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Doug Bandow

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Hungary Threatens Religious Liberty

Posted: 12/07/11 06:21 PM ET

Religious repression typically occurs in Islamic or authoritarian regimes. Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan and Burma come to mind. But it appears that European democracies are not immune from the virus. Unfortunately, Hungary has adopted legislation which undermines this most basic liberty.

Hungary has a well-earned reputation for fighting for freedom. It was the locus of revolutionary ferment in 1848, which was suppressed by the Austrian empire only with the help of Tsarist Russia. In 1956 Hungarians revolted against their Soviet overlords. Although the revolution was brutally crushed, the people's spirit of resistance forced the new Hungarian communist leadership to rule with a lighter economic hand. In 1989 Budapest turned the modest freedom wave rolling through the Soviet bloc into a tsunami by tearing down the border fence with Austria. The result was a large break in the Iron Curtain which could not be closed.

Democratic Hungary joined both the European Union and NATO. With the implosion of the left-leaning government last year Fidesz, the Hungarian Civic Union, and its smaller partner, KDNP, the Christian Democratic People's Party, won more than two thirds of the National Assembly seats. (Fidesz is by far the dominant partner; the two parties run on a shared list.) Prime Minister Viktor Orban took office with an opportunity to transform his nation.

Unfortunately, however, the observation that a parliamentary system often turns into a democratic dictatorship proved to be true. Prime Minister Orban has exhibited authoritarian tendencies.

Over the last year, reports the human rights group Freedom House, Hungary moved backward in terms of civil society, independent media, national democratic governance and judicial independence. The individual setbacks were modest, but collectively represent a worrisome erosion of basic liberties. Freedom House still rates Hungary as free, but moving in a negative direction.

Explained the organization, the new government reduced various governmental checks and balances. The Orban ministry also "curtailed freedom of speech through the adoption of new media legislation; intimidated the judiciary by summoning judges to parliamentary hearings on cases related to the riots of 2006; changed election procedures to give the ruling parties an edge in the October municipal elections; and nationalized the savings in a system of compulsory private pension funds."

Much attention has focused on the government's restrictive new media law. Reported Freedom House: "Hungary received a downward trend arrow due to the government's efforts to consolidate control over the country's independent institutions, including the creation of a new media council dominated by the ruling party that has the ability to impose large fines on broadcast print, and online media outlets."

The State Department raised similar concern in its annual report on human rights. New laws "broadened the range of views whose expression was illegal" and "concentrated authority over the media in a single government body with wide-ranging authorities." A report for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned that the legislation introduced "stricter regulation, more pervasive controls and limitations on freedom of expression."

While the government might not abuse its new powers, the temptation to punish journalists for the content of their speech, especially when it is critical of the government, will be strong if not overwhelming. Moreover, journalists will feel pressure to self-censure. For instance, a public radio station suspended two employees who held a moment of silence to protest passage of the new law.

Less remarked upon but equally serious is the threat posed by a new law on religious liberty. Until now there had been little complaint over the government's treatment of believers. In fact, Budapest had been returning property seized during communist rule.

However, in July the parliament, with little debate, hurriedly adopted the "Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions, and Religious Community." The Institute on Religion and Public Policy, with which I am affiliated, warned that the legislation "is the most egregious example of a disturbing trend in Hungary to undermine human rights."

Under the law, only 14 of 362 Hungarian religious organizations registered under the earlier law (passed in 1990) will be officially recognized. As a number of Hungarian human rights activists pointed out in an open letter, "Among the churches that were discriminated against are, to mention only a few, Hungary's Methodist, Pentecostal, Adventists and reform Jewish churches; the Salvation Army and Jehovah's Witnesses; and all the Islamic, Buddhist, and Hinduist congregations."

Other than the 14, any religious association seeking official sanction will have to demonstrate its presence in Hungary for at least 20 years, obtain 1,000 signatures, gain the support of a government minister, pass review by the National Security Service, and win a two-thirds vote of parliament. At the last minute the government substituted parliamentary for judicial review. This system, explained the Institute in its detailed assessment of the legislation, is "the most burdensome registration system" in Europe. Observed one Hungarian newspaper, "Gods are now sitting in parliament" who get to decide who constitutes a church and who does not.

The law represents discrimination more characteristic of "countries such as Russia and Malaysia" rather than liberal democracies, noted Paula Schriefer of Freedom House. The Institute warned that "a tiered system offering an inferior religious status to minority faiths violates the right to religious freedom and the right to be free from religious discrimination." In a challenge to similarly discriminatory Austrian legislation, the European Court for Human Rights opined: "a distinction based essentially on a difference in religion alone is not acceptable."

Without question those faiths at greatest disadvantage will be those with smaller numbers of adherents and less popular doctrines. The 20-year requirement helps protect existing churches -- institutions as much as beliefs -- from challenge. In fact, Zoltan Tarr, General Secretary of the Hungarian Reformed Church, was open about his support of the measure for this reason: "We wanted a new law to make it more difficult to establish churches here -- and we're happy the present government has now done something." He added that: "We're very much for freedom of worship and believe everyone should have the right to practice their religion. But this law represents a positive step, since it excludes quite a few communities which don't legitimately qualify as churches." Russia did much the same, though with a less onerous 15-year standard. It was a system designed to benefit the Orthodox Church and other established faiths.

Tossing recognition into parliament is an invitation to abuse. Observed the Institute: "Registration is reduced to a beauty contest, requiring a substantial majority vote, allowing votes to be cast on purely discriminatory grounds while making a mockery of the strict requirements of impartiality and neutrality in matters of religion. The law authorized the state to employ the lethal weapon of religious doctrine and beliefs." Indeed, the legislation was initially proposed by the sectarian KDNP. Party Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen said he wanted to "make order" since it was "abnormal" to have so many churches.

So far, at least, unofficial churches will continue to be able to operate, though they will not be allowed to call themselves "churches." In the short-term the major effect of the legislation may be to limit which churches can receive cash from the government -- subsidies actually have been increased this year, even though Budapest recently went to the International Monetary Fund for potential financial help.

Direct public funding of religion always is a bad idea, especially for churches themselves. It is no coincidence that the least vibrant, most decrepit churches in Europe are state churches dependent on the state for succor. In contrast, religious liberty, which necessarily includes separation from the state, in America has delivered a far more vibrant community of faith.

However, many of the funds went not to religious promotion but to social services "for the homeless, the elderly and the poor," noted the activist letter-writers. Whether public monies should be funneled through religious institutions even for such good works is an important question -- and one debated in the U.S. However, discriminating against particular faiths is wrong, the sort of dangerous sectarianism which Americans sought to prevent through the First Amendment.

Moreover, not just money is at stake in Hungary. Having derecognized most churches, Budapest will deny accreditation to any schools managed by those churches. That represents a significant threat to educational as well as religious liberty.

Indeed, explained the Institute for Religion and Public Policy: "key activities for religious organizations such as operating religious-spiritual, educational, training, higher educational, medical, charitable, social family, child or youth protection, culture or sport institutions or carrying out these activities; producing or selling publications and religious objects necessary for the religious spiritual activities; and partial utilization of a real estate used for church purposes will no longer quality as religious activities for de-registered religious associations. Instead, they will be considered as economic activities for de-registered organizations while they continue to be considered religious activities for religions that remain registered."

The National Security Service review was added through an amendment from the extreme nationalist Jobbik party. Whether directed against Muslims or members of other faiths, the measure provides largely unreviewable grounds for restricting religious liberty. Warned Institute chairman Joseph Grieboski, "It is simply improper to play the 'national security' card to build long term restrictions and impediments into normal religious association laws."

As serious as is the law's practical application today, the measure's future implications are even more worrisome. Dividing churches and faiths through political decisions based on arbitrary criteria and political decisions threatens free religious belief and practice. Religious minorities would be a convenient scapegoat should economic and political problems grow in the future. A country which suffered so under communism should be particularly sensitive to the potential for abuse of government power.

Of course, the danger in Hungary pales compared to the problem of religious persecution elsewhere. In Egypt, for instance, violent attacks on the Coptic minority are increasing. In Afghanistan and Iraq, both supported by U.S. troops, Christians and other religious minorities suffer discrimination and worse.

However, Washington's policy inconsistencies and hypocrisies are evident to the world. It is important for the U.S. government -- and, more importantly, the American people -- to speak out when the violator of religious liberty is a historically Christian nation, friendly state and member of the European Union and NATO. And especially when the violator should know better, as with Hungary, which has suffered so much under tyranny and struggled so hard to gain freedom.