The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worshipping, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination, as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community.
The constitution’s preamble states, “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and the state, as well as the autonomy of religious groups. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.
On April 15, a 2018 parliamentary amendment to the 2011 religion law entered into force. The amended law replaces the previous two-tier system of “incorporated churches” and “religious organizations” with a four-tier system of, in descending order, “established (or incorporated) churches,” “registered churches” (also called “registered II”), “listed churches” (also called “registered I”), and “religious associations.” The term “church” in the law refers to any religious community, not just Christian ones, and religious groups in any category may use “church” in their official names. All previously incorporated religious groups retain their status in the first tier of the new system as established churches. Recognition as an established church continues to require a two-thirds approval by parliament; the Budapest-Capital Regional Court has jurisdiction to rule on applications for registration within the other three categories. Religious groups in all four tiers have “legal personality,” which grants them legal rights, such as the right to own property.
Religious entities that do not apply for legal status in one of the four categories are still able to function and conduct worship. The amended law states constitutional protection of freedom of religion also applies to these unregistered groups.
To qualify for established church status, a religious group must first have registered status and then conclude a comprehensive cooperation agreement with the state for the purpose of accomplishing community goals. The government submits the comprehensive agreement to parliament, which must approve it by a two-thirds majority vote. A registered church becomes an established church from the day parliament approves the comprehensive agreement. Established churches are eligible to benefit from significant state subsidies.
To qualify for registered status, a religious group must receive tax donations from an average of 4,000 persons per year in the five-year period prior to the application. This status also requires that the group either has operated as a religious association for at least 20 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally, or has operated as a listed church for at least 15 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally.
To qualify for listed status, a religious group must receive tax donations from an average of 1,000 persons per year in the three-year period prior to the application for status and have operated as a religious association for at least five years in the country or for at least 100 years internationally.
To qualify for religious association status, a religious group must have at least 10 members.
The amended law allows the government to negotiate individual cooperation agreements with all four categories of religious communities for the performance of social service activities and support of faith-based activities, specified in these agreements. The agreements’ duration depends on the status of the religious community, ranging from a five-year maximum for religious associations up to 10 and 15 years for listed and registered churches, respectively, and unlimited duration for established churches. All religious groups other than religious associations must publish these agreements and publicly account for social service spending.
Churches that agree not to seek state or European Union (EU) funding (including personal income tax donations) for their religious activities may qualify as registered or listed churches without fulfilling the requirement regarding the number of personal income tax donations. The applicant religious community must perform primarily religious activities and may not be a criminal defendant or have been convicted of a crime during the previous five years, under sanction for “repeated violation of accounting and management rules,” or considered a national security threat. The court decides whether to grant status as a registered or listed church based on an examination of the criteria above. In reviewing these applications, the court may consult church law, church history, or ecclesiastical or academic experts, and may also consult the national security services.
Religious groups that agree not to seek government or EU funding but accept financial support at a later stage must report this to the court within 15 days of the disbursement of the aid. To avoid losing its status or a reclassification to the lower association tier, the religious group has eight days to declare to the court that it has returned the funds, requested cancellation of its religious registration status, or complied with the individual tax donation requirement to become a registered or listed organization. The religious group or prosecutor’s office may appeal the court’s decision on the status of the group to the Budapest-Capital Court of Appeal.
The law stipulates the relevant government minister, based on information received from the court, shall manage an electronic database of religious communities with legal status, accessible to the public free of charge. At year’s end, the database was not publicly accessible.
The amended law allows taxpayers to donate 1 percent of their income taxes to any religious community in any of the four categories starting with the 2020 tax year. Religious groups may use these funds as they wish. Only established and registered churches (the two highest tiers) are eligible to receive a state subsidy matching the 1 percent tax donations.
According to the amended law, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court may dissolve a religious community with legal status – with the exception of established churches – if its activities conflict with the constitution or law or if the court rules its registration should have been denied. Parliament may dissolve an incorporated church if the Constitutional Court finds it is operating in violation of the constitution. If a religious community is dissolved without a legal successor, its assets, after satisfying creditors, become the property of the state and shall be used for public interest activities.
Under the amended law, 32 churches maintained their incorporated (or, in the new terminology, “established”) status. These include the Roman Catholic Church, a range of Protestant denominations, a range of Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army, three Jewish groups (Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, Hungarian Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community), and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole registered Hindu organization. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups. The amendment added the Sovereign Military Order of Malta to the list of established churches.
By law, the state may neither operate nor establish any body for controlling or monitoring religious communities. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Copyright law protects their names, symbols, and rites, while criminal law protects buildings and cemeteries.
The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsperson). The ombudsman investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy. These measures do not have the force of law.
Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and settling claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, Hungarian Lutheran Church, Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz), and four Orthodox churches.
According to the amended law, established, registered, and listed churches may perform pastoral services in military facilities, prisons, and hospitals. Other laws indicate religious associations may also have the right to provide services at these facilities.
Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran Churches, and Jewish congregations (which the government generally calls “historical churches”) may provide chaplain services to the military without seeking permission. Other religious communities must seek permission to offer such services.
Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion and provide them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. Historical churches may provide pastoral services in prisons without special permission, but other, smaller religious groups may do so only within official visiting hours as outlined in individual agreements and with permission from the penitentiary. Similarly, historical churches receive automatic access to patients in hospitals to provide pastoral services, while other groups may do so only under certain conditions, such as providing services only during visiting hours.
One hour per week of faith and ethics or general ethics education is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Parents and students choose between the faith and ethics class offered by an established church of their choosing or a secular ethics course taught by public school teachers. Other religious communities are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools, but they may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools at the request of parents or students. Private schools are not required to offer faith and ethics or ethics classes.
All religious communities registered in one of the four categories have the right to open their own schools. The state provides a subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee salaries at all such schools. Only established churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. Other religious communities may apply for a supplementary operational subsidy, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC) may sign an individualized contract with them to cover these costs.
The law also affords all religious communities with legal status the right to assume operation of public schools if more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school sign a petition to do so and the MHC approves the change. In these cases, the government may continue to fund the schools. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The government inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to government standards.
The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law prohibits “calling for violence” – in addition to inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion or abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation.
Physical assault motivated by the victim’s actual or presumed religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is also punishable with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the symbol of the Arrow Cross – a fascist, anti-Semitic party that allied with Nazi Germany – in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by five to 90 days’ detention.
The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious communities or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Some previously deregistered religious communities expressed support for the provision in the amended religion law that allowed citizens to donate 1 percent of their taxes to all four tiers of religious communities, although some criticized the fact that religious communities could only receive these donations beginning in 2020. They also welcomed the decision to have a court rule on the registration applications of registered churches, listed churches, and religious associations and the introduction of criteria to qualify for the three lower categories.
According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), the amended law did not fully comply with the decisions of the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The law did not restore the status of deregistered religious communities, which were still excluded from the category of established churches. The HCLU also stated the amended law did not guarantee equal treatment of churches by the state or eliminate distinctions between religious communities, and that granting established status still remained in the purview of parliament. It also said that since deregistered churches received compensation for pecuniary and nonpecuniary damages identified by the ECHR for the period between January 1, 2012 and September 15, 2016, these churches were entitled to further compensation for the period from September 16, 2016 until April 15, 2019. In October the HCLU challenged the amended law in the Constitutional Court.
The government published a decree in October that outlined the application process for the other three tiers (registered churches, listed churches, and religious associations) and provided further clarifications on the operation of all four tiers. By year’s end, some religious groups, for example Sim Shalom and MET, reported they had started the application to register as a religious association.
Prior to the entry into force of the amendment to the religion law, parliament did not vote on any of the 16 pending applications for incorporated church status by religious groups, and these application procedures expired. According to the PMO, in the case of these 16 groups, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court was conducting a simplified registration process for listed and registered church status in which it did not evaluate the number of 1 percent personal income tax donations they received in determining whether they qualified for listed or registered status, and allowing the groups to use previously submitted documents in their applications. According to the Budapest-Capital Regional Court’s website, these 16 groups had until January 6, 2020 to apply under the simplified procedures.
Gabor Ivanyi, pastor and head of MET, said in October that the current legal framework put the operation of its social and educational institutions (such as schools and homeless shelters) at risk because financial support to churches depended on the discretion of the government. This dependence also discouraged churches from speaking freely on issues on which they disagreed with the government. In July Ivanyi filed a formal objection in court on the grounds that his church was required to submit an application for registration after the amended law entered into force, despite the absence of an official government decree specifying application rules. The court agreed to review the case.
In March the Budapest-Capital Regional Court rejected an appeal of a lawsuit by the COS against the government Data Protection Authority (DPA), which had investigated the COS for alleged criminal abuse of personal data and fined the COS and its central organization a total of 40 million forints ($136,000) in 2017. The court upheld the DPA’s finding and stated religious organizations also had an obligation to respect domestic and EU regulations regarding the protection of personal data. In August the National Police told local media the investigation of the COS continued.
In February the Supreme Court overturned an eviction order issued by Budapest’s 13th District against the COS, thus allowing the COS to continue to use its headquarters building. District officials continued to deny the COS a certificate of occupancy for the building.
The government continued its public campaign of billboards and posters against a Jewish, Hungarian-born, U.S. citizen businessman. Some of the placards stated EU leaders were part of the businessman’s plan to settle migrants from the Middle East and Africa in the country.
The Organization of Muslims in Hungary (OMH) said local and state authorities refused to sell or rent land or issue permits to Muslims for homes or mosques or to open or expand Muslim cemeteries. According to OMH, the lack of sufficient cemetery space for Muslims remained the most pressing problem for the Muslim community.
According to the PMO, during the 2018-19 school year, incorporated churches operated 16.7 percent of elementary and secondary schools (compared with 15 percent in 2017-18), and religious organizations operated 0.2 percent. Incorporated churches operated 9.7 percent of preschools (with students aged three to seven), compared with 7.5 percent in the previous year, and religious organizations operated 0.2 percent. There were 217,204 students – 49.8 percent of whom were in Catholic schools – studying at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by incorporated churches and religious organizations, compared with 214,243 in the previous year.
On September 2, Deputy PM Zsolt Semjen stated the number of church-run schools and students enrolled in them had doubled since 2010. He said 220,000 children studied in 1,067 church-run schools. On August 31, PMO Minister Gergely Gulyas stated in Pecs, at the joint school year opening ceremony of Reformed Church educational institutions of the Carpathian Basin, that churches operated 14 percent of schools, and that church schools offering an education “based on Christian values and knowledge” catered to all segments of society. Gulyas also said, “By resigning Christian culture and faith, it [Europe] could lose everything that has characterized the continent for generations and for centuries.” According to education experts cited in local media, an increasing number of students attended church-run schools due to greater government financial support for religious schools compared to state schools and more curriculum flexibility, such as using nonstate textbooks.
Jewish groups expressed concerns about praise by government officials for the country’s WWII-era leaders and Hitler allies, as well as about public messaging they said could incite anti-Semitism. On September 4, Mazsihisz, the country’s largest Jewish organization, issued a statement condemning the erection of a statue, and government officials’ participation in its unveiling, of Gyula Kornis in the town of Vac. Kornis, a member of a Catholic religious order and leading education politician in the era of WWII leader Miklos Horthy, helped prepare and implement the country’s anti-Semitic education laws in the 1920s. According to media, during remarks at the statue-unveiling ceremony, State Secretary in the MHC Bence Retvari praised Kornis as a “hero,” and Maria Schmidt, a historian and Government Commissioner of the Memorial Year of the 1956 Revolution, who formulated the original proposal for the government-funded House of Fates Holocaust museum and education center, said Kornis “always kept the interest of the nation in view.”
On November 16, several hundred supporters of the Mi Hazank (Our Homeland) Party marched in Budapest to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Horthy’s entry into Budapest. Fidesz MP Janos Lazar laid flowers at Horthy’s grave, calling him “a heroic soldier, a true Hungarian patriot whom we should remember by bowing our head.” Mazsihisz president Andras Heisler expressed deep disappointment with Lazar, who he said in the past as PMO minister had worked to build good relations with Jewish organizations.
On June 4, the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) presented a new, preliminary outline for the House of Fates at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) meeting in Luxembourg. PM Orban named Chief Rabbi and head of EMIH Slomo Koves to direct and refashion the project in 2018. The museum and center, to be located in Budapest, had been on hold since 2014 due to opposition from domestic and international groups that criticized it as an attempt to obscure the involvement of the country and Miklos Horthy in the Holocaust. In Luxembourg, Koves said he expected the museum would open within 18 months. The IHRA said in Luxembourg it would appoint a group of experts to advise the international advisory boards of the House of Fates. The IHRA, stating it had not seen the new concept in any detail, welcomed Rabbi Koves’ assurances that “a highly controversial historian” who had been involved in drafting an earlier concept for the project would no longer be involved. Prominent national and international Jewish groups continued to express concern about the project.
In April the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) submitted to the government its assessment of the scope and estimated value of confiscated heirless Jewish property in the country. As of year’s end, the government had not agreed to WJRO’s requests for further discussions on a roadmap to conclude negotiations.
In February Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, met with PMO State Secretary for Civil Society Relations Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky and reportedly described the meeting as an opportunity to raise concerns with the government over anti-Semitism, efforts to downplay actions by leaders in support of the Holocaust, and language used by PM Orban against a Jewish, Hungarian-born U.S. citizen businessman. In a letter, Szalay-Bobrovniczky rejected her allegations of anti-Semitism against his government and PM Orban.
Government officials continued to make statements in defense of what they called a “Christian Europe” and describe migration, particularly of Muslims, as a threat. In his annual state of the nation speech in February, PM Orban stated the future of Central Europeans lies in the “protection of our families and our Christian culture” against immigration, which he said led to the “virus of Islamic terrorism.” In an April 9 speech, he said, “Islamic culture has conquered new territories,” and in September he stated, “The Hungarian state rests on the foundations…of Christian democracy.” In a March 2 interview with German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, PM Orban said, “There used to be anti-Semitism on the Christian right wing in Hungary, but we curbed it,” and, “The true threat of anti-Semitism in Europe now comes through immigration.” In September PMO State Secretary in Charge of Church and Nationality Issues Miklos Soltesz stated at the inauguration of a renovated Catholic church in the village of Segesd in Somogy County that the country had again become “the bastion of Christianity in Europe.” He added that, as when it had fought against Mongol and Turkish invasions, the country was now “stopping the Muslim flood.” During the Fidesz party convention on September 29, PM Orban said, “We have established a Hungarian Christian Democrat state…we have the right to organize our life according to the laws of Christian freedom.”
Between July 29 and August 7, the country hosted the 15th European Maccabi Games, an international Jewish sporting event, which occurred without incident. In July, when meeting with the organizers of the games, PM Orban stated the government provided protection and major support to the country’s Jewish community for preserving its identity and for the renaissance of Hungarian Jewish life. The government provided approximately five billion forints ($17 million) for the games, and more than 2,000 athletes from 42 countries participated in the event. Mazsihisz President Heisler said that the games represented an event of special importance to the country’s Jewish community.
The government provided 64.8 billion forints ($220.2 million) to incorporated churches (compared with 118.1 billion forints, $401.3 million, during 2018), of which 94 percent – 61.6 billion ($209.3 million) – went to what the government and media called the country’s four historical churches. The Roman Catholic Church received 39.9 billion forints ($135.6 million), the Reformed Church 15.9 billion forints ($54 million), the Evangelical Church 3.4 billion forints ($11.6 million), Mazsihisz 1.9 billion forints ($6.5 million), EMIH 330 million forints ($1.1 million), and the Jewish Orthodox community 222.5 million forints ($756,000). According to the PMO, direct state funding fell by nearly half because the 2018 amount included special funding for the renovation of church buildings. The PMO stated it would continue to submit proposals for emerging investment needs to the government.
The religious communities that received the bulk of the government’s contribution used the funds for such activities as maintenance of buildings, public educational and social services, support for religious instruction and culture, support for community programs and investments, employee wages, and support for faith-based activities of citizens living abroad.
According to tax authorities tracking the 1 percent personal income tax allocations designated to incorporated churches, 993,955 citizens donated their 1 percent personal income tax to one of the incorporated churches, according to statistics published in March that reflected 2018 data. As in previous years, the church bodies receiving the most donations were the Catholic Church, with 529,123 persons contributing 2.5 billion forints ($8.5 million); Hungarian Reformed Church, with 210,301 persons contributing 1 billion forints ($3.4 million); and Lutheran Church, with 60,358 persons contributing 310 million forints ($1.1 million). The Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness ranked fourth, with 46,373 persons contributing 250 million forints ($850,000).
In December the government awarded EMIH 1.8 billion forints ($6.1 million) to create a cultural center.
In November the government hosted the second international conference on Christian persecution. PM Orban stated at the conference that Christianity was under threat from forces such as political correctness and the “Muslim immigration invasion.”
On September 6, PM Orban met with Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the foreign affairs office of the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate and discussed the persecution of Christians around the world, deepening cooperation between eastern and western Christian denominations, and the work of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country.
The country is a member of the IHRA.