We held an international press conference about our crisis, see the details2023-08-30
A note on the situation of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, 2023
From dissident to social leader
The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (HEF), an offshoot of the Methodist denomination, suffered decades of persecution by the communist authorities. The church’s fight became a famed chapter of the era’s democracy and free speech movements.
After democratic changes in 1990, HEF took a pioneering role in social care services, especially for the homeless and the elderly, as well as for ethnic Roma villages in East Hungary. HEF and its Oltalom Charity Society support near 40 thousand people in need. Its educational network comprises schools from elementary to high schools and to universities, the latter issuing degrees in social work and theology.
Chief Pastor Gábor Iványi’s moral authority gained a nationwide appreciation. In 1993 even then-opposition Fidesz president Viktor Orbán trusted him with conducting their Christian marriage with wife Anikó Lévai, and to baptise their two children they had at the time. In the same year, Queen Elizabeth of the UK, on official trip to Hungary, paid a visit with Gábor Iványi’s homeless centre in Budapest.
New persecution of the church since 2011
HEF’s new troubles started when Viktor Orban, regaining prime ministership in 2010, asked for Gábor Iványi’s public political support, but the pastor refused. Retaliation came in 2011, when Orbán made pass a completely new Church Law, widely condemned as oppressive.
- Incomprehensibly in a democracy, the law made future church recognitions a competence of Parliament, without defining any criteria for the merely political decision.
- The law removed recognition of HEF’ church status.
- This way, HEF was also stripped from much of the state subsidies to its education, health care, and social support work, granted by the new law only to recognized churches.
Nevertheless, HEF has kept offering its services on the same level as before, even while departing on a quest for justice. So far with little success:
- Both Hungary’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights have since 2013 repeatedly ruled that the Church Law infringes on freedom of religion and due procedure.
- Importantly, they ruled that HEF’s church status must be retroactively recognized.
- The consecutive Orbán governments have ever since refused to comply with these rulings. Some compensations for the maintenance of their institutions were paid for the years until 2017, but unpaid state dues have kept growing since then.
Under unprecedented pressure, the church is still growing in public esteem.
A ray of hope opened in 2021, when 39,915 citizens designated HEF as the beneficiary of 1% of their income taxes. In 2022, already 51,813 citizens did that.
This makes HEF the 4th most-supported church in Hungary, right after the Roman Catholic, Calvinist, and Lutheran churches.
Based on this high level of public support, the Budapest Court agreed to register HEF as a church in 2022. However, a 2019 amendment to the Church Law still ties state subsidies to parliamentary recognition. The Government refuses to draft and let pass the needed law.
A new chapter in abuse started in 2021, menacing the very existence of the church:
- In October 2021, armed personnel of the Tax Authority (NAV) raided HEF’s premises and confiscated its papers and computers.
- Citing HEF’s tax backlog (caused of course by the state’s backlog in dues payable to HEF), NAV intends to confiscate 20 of HEF’s buildings, making it impossible to continue work there, and withholds the remaining few acknowledged subsidies.
The many thousand people in need sustained by HEF’s institutions are in the danger of losing their mentors, while the social care employees of HEF keep serving with only a fraction of their salaries. The authorities clearly aim to terminate HEF’s social presence, even at a high humanitarian price.
All this calls not only for substantial material help from friends of freedom of religion to support HEF’s struggle. Partners of Hungary in the international community should demand the restoration of the status and rights of HEF as a critical component of the general restoration of rule of law in Hungary.