Hungarian faith communities that suffered discrimination finally receive good news

The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, a Methodist community led by Reverend Gábor Iványi, was one of two faith groups to receive positive news this week. The other community is a Buddhist organization called Dzsaj Bhím (Jai Bhim), which ministers to the Roma minority and operates a school. After having been stripped of both their status as a church and of their right to collect donations through the usual means for charities in Hungary — namely by taxpayers being able to redirect 1 percent of their income tax each year to a charity of their choice — the two groups were unexpectedly informed by authorities that their charitable status for the purposes of receiving donations has been reinstated.

The Orbán government’s assault on smaller Christian and non-Christian faith communities began precisely a decade ago, when some 300 faith-based fellowships were stripped of their status as churches. In practice, this meant that hundreds of faith communities lost access to the state grants and subsidies that often play a significant role in funding the more dominant denominations, particularly the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Church of Hungary. In some cases, the penalized churches, particularly that of Reverend Iványi, had been actively involved in poverty relief and social justice initiatives, and therefore earned the ire of the ruling Fidesz party. In Reverend Iványi’s case, his persecution under the rule of Viktor Orbán was something of a déjà vu: he had been pursued by communist authorities prior to 1989 as well. In fact, while the regime of dictator János Kádár consented to recognize this Methodist community as a church in 1981 — eight years before the fall of the one-party communist state — Viktor Orbán’s regime was unwilling to do the same.

Gábor Iványi in 2019. Photo: Facebook

The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship had taken the Government of Hungary to court in Strasbourg and won its case. The court determined that stripping the church of its status was unconstitutional. Moreover, Strasbourg determined that the Methodist community was entitled to claim damages, particularly retroactive financial support that it had lost due to the regime’s unconstitutional actions. The Hungarian state ended up making a retroactive payment to the church for a single year, but according to Reverend Iványi, the church is still owed four years of payments. The Orbán regime, on the other hand, argues that the Strasbourg ruling does not compel the state to reinstate the church status of these groups. Indeed, the current decision to reinstate the opportunity for Hungarians to divert a portion of their income taxes to support these religious charities does not formally recognize these communities as churches, although it does help them remain financially viable.

Reverend Iványi’s Methodist community has been exceptionally active in reaching out to the marginalized. The church operates three homeless shelters and emergency shelter programmes in Budapest, as well as five nursing homes in small-town Hungary and in a suburb of Budapest. One ministry of the church that received much attention is the Oltalom Charity Society, which runs street outreach programmes, refugee support, housing and healthcare facilities for the homeless, as well as community legal clinics.

Similarly to the Methodist community, Jai Bhim also ministers to the most marginalized. The faith community has operated for over a decade the Dr. Ambedkar School in Sajókaza (population: 3,100), a village in one of the most disadvantaged regions of northeastern Hungary. Sajókaza is home to a segregated Roma community. More than 15 percent of the village’s population is Roma, but most of these 400 residents live in a neighbourhood that once housed miners, inhabiting houses without potable water and proper waste removal. This Roma neighbourhood is divided from the non-Roma part of the municipality by a physical barrier. A small fraction of this population completed high school and much of Jai Bhim’s ministry has been to offer adult education opportunities for this demographic.

Dr. Ambedkar School, Hungary. Source: http://www.ambedkar.eu/ 

While most problems around the status of minority faith communities remain unresolved, the ability to once again collect charitable donations through income taxes is a step in the right direction and can help these groups continue with their essential social justice work.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar Dr, FODOR ANDRÁS says:

    This is unbelievable!!!

    Millions of Hungarian Buddhists are just forgotten about…
    How many are they actually, Christopher?

  2. The intent of the law was to eliminate fraud. Certain establishments declaring themselves religious organizations, while in reality running a conventional business in order to avoid taxes and receive government aid. The article itself points to 300 such groups. That is a lot for a country of 10 million, where about 95% of all religiously afiliated people belong to just 3 organizations (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist). It is true that some legitimate marginal groups may have been affected in the process. At the same time, it seems to me that there was a serious mismatch between 300 organizations that existed and the 1.9% of the population that is listed as “other”, which is where their following was. So, 190,000/300 = 633 followers on average for those 300 groups. Clearly something was off with that. My guess is that the overwhelming majority of registered groups were fraud schemes.

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