai acknowledged that the changed law allows any religious organization to call itself “church”, she said state subsidies would be restricted to recognized ones.
Formal recognition gives churches tax-free status, qualifies them for government support and allows them to collect donations during services and do pastoral work in jails and hospitals of this heavily Catholic nation.
Ledvai said she fears the legislation could negatively impact Christian social programs and impoverished children going to schools of religious groups that have been denied official recognition by Parliament. The Socialists have also expressed concerns about the impact of the law on needy families, including many Roma or gypsies, to whom churches provide aid.
Critics have claimed the European Union’s “most restrictive church bill” only serves the interests and ideology of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Gábor Iványi , head pastor of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, an independent Methodist congregation in Budapest, has said the law could lead to “politically motivated decisions on recognition.”
However in comments distributed by Hungarian news agency MTI Tamás Lukács, a Christian Democrat who heads the Parliament’s committee on religious issues, denied wrongdoing.
He said Lendvai’s “criticism of the church law was rooted in her insufficient familiarity with its stipulations”.
Lukács claimed religious education was governed in the public education law, while some of the subsidies and welfare services were also regulated in other legislation.
The government has also argued that the law was aimed at reducing tax-fraud.
The Communists-turned-Socialists’ proclaimed concern about the well-being of churches seems a far cry from decades of state control over churches in Hungary’s recent history.
Under Communism, especially smaller evangelical groups as well as devoted Christians in traditional churches complained of harassment by authorities, and several were detained or lost their jobs because of their expressed faith in Christ.
However the Socialists argue they are a new party with Social-Democratic values and only the partial successor of the Communist-run Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party which ruled Hungary between 1956 and 1989.
At the same time critics claim Orbán has ironically turned the clock back to the 1980s when he was known as a more Liberal politician and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989.
The United States and European Union have expressed concerns over the religious legislation and other measures they say are aimed at consolidating Orbán’s power over previously independent institutions such as churches as well as media, judiciary, central bank and universities.
Last week the European Parliament adopted a report that said constitutional changes introduced by Orbán and his Fidesz party have limited the powers of the Constitutional Court, reduced the independence of the judiciary, limited media freedom and the rights of churches and minorities, while making homelessness a crime.
The so-called “Tavares report”, named after Portugal’s Rui Tavares, the European Parliament member who authored it, recommends the setting up of an independent mechanism to follow the development of fundamental rights in Hungary and advises the EU to take further steps should the government responses prove inadequate.
If Hungary is found to violate the EU’s treaty, it risks having its voting rights in the 28-member bloc suspended.
In response, the Fidesz-controlled Parliament adopted a resolution urging the government “not to yield to the pressure of the EU,” which Hungary joined in 2004.
“We are now adopting a resolution to defend Hungary’s sovereignty and the equality of the Hungarian people in Europe,” they added
Orbán, who is seeking reelection in 2014, had earlier compared the EU in Brussels with Moscow of the Cold War.
The firebrand prime minister said that “since the collapse of the Soviet Empire no one has had the temerity to limit the independence of Hungarians.”
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
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