Concern for freedom in Hungary as lawmakers consider new restrictions

Hungary's parliament buildings in the captial, Budapest, where legislation will soon be considered that would force some minority religions to forfiet their legal standing.

Proposed law sends "worrying signal," says expert

Strict registration requirements for minority religious groups are part of a proposed new law in Hungary that will soon come before the nation’s lawmakers for consideration. Some experts are calling the draft legislation the “most oppressive religion law and the most burdensome registration system” in Europe.

Under its provisions, a number of smaller religious groups—which have already obtained legal recognition under Hungary’s 1990 Religion Law—would be “de-registered.” The new law would also make re-registration of these groups significantly more challenging. The legal definition of “religious activities” would be narrowed, and religious groups would have to meet stringent conditions in order to legally refer to themselves as a “church.” They would be required to prove, in part, to have been organized in Hungary for at least 20 years and to have more than 1,000 members.

Mr. Raafat Kamal, IRLA Secretary General for Europe, says the draft law under discussion is a “highly worrying signal from the Hungarian government.”

“This exclusionary approach enshrined in the Hungarian national constitution, with the potential to discriminate against new and minority faiths, is inconsistent with the European values of a pluralistic and democratic society,” he says.

According to Dr. John Graz, IRLA Secretary General, laws which restrict registration of religious groups based on their numerical size, or historical presence within a country, are open to abuse. “Smaller or newer faiths groups, which don’t belong to the dominant religious tradition, can find themselves without legal standing and without a ‘voice’ to protest their treatment,” he explains. “It has been demonstrated, time and again, in many other places that attempts to regulate religion in this way almost invariably leads to discrimination.”     

Mr. Dwayne Leslie, Deputy Secretary General of the IRLA, says that, regardless of government’s intent in pursuing this legislation, its actual consequences could be serious. “If passed, this law could degrade Hungary’s standing as a country that respects and protects basic human rights,” he says. “No matter what the stated purpose of this law, its provisions open up the potential for discrimination against minority faiths. This attempt to ‘regulate’ religion is simply incompatible with a free, democratic society.

According to Hungarian government officials, while the new law would affect the definition of what constitutes “religious activity,” it would not establish any state organization to control or supervise churches.

The central European country of Hungary was under Communist rule until 1989. Interest in religion has grown in the post-communist years, with some 55 percent of the population now identifying themselves as Roman Catholic. Although the constitution of Hungary formally protects religious expression, some observers believe this new law is aimed at providing the government with a practical means of controlling and discriminating against some religious groups.