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Reintroduced law again jeopardizing status of some churches in Hungary

Reintroduced law again jeopardizing status of some churches in Hungary

John Graz, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Adventist world church, monitors the status of church registration in Hungary from the denomination’s headquarters. Church leaders in Europe report that the Seventh-day Adventist Church there will likely regain its official status at the end of February. [photo: Ansel Oliver]

Adventist Church’s reapplication for official recognition is pending; No gap expected, religious liberty advocates say

January 09, 2012 | Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN

The saga of securing official church status in Hungary continues, despite what religious liberty advocates called encouraging news late last year when the Constitutional Court struck down the country’s controversial Law of Churches.

Prior to that ruling, more than 300 minority faiths -- among them the Seventh-day Adventist Church -- were set to lose official legal status in Hungary on January 1, after which they would undergo a reapplication process.

With the New Year, those churches are facing a similar situation.

The country’s Constitutional Court overturned the Law of Churches purely on technical grounds, and on December 30 Hungary’s majority conservative party “easily” reintroduced and passed essentially the same law, effective January 1, said Dwayne Leslie, the Adventist world church’s legislative representative in Washington, D.C.

Hungary’s Parliament claims the law is necessary to weed out businesses or individuals posing as churches just to gain the accompanying rights and privileges. Furthermore, the majority government maintains that the law doesn’t infringe on religious liberty. It doesn’t “forbid” worship according to any faith tradition, Hungary’s minister of state for government communication, Zoltan Kovacs, wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

Kovacs said the law merely outlines how churches can gain official recognition “if they show themselves to be popular enough.” One condition requires a church to prove a decades-long history in the country and count more than 1,000 members. 

The Hungarian government is “making efforts to explain to the international community that this is not a human rights issue,” said Ganoune Diop, the Adventist world church’s representative to the United Nations.

“The situation in Hungary is very complex, and there are several issues at play, from economic to judicial and legislative -- and in front of these issues, religion. The government sees the de-registration of churches as a response, in part, to the tremendous challenges the country is facing,” Diop said.

Some experts have even predicted a further recession on Hungary’s horizon, he added.

“We must voice our concerns over the de-registration of churches, but whatever we say about the situation in Hungary must be prudent and sensitive to the context and sovereignty of Hungary,” Diop said.

Many members of the international religious liberty community maintain that regardless of the country’s internal struggles, the law poses undue challenges for legitimate religious organizations.

“Now we not only have an objective standard of what constitutes a church, but we also need a two-thirds vote of Parliament just to become an official religion, and we think that’s problematic,” Leslie said.

Currently, 82 of the some 300 minority religions de-registered under the latest law have reapplied for official status, among them the Seventh-day Adventist Church, denomination officials in Hungary said.

Religious liberty analysts said provisions of the new law indicate that those churches that have already applied for status will not experience a gap in official recognition. They’ll maintain previous recognition while a decision regarding their ultimate status is pending in Parliament.

Members of Parliament have indicated that they’ll arrive at a decision by the end of February, analysts said. Church leaders in Hungary report that “communication with the government” suggests that the Seventh-day Adventist Church will regain official church status.

“One positive improvement in the new law is that it does not prohibit denominations to use the term ‘church,’ even if they are not accepted by Parliament,” said Ócsai Tamás, president of the church’s Hungarian Union Conference. Churches to which Parliament does not grant official recognition will receive a “religious association” status, he said.

“Hopefully some churches in Hungary -- including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which has been operating in the country for more than a century -- will have a positive answer [next month],” said John Graz, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Adventist world church.

“We encourage all believers to pray for religious freedom in Hungary, so our church and others can continue to operate for the good of the nation as in the past,” Graz said.

Top Seventh-day Adventist leadership in Hungary and the church’s Trans-European Division will continue to closely monitor the situation, along with the denomination’s global religious liberty community.

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