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Is the state playing God?

July 21st, 2011

A new Church Law has ignited fierce controversy in Parliament and the press – hardly surprising in a country where the relationship between the state and the churches has always figured highly in battles between right and left.

The new law automatically recognizes 14 “historical” denominations and requires the remaining 345 to apply individually for recognition. The government argues that many of the registered denominations are profit-oriented enterprises masquerading as churches in order to qualify for state subsidies. Some perform charitable activities without any spiritual affiliation and have registered themselves as churches simply in order to qualify for special allowances. The new law does not prevent anyone from founding a church, but requires 20 years of religious experience before the church is entitled to receive public subsidies.

In Népszabadság, Gábor Miklós objects that some of the churches not mentioned among the 14, might have to close down the charitable institutions they have been running to help the poorest of the poor. He cites the example of the Evangelical Brotherhood Community which runs schools for Gypsy children in some of the most deprived areas of Hungary. (Although, as they have existed for over 20 years, they will probably be recognised as a bonafide church.) Another denomination mentioned by Miklós is the Jai Bim Buddhist community which runs a school for Gypsy children at Sajókaza, an extremely poor village in Northern Hungary. Miklós fears they will lose the special public subsidy tailored to help religious schools, on top of the normative allowance schools are entitled to for each pupil. “The government is apparently not a great friend of far-reaching social projects”, the left wing commentator concludes.

In an editorial in Magyar Nemzet, Miklós Ugró contends that those denominations with a genuine spiritual background will suffer some delay, rather than discrimination – unlike the fake churches. “Under the old law even Reverend James Jones would have found it easy to set up his destructive sect and take advantage of public subsidies before slaughtering a whole community.” The commentator welcomes the fact that the new law stipulates clear conditions to be met before a group can be officially recognized as a church. He finds it deplorable however that recognition must come from Parliament (with a two thirds majority). “If the status of a religious community depends on the governing party, then we are witnessing collusion between state and church, between politics and religion.” Ugró would prefer to entrust an independent scientific institute with the task of registering the churches. (He does not mention that in the draft bill submitted by Christian Democrat MPs, the decision was originally meant to be taken by the courts.)