By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Smaller evangelical churches and other faith groups faced more uncertainty Monday, September 23, after Hungary’s parliament adopted amendments to a controversial constitution.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), an influential advocacy group, said recent changes to the Hungarian constitution would not end “religious discrimination” and “do little” to address concerns set out by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.
“The changes leave in place provisions that undermine the rule of law and weaken human rights protection.”
Hungary’s parliament, with a majority of its members from the governing right-wing Fidesz party, adopted the amendments last week, September 16.
HRW said however that religious discrimination has been maintained regarding recognition of churches, a policy that critics compared to the Communist-era when devoted Christians could face persecution.
“While allowing any religious group to refer to itself as a “church,” the amendments do not address the discrimination against churches the government has not recognized,” HRW explained in a statement monitored by BosNewsLife.
“A parliamentary committee, instead of an independent body, confers recognition, which is necessary for a church to apply for government subsidies.”
Formal recognition also gives churches tax-free status and allows them to collect donations during services and do pastoral work in jails and hospitals of this heavily Catholic nation of 10 million people.
Additionally, several church groups have been involved in supporting the homeless, elderly and Roma, also known as Gypsies, one of the most impoverished and discriminated groups in the country.
It remained unclear how these mission programs would be impacted by the changes, which are also linked to an internationally criticized church law.
Under the previously adopted ‘Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Communities’ only 32, mainly larger mainstream churches, of over 300 faith groups in Hungary received formal recognition by Parliament to operate as churches.
Yet, the government denied wrongdoing, saying HRW had its facts wrong. “Extending this status, recognizing a religious community officially as a church, to a limited number of communities is common practice in Europe,” argued Ferenc Kumin, Hungary’s deputy state secretary for international communication.
“Today, Hungary has dozens of officially recognized churches, far more than France, and the process for gaining recognition is open. Religious communities can apply. Again, no one else is raising this issue any more,” he said in comments monitored by BosNewsLife.
The changes were designed to respond to criticism by the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe expert body specializing in constitutional reform, and the European Parliament over Constitutional changes in March.
Earlier amendments were seen as limiting religious freedom as well as undermining the independence of the judiciary, and restricting broadcasting political campaign ads to the state broadcaster.
HRW said it was pleased that one positive amendment removed the power of the president of the National Judicial Office, which is not an independent body, to transfer cases between courts.
However HRW stressed that it remains concerned about a “lack of judicial independence” as the latest amendments “strengthen the powers of the National Judicial Council, a self-governing supervisory body, but leave key tasks of administering the courts with the National Judicial Office.”
The group also cited concerns over constitutional changes regarding political campaign ads ahead of the upcoming 2014 elections. “The amendments removed the rule that only state broadcasters can run political campaign ads, but oblige commercial media outlets to run such ads for free. It is unlikely that commercial outlets would agree to run campaign ads without charge.”
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been criticized for his perceived autocratic style, has had a tense relation with the European Union, saying “Brussels is not Moscow” referring to the era when his occupied nation was a Soviet-satellite state.
“It is wishful thinking for the government to contend that its amendments will end the international debate about Hungary’s constitution,” warned Lydia Gall, the HRW’s Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher.
“It’s come to the point where the European Council and the European Commission need to make clear there will be consequences for Hungary, and to move from talk to action.”
Gall said, “The changes add up to little more than tinkering around the edges, leaving huge problems that undermine the rule of law and basic human rights.”
The amendments adopted last week are the latest in a series of what rights activists call “problematic constitutional and legal changes” introduced by the ruling Fidesz party since it won elections with an absolute majority in 2010.
Major changes to Hungary’s legal framework have curbed the independence of the judiciary, interfered with the administration of justice, forced nearly 300 judges into early retirement, and imposed limitations on the Constitutional Court’s ability to review laws and complaints, HRW said.
The Hungarian government’s actions have attracted heavy international criticism, most recently by the European Parliament. In July it adopted a report underscoring its “serious concerns” about Hungary’s rights record and urging specific steps to address them.
The Venice Commission raised similar concerns about the March amendments in an expert opinion.
“Hungary’s failure to take the steps needed to bring its constitutional and legal framework in line with Council of Europe recommendations and European Union law warrants a forceful response,” HRW added.
“The Venice Commission should scrutinize these new changes and issue its expert opinion. The EU should consider declaring that the Hungarian government’s actions pose a clear risk of a serious breach of the values in article 2 of the EU Treaty, including rule of law and respect for human rights,” the watchdog said.
A finding of such a risk would trigger action under article 7 of the EU Treaty, which could lead to suspension of Hungary’s voting rights as an EU member.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
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