There were no reports of abuses of religious freedom; however, the government imposed restrictions that affected minority religious groups. International and domestic observers expressed serious concerns about the new religion law. Government officials spoke out against anti-Semitic statements made by members of the extremist Jobbik Party. Some observers called on the government to speak out consistently, forcefully, and in a timely manner to take a clearer position against those espousing intolerance. Observers also criticized the government for not speaking out against officials seeking to rehabilitate the reputation of anti-Semitic historical figures.
Among the more than 350 religious groups that lost their status as recognized churches, 177 groups (such as dioceses and monastic orders) were already associated with one of the 32 currently recognized churches, 114 were granted association status, and 11 were rejected for association status by the court for failing to provide the requested documents by the deadline set during the court proceeding. The court initiated liquidation of the assets of 46 religious groups previously recognized as churches which failed to initiate their status change in court by February 29.
Government officials stated that the new religion law was necessary because nonreligious organizations were registering as churches to receive tax exemption and state subsidies. In March the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, released an opinion questioning the necessity of the new religion law. The Venice Commission observed that freedom of thought, conscience, and religion was one of the foundations of a democratic society and that freedom of religion and conscience covered more elements than merely granting privileges, state subsidies, and tax benefits to recognized churches.
Domestic and international human rights and religious groups criticized the new religion law for stripping more than 350 religious groups of “church” status. Critics also stated that it discriminated among religious groups and politicized the recognition of religious groups. On August 13, the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights challenged the law in the Constitutional Court on the basis that provisions for recognizing churches violated the principle of separation of powers, the right to fair legal procedure, and the right to legal remedy. Numerous religious groups, human rights groups, and individuals also challenged the law at the Constitutional Court and at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The cases remained pending at the end of the year.
On December 28, the Constitutional Court retroactively annulled the section of the transitional provisions to the constitution that referred to parliament’s role in church recognition. This decision had no immediate effect on the religion law, but established the possibility that the Constitutional Court could review the constitutionality of parliament’s role in recognizing religious groups based on a challenge to the law.
Members of some religious groups alleged backroom deals and lobbying surrounding the compilation of the list of the original 14 religious groups recognized by the religion law and the February 27 vote that recognized 18 additional religious groups as churches but rejected 66 others. The president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences opted not to offer an opinion to parliament on the religious groups that applied for church recognition. Some government officials suggested that the recognition of some religious groups was blocked because other religious groups lobbied against them.
Some religious groups formerly designated as churches noted that the process of transitioning to association status was not automatic and the interim period of not having their legal status confirmed by court was a prolonged one. Some deregistered religious groups stated that they did not receive a response from the courts regarding their application for association status by the June 30 deadline, leaving them uncertain whether their assets would be liquidated. At year’s end, 38 applications for association status by deregistered religious groups remained pending in court.
The loss of church status had a significant financial impact on some religious groups, imperiling their ability to continue offering charitable social and health services. Leaders of religious groups that lost their church status also expressed concern that their role in society was being marginalized.
Of the 32 individual churches recognized by the parliament, 31 requested to be listed on the 2011 personal income tax return form as eligible for the 1 percent donation for churches. Taxpayers donated a total of 3.8 billion forints ($17.5 million) collectively to the 31 churches, which the government supplemented with an additional 3.8 billion forints ($17.5 million).
Of the 66 formerly recognized churches that had applied for registration by December 20, 2011 but did not receive parliamentary approval by February 29 (and thus became associations), 57 were eligible for the 1 percent donation designated for churches on 2011 personal income tax returns (this was the last year they would be eligible for this benefit). The state transferred the 1 percent donations for these associations upon the completion of the court procedure for the change of their status. At the end of the year, 19 of the 57 formerly recognized churches had completed their change to association status and received the 1 percent donation, worth a total of 31 million forints ($142,600). These religious associations were also eligible for the matching subsidy that the government provided to recognized churches.
By January 31, the government had transferred the 1 percent donation designated for churches on fiscal year 2010 personal income tax returns to the 31 recognized churches that had requested to receive the donation and to 57 formerly recognized churches. The group of 88 religious groups collected approximately 4.9 billion ($22 million) forints from taxpayers, which the government doubled to 9.9 billion forints ($44 million) collectively.
The 100 formerly recognized churches that failed to submit a request for recognition by December 20, 2011 (and qualified as associations effective January 1) were no longer eligible for the 1 percent donation designated for churches on 2011 personal income tax returns but could collect 1 percent donations designated for civil associations. In the 2011 tax return forms, 28 of the 100 groups received 1 percent donations for civil associations from taxpayers. The state transferred these 1 percent donations upon the groups’ completion of the court procedure to change their status to that of an association. Six of the 28 groups completed the court procedure to change their status to that of an association and received the 1 percent donation, worth a total of 1.48 million forints ($6,800).
The government provided 35 billion forints ($161 million) in additional funding to churches for a range of activities, including maintaining public art collections; support for religious instruction, education, and culture; annual compensation for non-restituted religious property (“annuity in perpetuity”); and assistance to church personnel serving the smallest villages. The four “historic” religious groups continued to receive 93 percent of total state financial support provided to religious groups.
Local governments transferred 147 preschools and schools to church administration. The Roman Catholic Church took over 63 institutions, the Reformed Church 34, the Baptist Church (and Hungarian Baptist Aid) 32, the Lutheran Church eight, and other religious groups 10. At year’s end, churches operated 850 of the country’s 10,233 public education institutions (approximately 8 percent).
Four deregistered churches recognized as religious associations operated eight private schools. Three of these groups (the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood, the Dzsaj Bhim Buddhist Community, and the Christian Family Congregation) reached an agreement with the Ministry of Human Resources on the supplementary state subsidy provided for the operation of educational institutions. The application of the Alliance of Love religious association remained pending at year’s end.
Jewish groups expressed concern over an increase in actions by members of the governing parties at the local and national levels aimed at rehabilitating the reputation of historic figures known for anti-Semitic views and support of fascism. Some members of the Jewish community stated that the government sent mixed messages by condemning societal anti-Semitism while condoning or actively participating in these rehabilitations.
In May the village of Kereki erected a statue of former Regent Miklos Horthy, under whose leadership hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens were deported to Nazi concentration camps. In June the town of Gyomro renamed a park after Horthy. In October the Budapest City Council named a street after Pal Teleki, an openly anti-Semitic prime minister who introduced the first anti-Semitic laws in Europe after World War I (in 1920) and under whose term as prime minister parliament adopted the second anti-Jewish law (1939) and began drafting the third anti-Jewish law (1941).
In May Parliament Speaker Laszlo Kover, former Culture State Secretary Geza Szocs, and Jobbik Party leader Gabor Vona, participated in a ceremony in Romania honoring writer Jozsef Nyiro, who served from 1941 to 1945 as a member of parliament first under the Horthy regime, and then during the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross regime. Although government officials stated that Speaker Kover participated in the ceremony in a private capacity, funding for the ceremony was provided from the parliament’s budget.
In June the government adopted the framework of a new national educational curriculum that provoked negative reactions from the Jewish community. While Jewish groups applauded the curriculum drafters for soliciting and incorporating their input on anti-Semitism, the history of the country’s Jewish communities, and the state of Israel, they criticized the inclusion of Hungarian writers from the World War II era widely considered to be anti-Semitic, including Jozsef Nyiro, Albert Wass, and Dezso Szabo. The state secretary of education refused to alter the framework. Although government officials stated that the writers should be appraised based on their literary merit alone, some Jewish leaders remained concerned that the curriculum provided no contextual information about these writers’ political activities to help teachers decide whether and how to teach about them. The curriculum and new textbooks remained under discussion at year’s end.
In June Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel repudiated a high state decoration conferred in 2004. In his letter to Parliament Speaker Kover, Wiesel expressed dismay about the participation of government and Jobbik Party members in the Romania ceremony honoring Nyiro, as well as the practice of naming public spaces after Horthy and the inclusion of extreme-right intellectuals in the national curriculum. In his response to Wiesel, Kover stated that the Allied Control Commission in 1945 and 1947 had cleared Nyiro of charges of fascism and anti-Semitism, and such ideas did not surface in Nyiro’s literature.
Members of the extremist Jobbik Party, which held 12 percent of parliamentary seats, increased their use of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Government officials routinely spoke out against anti-Semitic statements made on the floor of parliament and elsewhere by Jobbik party members. The president of the World Jewish Congress called on the government to dismiss officials who expressed intolerance of religious and ethnic minorities, and the national director of the Anti-Defamation League urged parliament to strengthen enforcement of ethics rules.
On April 3, Jobbik MP Zsolt Barath gave a speech in parliament reviving a 19th-century blood libel case in which members of the Jewish community were accused of the ritual murder of a girl who had disappeared in the village of Tiszaeszlar. Prime Minister Orban, several members of the governing and opposition parties, and heads of the “historic” religious groups condemned the speech. On April 11, the Central Investigative Chief Prosecutor’s Office launched an inquiry into Barath’s remarks; the office closed the inquiry in September after determining Barath had not committed a crime.
In May a far-right Web site published test results of a Jobbik Party representative who in 2010 had undergone genetic testing “to ensure he did not have a Roma or Jewish ethnic background.” On August 8, the Budapest police launched an investigation against the company performing the test for the misdemeanor of “quackery” following an official report by the National Public Health and Medical Officer Service. The case remained pending at year’s end. In November Jobbik MP Marton Gyongyosi made a speech calling for a list of MPs and government officials of Jewish origin, alleging they constituted a threat to national security. Several MPs and government leaders attended a rally to protest Jobbik’s anti-Semitism, and a week after Gyongyosi’s statements, Prime Minister Orban publicly denounced them. In December police arrested independent MP Balazs Lenhardt for burning an Israeli flag during a rally organized by several far-right groups outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). During the rally, protesters chanted anti-Semitic epithets. An MFA statement condemned all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.
On July 17, the Buda Central District Court ordered the house arrest of Laszlo Csatary for war crimes. Csatary, who served as a police commander in Kassa (now Kosice), Slovakia during World War II, was suspected of having played a key role in deporting approximately 15,700 Jews from Kassa to Auschwitz in 1944. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
On February 1, the government reached an agreement with MAZSIHISZ, the Autonomous Orthodox Israelite Congregation of Hungary, and Chabad-Lubavitch Hungary (EMIH) regarding the allocation of an annuity in perpetuity for unrestituted property. According to the agreement, MAZSIHISZ will allocate 150 million forints ($682,000) from its 1.5 billion forint ($6.9 million) annual budget derived from the annuity in perpetuity to EMIH, and 190 million forints ($864,000) to the Autonomous Orthodox Israelite Congregation of Hungary. MAZSIHISZ criticized the government for interfering in internal matters of the Jewish community, while the other groups welcomed the decision.
By the end of October, the government completed the transfer of approximately $21 million to the Hungarian Jewish Heritage Foundation (MAZSOK) to compensate for Jewish heirless and otherwise unclaimed properties and for the “relief and rehabilitation” of Holocaust survivors under a 2007 agreement. Pursuant to a subsequent agreement with the conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (“Claims Conference”), MAZSOK distributed one-third of the funds to survivors in need residing in the country, while two-thirds were to be transferred to and distributed by the Claims Conference to assist needy Hungarian survivors living outside the country.
By the end of the year, MAZSOK had distributed nearly the entire five-year restitution payment (approximately $7 million) designated for those survivors living in the country. However, the government and MAZSOK continued to contest the accounting documentation submitted by the Claims Conference on expenditures from the 2008-2010 restitution funds (approximately $8.4 million) allocated for survivors living outside of the country. As a result of the dispute, MAZSOK withheld the 2011 and 2012 shares of the restitution payment for Hungarian survivors abroad ($5.6 million). Drawing on the interest from the withheld funds, MAZSOK’s board of trustees transferred $100 to each of the 7,800 survivors living in the country as a one-time payment. By the end of the year, MAZSOK had failed to implement the distribution of the 2011 and 2012 restitution funds among survivors living abroad either by signing a new contract with the Claims Conference for 2011 and 2012 or by any other means. The government, MAZSOK, and the Claims Conference continued their discussions on releasing the funds.
The government continued to process petitions under legislation that allowed compensation claims from individuals whose immediate relatives were killed in the Holocaust or in Soviet forced labor camps; lost their lives between 1939 and 1989 due to politically motivated actions of government authorities; or performed forced labor due to racial, religious, or political discrimination during World War II. The government received more than 97,600 claims by the 2006 deadline. By the end of the year, the government had paid 3.36 billion forints ($15.5 million) in claims to 16,645 applicants.
The Constantinople Patriarchy Hungarian Exarchy, head of the Hungarian branch of the Greek Orthodox Church, continued to contest the restitution of property occupied by Russian Orthodox groups since the 1950s. The Exarchy claimed that a Russian Orthodox group had illegally taken a church in Budapest in the 1950s that had belonged to the Greek Orthodox community since the 18th century. In the 1990s, the government returned the property to the Russian Orthodox Church as part of the restitution process. After exhausting all legal options in the country, the Exarchy turned to the ECHR to challenge the decision. In 2007, the ECHR declared the Greek Orthodox community’s case “inadmissible.”
On July 1-6, for the second consecutive year, the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation organized training at the Central European University for teachers on combating prejudice, promoting tolerance, and teaching about the Holocaust. The approximately 30 participants of the week-long training program created multimedia educational materials and later used them in their classrooms.
The Vatican-Hungarian Joint Committee held two sessions during the year to continue routine work on amending the bilateral treaties to reflect the current legal environment.
The government transferred two billion forints ($9.2 million) to churches to complete compensation for subsidies withheld from schools operated by churches in previous years.
A Ministry of Public Administration and Justice official responsible for Jewish affairs consulted with leaders of Jewish congregations and NGOs on Holocaust education in public schools, the restoration of abandoned Jewish cemeteries, and the distribution of restitution funds for Holocaust survivors. On December 27, the government transferred these responsibilities to the prime minister’s office.
In an October 18 ceremony, the minister of interior and the Israeli ambassador posthumously presented the “Righteous Among the Nations” award of the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem Institute and the Hungarian “For Courage” honors to 11 individuals who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews.
The government declared 2012 “Raoul Wallenberg Year” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in the country during the Holocaust. Senior officials, including the president, attended and gave remarks at several of the events, which included international conferences, photo exhibits, and concerts. Hungarian embassies throughout the world, in cooperation with Israeli and Swedish diplomatic representations, organized approximately 100 Wallenberg commemorative events.
In December the government announced the formation of the Hungarian Holocaust 2014 Memorial Commission to plan events in memory of the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Hungarian Jews to concentration camps. The cabinet asked Jewish groups as well as several foreign ambassadors, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ president, and the ministers of interior, foreign affairs, human resources, defense, and public administration and justice to assist with this work.