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Budapest HQ of Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship raided by government officers

25 February 2022

Its pastor has been an outspoken critic of Viktor Orbán

Alamy

Pastor Gábor Iványi outside his headquarters in Budapest with officials after their raid on Monday

Pastor Gábor Iványi outside his headquarters in Budapest with officials after their raid on Monday

ARMED officers of the National Tax and Customs Authority (NAV) in Hungary raided the headquarters of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség, MET) on Monday, in the latest struggle between the small independent Methodist denomination and Hungary’s government.

Thirty NAV and police officers arrived at MET’s headquarters at 9-11 Dankó Street, Budapest, at 9 a.m. and stayed until shortly after 6 p.m., when they left bearing sacks containing documents and computer equipment.

In a statement released through the state news agency MTI, on Monday, the Customs Authority declared that MET’s diaconal arm, Oltalom, was “suspected of regularly deducting contributions from employees between 2015 and 2019, but not paying them. The association has acted unlawfully for years, harming not only the [state] budget, but also its own employees.”

NAV representatives excluded MET staff from the Dankó Street offices throughout the search. Altercations periodically erupted between police and a 150-strong crowd of protesters who tried to force their way in.

Officers initially refused to disclose the warrant authorising their entry, but did so at about 4 p.m., after the arrival of one of MET’s lawyers and several opposition MPs. The latter used their parliamentary immunity to gain access to the search scene.

On regaining entry, the president of MET, Gábor Iványi, found his office door forced and the safe broken open. The search was accompanied by simultaneous raids at MET schools and care homes in Hungary.

The Customs Authority alleges that MET owes three billion Hungarian forints (£7 million) in unpaid social security contributions for employees. MET maintains that it could readily pay, if 12 billion Ft (£28 million) of unlawfully withheld state subsidies were remitted.

Mr Iványi, a leading figure in Hungary’s anti-Communist underground in the 1970s and ’80s, served as an MP for the (now defunct) Liberal party SzDSZ from 1990 to 2002. During that time, he baptised the first two children of the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and married him to his Roman Catholic wife, Anikó Lévai, in the chapel at Dankó Street. Latterly, however, Mr Iványi has strongly criticised the Prime Minister’s far-Right drift, particularly Mr Orbán’s authoritarianism and incitement of hatred against minorities.

“What he [Orbán] does is against the teachings of Christ,” Mr Iványi told the New York Times in 2019. “It is the exact opposite of what the Bible preaches about treating the poor, about justice, about responsible service.”

MET lost its church status and state subsidies after the introduction of Hungary’s new Church Law (2012), in a process widely attacked as political retribution. MET has 1300 employees and 18,000 registered members.

Since 2012, Hungary’s Constitutional Court has twice ruled that MET’s treatment breaches Hungary’s Fundamental Law. A 2017 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment found that MET’s treatment breached Article 9 of the ECHR concerning freedom of religion or belief.

MET’s precarious legal situation has destabilised its finances. In 2019, the United States Congress’s Commission on Security and Co-operation in Europe said that Hungary’s government “may be trying to squeeze MET out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and . . . forcing them to devote resources to constantly re-litigate the same violations”.

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