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La loi sur les Églises : une législation en mouvement (1980-2011)

Successive agreements between the Hungarian State and churches, as well as legislation on faiths, were put in place during the government of Mr. Gyula Horn between 1994 and 1998. This legislation was criticised from the outset, because according to its critics, it does not respect the constitutional principle of separation of church and state which should exclude faiths from being subsidised from public funds. According to the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz), the churches benefit from unjustified privileges. In spite of these protests, successive governments have wavered as regards modifying this legislation. It is in the area of funding for public church activities, in particular relating to schools, that governments have shown their disagreement with the Concordat of 1997. There have been many criticisms of the annual increase in subsidies granted to faiths and a lack of transparency in funding. In 2006, a Commission (in Hungarian) was created in order to examine “the results and effects” of the Agreement of 1997. It concluded that “it is not necessary to denounce this Agreement nor to withdraw from it”. However, everyone agreed that the Agreement and the legislation were outdated and had shortcomings. For example, there is no guarantee regarding its application (cf. lack of funding for school or social establishments dependant on faiths) ; in addition, points relating to the funding of cultural establishments (libraries, archives etc.) lack precision.

Thereafter, negotiations with the churches on amendments to the agreements began within the context of the new Fundamental Law of Hungary promulgated on 1 January 2012. The Agreement signed with the Vatican was a key document for legislation on churches, so we will examine some of the major amendments introduced by this text (in English) which was signed on 21 October 2013 and ratified on 10 February 2014.

Added to ch. I, art. 2 (of the text of 1997) is that the government is committed to guaranteeing catechists - whether within the ecclesiastical context or in state schools - an income equivalent to the average wage of Hungarian teachers and to grant a subsidy for catechesis or ethics textbooks. Ch. I, art. 3 is replaced. There we find, inter alia, the following items : the number of non-theologian scholarship holders in establishments of higher education managed by the church is fixed in such a manner that it reaches five percent of the total number of scholarship holders in national higher education. The government and the CEH will have to deliberate every 4 years on the number of students per faculty who can benefit from such scholarships. As for boarding schools and student hostels dependent on the church , the Hungarian State commits to granting them the same subsidies as to the institutions that it administers itself. With regard to specific annual subsidies (development, research, etc.) for non-theological teaching, they cannot amount to less than 7.5 billion Forint (HUF). The State recognises the Pazmany Péter Catholic University to be a university of excellence, recognised by the Holy See. It guarantees a scholarship for 2,500 theology students in Catholic higher education establishments. Ch. I, art. 4 is replaced. According to the new text, properties belonging to the Catholic Church will receive the same “cultural subsidies” as state-owned properties. This relates to the safeguarding and restoration of monuments, museums, archives etc. Ch. I is supplemented by an article on the donation made by the government to the church of the premises of Palazzo Falconeri (Rome) and to the Hungarian pontifical institute for the training of priests . Ch. II, art. 4 is partly replaced. The new text states that the Hungarian State maintains the possibility for private individuals to give one percent of income tax (IR) to the church of their choice. In addition, the state guarantees the churches one percent of the totality of IR, even if the citizens have given less. Ch. II, art. 2 is replaced. As a result, the revenue guaranteed by the Hungarian government for property assets not reclaimed by the church will be revalued each year to represent the change in the consumer price index. In addition, the state supplements income from property assets not reclaimed by the church, amounting to 54 million HUF in 2011.

The Fundamental Law of 2012 and Organic Laws (cf. Art. 7 no. 3) relating to churches have been rather favourable to the operation of 14 faiths (Reformed, Lutheran, three Jewish federations or communities, 5 Serbian Orthodox or Bulgarian, Rumanian and Russian dioceses or Exarchats linked to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Unitarian Church, the Baptist Church and the Faith Church). According to the website (in Hungarian), the representatives of the Reformed Church and Lutheran Church had reportedly intervened with governmental authorities so that the new law recognised the church status for all the principal religious groups and religious communities whose social services improve the collective fate of the most modest and of the excluded. This made it possible to include other religious groups (Methodist, Anglican, Buddhist or Muslim) in this list.
Following this change in legislation, around 20 faiths have presented a request before the European Court of Human Rights (see a detailed presentation of the issue by Balazs Schanda). Several Hungarian researchers state that there was misunderstanding at the Court as regards the new legislation in Hungary on recognition of the churches. Indeed, B. Schanda states that the legislation of 2011 on faiths did not abolish the registration of certain faiths, but introduced a new system, by cancelling registration of all faiths in order to introduce a new system on two levels with religious associations as basic entities and with specific recognition granted to certain churches, recognised as such by the National Assembly. Hungarian lawmakers affirmed that this new recognition is designed to make more transparent the use of the public funds granted to churches and to avoid the abusive use of subsidies, tax advantages etc. At the same time, it should be emphasised that the ECHR considered it incompatible with the neutrality of the state that the decision to grant recognition or not to a church is a matter for Parliament and relies on a majority of two-thirds of votes. Moreover, if lawmakers have highlighted criteria of recognition, such as how long a faith has existed or how many members it has, in reality few churches in Hungary do not fulfil these criteria (criteria considered anyway to be excessive, if we use the report by the “Venice Commission" as our basis).
One case would deserve more thorough reflexion today. It involves the Muslim community in Hungary. Indeed, even if if today the number of Muslims barely exceeds 20,000 people (mainly originating from Arab countries, Turkey, Iran and Bosnia), the presence of Islam had already been attested before the year 1000. Allies or occupiers, Muslims have for centuries erected buildings, places of worship, mosques and minarets. With the new legislation, Muslim communities have lost part of their state subsidies. However, in the current European context, beyond the issue of places of worship, the training of Muslim religious leaders has become a burning issue. Recognition for 14 churches, as we have seen, also ensures subsidies for the training of their leaders : clergy, theologians etc.
Today, after updated legislation on faiths and following the new Fundamental Law, the Hungarian government is seeking the “definitive” model for the relation between state and faiths. The current interpretation of the principle of secularity in Hungary does not exclude that churches be regarded as partners in the foreground of public life. However, the representatives of the major churches, in agreement with the Christian Democrat People’s Party (members of the coalition government), have protested against the possible adoption of the German model (in Hungarian) in which, despite there being a true partnership between churches and the state, the method of funding seems less favourable than that in force today in Hungary. The historical churches admit that because of the ECHR decision, the legislation on faiths needs amendment, but they are protesting against the creation of an entirely new law, especially without wide-ranging consultation with the churches. Today, there are two divergent ideas within the parliamentary majority : a) an entirely new law for churches will need to be created ; b) it will be necessary to take into account the churches’ request not to introduce completely new legislation during the years to come (an idea backed by the Minister for Human Resources, Mr. Zoltan Balog (Calvinist Pastor and Theologian). The consultation started by the government continues with foreign governments so as to familiarise itself with models of legislation on faiths. The model in place today in Hungary resembles that adopted by Spain or Italy, with specific elements due to the historical situation of a post-Communist country. For those who worked on the legislation in the 1990’s, like Mr. Ivan Platthy (in Hungarian), former Secretary for Religious Affairs, there should be a return to the principles fixed in 1990 and the model to be chosen must be the “Hungarian model”.

D 23 février 2015    ARozalia Horvath

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