Small churches in Hungary fear losing legal status

AP News
Posted: Dec 13, 2011 12:03 PM
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."

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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.