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Orbán holds the bishops close

11 December 2020

Hungary’s PM is exerting a growing influence on church affairs, says Alexander Faludy

MTI (Hungarian State News Agency)

Pastor Zoltán Balog after receiving the Hungarian Cross of Merit from President János Áder, in August

Pastor Zoltán Balog after receiving the Hungarian Cross of Merit from President János Áder, in August

HUNGARY before everything, God above us all” are the words with which the country’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, rounds off his “State of the Nation” speech each January. They typify a wider pattern: at a conservative estimate, he has solemnly invoked the Almighty at least 30 times in his published remarks this year.

External observers usually dismiss Mr Orbán’s purported religiosity as a superficial communications ploy: a sop to the Euro-Atlantic culture war. They are mistaken: his ruling party, Fidesz, has a deeply institutional and longstanding relationship with religion, which presents profound dangers for Christianity in Hungary.

Fidesz first sought partnership with the Churches in the run-up to the 1998 General Election, at which endorsement from bishops helped to elect the party to office for the first time.

Today, Fidesz governs in alliance with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which is described by its leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, Zsolt Semjén, as “the political arm of the Catholic Church in Hungary”. The Reformed Church, Mr Orbán’s own denomination, is also represented in government: Calvinist pastors have sat in Fidesz’s parliamentary caucus and, since 2010, have served as government minsters.

To date, the alliance has benefited larger churches: since 2010, more than 3000 places of worship have been either built or significantly renewed with public money. Churches have also been recipients of discretionary grants of money and land. Earlier this year, legislation was passed that transferred the titles of 29 valuable properties to partner religious groups. Since the pandemic first hit in March, Fidesz has allocated special grants totalling €285 million to religious institutions, but only €140 million to the country’s struggling health-care system.

In recent weeks, as Hungary has been engaged in a Rule of Law stand-off with the European Union, the medieval castle at Esztergom, a designated European Heritage site, has been transferred to the local Roman Catholic archdiocese in the north. The southern see of Szeged-Csanád has become the recipient of a state-owned factory and its 1000 employees. This has made its bishop the overseer of not only his flock and a neo-Romanesque cathedral, but also of a generously subsidised football team and purpose-built new stadium.

 

WHILE Mr Orbán has hitherto chosen to involve faith communities in the process of government, and not to interfere in Churches’ ecclesiastical affairs, there are signs that this is changing.

Harsh measures have long been applied to religious groups that do not pursue active partnership with Fidesz. Bodies such as the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and the Mennonites have previously found their access to public subsidies and Gift Aid-type benefits restricted or removed. The former has come under pressure to relinquish long-held and well-operated social and educational institutions.

Things are now beginning to prove difficult, however, for dissident individuals within the main Churches, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. In August, the popular social-media accounts of the influential young Budapest-based RC priest, Fr András Hodász, went mysteriously silent, after, in late July, he protested in support of imperilled media freedom.

In September, Radio Free Europe, which is funded by the United States government, reported on the case of the Revd András Antal, a deacon in the RC diocese of Vác, who is known for his willingness to question the close ties between Hungary’s prelates and politicians. During the summer, he was dismissed from his post and made homeless, without official explanation.

The Reformed Church’s situation is worse because it lacks the strong external links of its RC counterpart. In a candid interview in June, the retired Reformed Bishop of Debrecen, Dr Gusztáv Bölcskei, warned that his Church was now absorbing the State’s authoritarian culture. “Reasonable discussion is lost incrementally not only from Hungarian politics, but also from the life of the Church,” he told the conservative weekly Magyar Hang.

 

ON 5 NOVEMBER, Mr Orbán’s spiritual adviser the former Minister for Human Resources Pastor Zoltán Balog, was elected as Reformed Bishop of Budapest. The election followed a special change to canon law to enable the pastor’s candidacy. The latter would would previously have been disallowed on the basis of insufficient parish experience.

Data obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the Hungarian news website Atlaszo revealed that the diocese of which he is now bishop had previously been in receipt of repeated grants from the Foundation for a Civic Hungary, the Fidesz-linked foundation that Pastor Balog chairs. So had the central Educational and Cultural Foundation of the Reformed Church, which received the highest one-off grant (€28,000) from the foundation in the year of the bishop’s election.

The words of Deacon András Antal, in his interview with Radio Free Europe, provide a sad summary of the situation, though one that is probably apt: “The Hungarian Church has a structure, a leadership, an established process. We are officials rather than pastors, it seems. Money is up to the government, and we maintain a money-driven system rather than a spiritual community.”

 

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.

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