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Small churches in Hungary fear losing legal status

Small churches in Hungary fear losing legal status

Hare Krishna members on Tuesday protested outside Hungary's Parliament against a new law that could strip them of their status as a recognized church.
Hungary's church law taking effect Jan. 1 grants official status to 14 Christian churches and Jewish congregations but forces all others to submit a new registration request and gain approval from a two-thirds majority of lawmakers.
"We are representing a billion Hindus worldwide who are wondering why they have to prove themselves again to the Hungarian government," said monk Sivarama Svami, from the Krishna Valley farm in central Hungary. The protest included two cows from the farm.
Previously, churches needed only to register with a local court, which did not have the option of rejecting applications.
The church law has been harshly criticized by human rights advocates, policy experts and opposition groups, who see it as another attempt by the government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban to ensure political control over many institutions earlier considered at least nominally independent.
Sivarama Svami said the Krishna community has already applied to retain church status, but state officials could not say when parliament would consider the more than 70 similar requests made so far.
The government said the new law was needed to filter out business enterprises operating under the guise of religious groups.
"Neither communities nor individuals are under any constraints in the practice of their religion in Hungary," said Bence Retvari, state secretary at the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice. "The real objective of this law is to regularize the system of state subsidies and tax benefits, which was being abused."
Retvari added that provisions have been made to allow some churches reclassified as religious associations to continue receiving state funds for the social services they provide, such as schools, soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
"We did not want to alter Hungary's varied religious life," Retvari said, but to redefine the church-state relationship in terms of tax benefits and funding for institutions.
More than 300 churches are currently registered in Hungary, but as many as half of them are probably no longer active, Retvari said.
On Monday, the government presented a bill in Parliament that would solve one of the most pressing problems facing the Hare Krishna community if they lose their church status _ it would allow associations to own agricultural land, so Krishna Valley could continue to function and remain home to its 300 people and 52 sacred cows.
"The (new amendment) still doesn't take care of the real problem, which is that we are a marginalized church," Sivarama Svami said.
Religious associations enjoy far fewer benefits than churches, so to continue his activities in Hungary, Sivarama Svami would likely have to redefine his title, becoming an association employee instead of a monk.
Szabolcs Hegyi, a lawyer at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, said appeals from groups losing their church statues could be expected first in Hungarian courts and then, in case of rejections, at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
"The Hungarian church law diverges from European standards by giving Parliament the right to make the final decision," Hegyi said. "In consequence, even if the legal requirements are met, Parliament can reject the petition" of groups seeking church status.
Hegyi agreed that some churches did not carry out legitimate religious activities, but said that current regulations would have been enough to deal with them.


Updated : 2021-06-14 12:01 GMT+08:00