Summary paragraph. By year’s end parliament had not amended the law as mandated by the Constitutional Court in July to allow individuals to donate a portion of their taxes to religious organizations in the same way they could to incorporated churches. The government paid a fine to a religious group as ordered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) as compensation for losses incurred by the government’s revocation of the group’s status as an incorporated church. Parliament also did not vote on any of 14 pending applications by religious groups previously found eligible for incorporation, despite a legal obligation to do so. The government launched a criminal investigation of the COS and denied for a second time permission for the group to move into headquarters in Budapest. The Constitutional Court ruled an Asotthalom law banning burqas and restricting the activities of muezzins was unconstitutional. Incorporated churches reported their reliance on financial support from the government inhibited their ability to speak out on matters of public concern. Muslim groups complained about anti-Muslim statements by PM Orban and other government officials. Jewish groups expressed concerns about PM Orban’s praise for a World War II (WWII)-era politician who signed anti-Jewish laws. The government continued its campaign and public messaging against a prominent Jewish Hungarian American business executive, which Jewish leaders said could incite anti-Semitic acts.
By year’s end, parliament had not complied with the July ruling by the Constitutional Court to amend the provisions of the religion law which the court found unconstitutional that allowed individuals to allocate an additional 1 percent of their income tax to incorporated religious groups but not to unincorporated ones. In addition, parliament again failed to revise other provisions of the religion law the Constitutional Court had previously found unconstitutional in 2015, namely that the short (four months) and peremptory legal deadline for religious groups to fulfill requirements for a change of legal status violated religious freedom. Separately in 2015, the Constitutional Court had also ruled, in agreement with a 2014 ECHR decision, that the law’s criteria for incorporated church eligibility related to the minimum membership (0.1 percent of the population) and length of operation (20 years domestically or 100 years internationally) of a religious organization violated the ECHR’s finding of an obligation of neutrality and impartiality.
In December 2016, the government’s Data Protection Authority (DPA) launched a data protection investigation of the COS. According to the COS, the DPA seized various documents and files from its offices in Budapest and Nyiregyhaza, including “preclear folders” (PCs) containing what the COS called confidential communications between penitents and their minister. The COS stated the seizure of the PCs constituted a violation of privacy and of members’ right to freedom of religion. In the same month the Church filed a legal complaint contesting the seizures, and individual COS members filed complaints with the ombudsman. On October 17, the DPA issued a report which, according to the COS, portrayed the Church’s spiritual practices as mind manipulation, a portrayal which the COS denied.
According to the COS, the DPA then filed a complaint against the Church, alleging criminal abuse of personal data, and turned over its seized materials to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). On October 18, 60 NBI agents raided the COS headquarters in Budapest, seizing documents and sealing off the building. On October 19, the criminal section of the tax office, investigating possible financial crimes, executed search warrants and seized documents at COS offices in Budapest and 15 other locations. According to the COS, the authorities also froze the Church’s bank accounts and placed a lien on its Budapest headquarters. The Church’s spokesperson called the search “religious suppression under the guise of data protection.” State authorities said their actions stemmed from concerns with methods of personal information collection and storage, and not from the COS’s religious views. The COS said Church members demonstrated in front of the DPA, the tax office, and parliament following the raid. The government did not recognize the COS as an incorporated church but had approved its registration as a religious organization.
On April 25, the ECHR ordered the government to pay 3 million euros ($3.6 million) to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (MET) as compensation for losses in 2012-14 resulting from the government revocation of MET’s incorporated church status. The government and MET had failed to reach agreement on compensation by December 28, 2016, as ordered by the ECHR. The government made the payment on October 16, before the ECHR’s October 25 deadline.
Parliament failed again to vote on any of the 14 applications by religious groups which the MHC had previously found eligible for incorporation, despite the 60-day legal deadline for action on an MHC referral. On December 20, the Constitutional Court ruled parliament’s failure to act within the 60-day legal deadline for action violated the constitution. The MHC reported no religious groups submitted new applications for incorporated church status during the year.
The Constitutional Court ruled in April that the ban passed in 2016 by the town of Asotthalom on the wearing of burqas and chadors and on the call to prayer by muezzins was unconstitutional. The court said local authorities could not pass regulations directly affecting a basic right or restricting it.
In January the government denied for the second time a COS application for a certificate of occupancy for its headquarters and place of worship in Budapest. The government had denied the first application in May 2016 and subsequently issued an order requiring the COS to vacate the building. In January the COS challenged the denial of the certificate of occupancy in the Administrative and Labor Court of Budapest and requested a stay of the order to vacate the site. On October 12, the court denied the request for a stay of the order. The Church appealed the denial, and the appeal was pending at year’s end. COS lawyers said they believed the city of Budapest was acting “in bad faith” and that the Church remained gravely concerned the city could take away its headquarters and place of worship.
The government continued to provide approximately 94 percent of its total financial support to incorporated churches and other religious groups to the Roman Catholic Church, the Hungarian Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Jewish community, which it considered to be the country’s four “historical” religious groups, an unofficial designation the media also used. The government said more than 94 percent of citizens who reported a religious affiliation were affiliated with the four historical religious groups.
As of November 9, the government had provided 59.2 billion forints ($229 million) to incorporated churches for a range of activities, including maintenance of buildings, support for religious instruction and culture, support for community programs and investments, and wages of church employees. The government allocated additional funding for churches providing public educational and social services. Of this amount, the Catholic Church received 38.7 billion forints ($150 million), the Reformed Church 9.4 billion forints ($36.4 million), the Lutheran Church 2.9 billion forints ($11.2 million), MAZSIHISZ 2.7 billion forints ($10.4 million), and the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) 762 million forints ($2.95 million). The government support for incorporated churches also included funding to a dozen churches for renovating their buildings and organizing community programs. As part of this support the government made two allocations totaling 2.4 billion forints ($9.3 million) to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which according to census data had approximately 2,400 members. Press reports speculated that members of the ROC, who did not have a place to worship in the western part of the country, would be able to build their own church in the town of Heviz.
Some incorporated churches expressed concern that if they spoke out on issues of public importance, the government would withdraw some of its financial support, which in many cases constituted two thirds or more of the churches’ total funding.
On December 27, the government awarded an additional 88 billion forints ($340.5 million) to some incorporated churches and religious organizations, with the Reformed Church receiving almost 59 billion forints ($228.3 million) of this total.
According to tax authorities tracking the 1 percent tax allocations designated to incorporated churches, all major churches suffered significant losses both in terms of the value and number of donations. Donations to the Catholic Church decreased from 2.6 billion forints ($10.1 million) in 2016 to 2.2 billion forints ($8.5 million). The three large historic churches – Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran – combined lost almost 450 million forints ($1.7 million) and 120,000 tax contributors. Church leaders expressed fears that if this trend continued, the dependence of churches on the state might increase, weakening their religious autonomy. The government modified the law during the year so that, effective January 1, 2018, these declarations would not have to be submitted by individuals on a yearly basis but would be valid until the taxpayer changed them.
The number of church-run schools slightly increased. Of elementary and secondary schools, 14.3 percent were operated by incorporated churches and 0.1 percent by religious organizations in the 2016-17 school year. Of preschools (ages 3-7), 7.2 percent were operated by incorporated churches and 0.1 percent by religious organizations. Approximately 207,600 students studied at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by registered religious communities (incorporated churches and religious organizations), compared to 204,000 in the 2015-16 school year. Approximately half of these students were in schools operated by the Catholic Church.
Religious entities provided social services to 107,918 persons and child protection services to 8,992 persons over the year (32.4 percent by the Catholic, 27.1 percent by the Reformed, and 12.96 percent by the Hungarian Baptist churches).
On September 14, the ECHR dismissed a 2009 complaint by a former pastor, whom the Hungarian Reformed Church had dismissed for disciplinary reasons, alleging that Hungarian courts had failed to deal with a monetary claim by the pastor against the Reformed Church. The pastor had filed a suit and subsequent appeals in 2007-09, which ended with a Supreme Court finding that the dispute involved ecclesiastical law and was outside of the court’s jurisdiction. The ECHR ruled that the domestic courts’ conclusion that the case was governed by ecclesiastical rather than domestic law was not unreasonable.
There were numerous reports of perceived anti-Muslim rhetoric by government officials and politicians, including at the highest levels. Muslim groups criticized as anti-Muslim the government’s statements portraying asylum seekers and migrants, most of whom were Muslim, as dangerous for the future of the country and Europe and unable to integrate into European society. On November 3, governing Fidesz Party parliamentary group leader Gergely Gulyas said, “There will be no mosques in Hungary; that is how we respond” to acts of terrorism. In response to this comment, Zoltan Bolek, President of the Hungarian Islamic Community (HIC) issued a statement reading in part, “We have been experiencing Islamophobia for years and it is regrettable that … other churches did not stand by us against statements directed against us!”
In his remarks in Baile Tusnad, Romania on July 22, PM Orban said Europe was being de-Christianized and that “European Union leaders … are seeking a new, mixed, Muslimized Europe.” HIC President Bolek, whose members he said were almost all citizens, attributed public hostility toward the community largely to the anti-Muslim and antimigrant rhetoric of senior government officials and some media outlets. Jewish groups expressed fear that public discourse targeting certain societal groups, in this case migrants and Islam, could spread to include other minorities or religious groups.
At the European Parliament in May, PM Orban described a Jewish Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, U.S. citizen, and business executive as a “financial speculator attacking Hungary” who had “destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans.” Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission, stated he found that language anti-Semitic, after which Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto stated the government’s disputes with the businessman had “absolutely nothing to do” with his Jewish origins.
In July the government launched a billboard campaign featuring a picture of this businessman, with text stating he should not be allowed to “have the last laugh.” MAZSIHISZ President Andras Heisler called on PM Orban in an open letter to end the campaign, which he said was not anti-Semitic, but could lead to anti-Semitic acts. Vandals spray painted a bus stop and bench with the words “Die, rotten Jews” followed by the businessman’s name, and billboards in Budapest and elsewhere were defaced with the graffiti “stinking Jew” written on the businessman’s face; images of the graffiti circulated widely on the internet and social media. The graffiti recalled the “dark periods of Hungarian history,” Heisler declared.
At a June 21 ceremony, PM Orban called WWII Regent and Hitler ally Miklos Horthy, who signed anti-Jewish laws into effect in the interwar period, an “exceptional statesman.” MAZSIHISZ President Heisler said in a statement that due to the era of anti-Semitism that was associated with Horthy’s name and his responsibility for the deaths of 600,000 Hungarian Jews and tens of thousands of Hungarian soldiers in the Don army, his era “cannot be put as an example for future generations.”
On July 18, during a visit of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, PM Orban declared Hungary’s failure to protect its Jewish citizens during WWII was a crime. He again stated the country had “zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism.” During his visit to the Dohany Street synagogue (the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world) with PM Orban and PM Netanyahu, MAZSIHISZ President Heisler welcomed Orban’s remarks about the country’s war-time collaboration with the Nazis, but commented there were still “two-faced assessments of the Holocaust.”
On February 14, PM Orban met with Heisler following demonstrations earlier that month in Budapest and elsewhere by extreme-right groups that included neo-Nazis. Heisler called the demonstrations “unacceptable,” and the PM agreed the government should seek a legal solution to stop them. The two men also reportedly discussed possible government assistance to rebuild the Zuglo Synagogue in Budapest, which burned down in 2016.
Speaking at the 150th anniversary of the act on the political and civil emancipation of Jewry on November 21, Under Secretary for Social and Heritage Protection and Special Cultural Investment Projects Csaba Latorcai said Jewish culture was undergoing a renaissance in the country, and the government regarded the more-than-5,000-year-old intellectual and spiritual heritage of Jews as valuable. According to Latorcai, “The survival and strengthening of Europe, and Hungary in it, should be sought in the depths of the faith rooted in the Jewish-Christian traditions and in sincere dialogue.”
On July 5, the Chabad-affiliated EMIH presented a new Hungarian translation of the Talmud to the public. EMIH Rabbi Slomo Koves thanked the government for its “support and cooperation in preserving spiritual heritage.” MHC State Secretary Miklos Soltesz urged a return to religious and cultural traditions, referencing the flourishing Jewish cultural life in the country and enumerating political and financial support for the reconstruction of many synagogues.
In July Minister of Agriculture Sandor Fazekas officiated at the opening in Csongrad County of Europe’s largest kosher slaughterhouse for geese.
In an interview on December 15, Jobbik Party Chairman Gabor Vona stated that he had pushed his party in a more centrist direction, and that it would not return to its far-right origins or to making anti-Semitic remarks. According to Vona, “The kind of anti-Semitic expressions which took place in Jobbik earlier are impossible to imagine. Or if they did, they would naturally draw the most severe sanctions.”
The government again took no action to advance the plan to open a new Holocaust museum and education center, the House of Fates; the project remained pending, although the physical infrastructure of the museum had been completed by the end of 2016. Some Jewish groups and historians criticized the museum as an attempt to obscure the involvement of Hungary and Regent Horthy in the Holocaust and stress instead the role of Hungarian rescuers. Senior government officials repeatedly issued assurances that the museum would be opened only if Jewish community representatives reached a consensus agreement on the content of museum exhibits.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.