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Religious Freedom Under Attack in Hungary

The European debt crisis may be grabbing the headlines, but something much darker is happening in Europe’s core. In an excellent piece in The American Interest, Charles Gati detailed the return of authoritarian politics to Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s government has pushed through controversial programs that restrict freedom of the press, limit the power of the Constitutional Court, and centralize power in the hands of his governments. A new piece in the FT now reports that these “reforms” go beyond the political: religious freedom is also under attack via a law which cuts the number of “recognized” religions back from over 300 down to just 14. Religions shut out include a number of Christian and Jewish denominations, in addition to all Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist organizations. At stake are the benefits afforded by state recognition, which include religious tax exemptions as well as other organizational benefits.

Like most of these new reforms, this decision has a vaguely plausible justification—the need to restrict “business churches” who claim to be religious institutions for tax avoidance purposes—but this measure obviously goes well beyond what is needed to curb this relatively minor problem. While there is an application process for state recognition, the final decision rests with parliament, where Orban’s party commands a controlling majority. Even the application itself can be a difficult process:

The process is no easy matter. The security service is required to assess all applications, and in a country where many still baulk at revealing personal preferences to the authorities, would-be churches need to find 1,000 people to vouch for their movement as bona fide.

When all that is done, the religious groups still need to go before parliament.  It’s an obviously bogus law with no real justification.  It is stupidity pretending to be subtle and clever; its disingenuous provisions highlight the bad conscience and twisted motives of the backwardness to which it gives voice. It is bigotry codified into legislation and it is a cruel exposure of the empty authoritarianism reigning in poor Hungary today.

There are countries that lack Hungary’s rich cultural and intellectual traditions, not to mention its long experience in the center of European history and politics. Authoritarian populism and democratic backsliding in some places would neither startle or surprise us.  But the Hungarian case is a sad one. This is a country that could be among the leaders of a new European consciousness and instead its government is turning its back on the light.

At Via Meadia we take a special interest in this, as our colleague Francis Fukuyama has recently become embroiled in a war of words with the Orban Government, which took offense (in a formal letter) to previous criticisms of Hungarian authoritarianism on his TAI blog.

There is much more to Hungary than this miserable government chooses to represent; let’s hope Hungary returns to itself before long.

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  • joe

    While I agree completely with the majority opinion of the Fidesz and Jobbik government, I think you might be barking up the wrong tree here. Like most central European states, the government subsidizes “recognized” religions through either indirect taxation (tax-free status) or direct, voluntary taxation (Germany).

    I agree that this law is prejudiced against newer religions, but the end goal does not have to be eradication. It could just be establish more state control over what appears to be a large number of churches. The government wants to know how they got their money, who are their congregants and why they settled in the real estate they chose.

    This happens in western Europe as well. If I want to open a kosher butcher shop in France, a non-elected, state-sponsored committee of Jewish elders has to approve my application or I can not legally use the term “kosher” on my meat. I can’t appeal. It’s the alpha and omega of Jewish meat. Napoleon set the committee up and a few years ago the ECHR found it a fine thing and a legal institution.

    You can find similar instances of state intrusion into confessional life all over Europe as a whole. Just because Hungary has returned to itself in the Horthy years apparently does not mean that state meddling in the confessional body is new or philosophically repugnant to European governments.

  • Corlyss

    Religious freedom is increasingly under assault here.

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