ISKCON Hungary Stays Positive in the Face of Legislative Changes
In Hungary, a new proposed legislation, which would have declared the equality of all registered churches including ISKCON, was changed at the last minute to exclude all Eastern religions and require them to re-register under stringent new conditions.
Depending on whether re-registration is accepted without a hitch or not, the new bill could simply be a passing inconvenience, or it could introduce sweeping changes that would be unfavorable to ISKCON.
This is a key moment in religious politics for Hungary, which has a long history of both oppression and victories in religious freedom.
“The separation of church and state was first introduced in 1895, when a law was passed listing those denominations that were recognised by the state,” explains Madhupati Dasa, head of ISKCON Hungary’s Public Relations department. “This law listed the main Christian churches as well as giving accepted status to Judaism. It set up three categories: accepted, acknowledged and tolerated.”
Madhupati gives us some more history: During the ensuing decades, precious few other churches received an acknowledged status. In 1905, the Baptists were ackowledged, then in 1916, the Muslims. During the regime of Miklós Horthy between 1920 and 1944, small religious communities such as the Seventh-Day Adventists were persecuted, their religious practices curtailed.
After World War II, the Communists took power in 1949 and banned all but the largest churches, which agreed to cooperate. To intimidate dissenters, many priests and other clerics were imprisoned or sent to labour camps with made-up charges. This ensured that the churches, to protect their remaining privileges, were ready to collude with Communist powers to suppress internal dissent by getting renegades—such as Catholic priest and grassroots movement founder György Bulányi—behind bars, if necessary.
“During Communist times, the state kept a ‘State Church Office,’ which supervised religious institutions and whose permissions were needed for practically everything, from getting a clergyman a passport to refurbishing a church building,” Madhupati Dasa says. “Not only was the clergy observed, but members of the church were recruited in large numbers as informants.”
At around the change of the political system, in 1989, religious freedom got its first victory: The last Communist parliament passed a law which threw the gates open for any religious community mustering at least 100 members to register as a church.
As a result, during the ensuing twenty years, a total of over 350 “churches” were registered, some of them – allegedly - merely for the additional state subsidy available for churches.
ISKCON Hungary first registered in 1989 under the old system by the State Church Authority, ISKCON was registered again according to Law 4 of 1990, as a church having all the privileges allowed by the law.
“On the surface, these privileges were largely financial: tax, customs and stamp duty exemption,” says Madhupati. “However, if one only considers the privilege of collecting donations without any special permission, we understand that the legal environment was very favourable for book distribution.”
The financial privileges were very beneficial too: Hungary introduced a system by which private individuals could allocate 1% of their Personal Income Tax to a religious organization, which became a considerable source of income for ISKCON Hungary.
In the two decades since then, ISKCON has thrived in the country. A largely self-sustaining rural community, Krishna-valley or New Vraja Dhama, was established and soon became a household name and a cherished Hungarian tourist destination. Meanwhile, Food for Life became one of the biggest food distribution charity, ISKCON’s drug addiction remedy program won acclaim from law and order circles, and Govinda’s restaurants were opened in Budapest and other cities. Another big milestone was the establishment of the State-accredited Bhaktivedanta College in Budapest.
Recently ISKCON’s success, and religious freedom in Hungary in general, seemed that it would be cemented with a new well-publicised bill, filed with Parliament by the junior party in the government, the Christian Democratic Party.
“The proposed legislation would have declared the equality of all registered churches, and would have included forty-five different churches as automatically recognized, including ISKCON Hungary,” Madhupati says. “Those churches not acknowledged automatically, could still have applied to the Municipal Court of Budapest.”
The bill was set to be voted into law, along with several others, on July 11th, the last day before Parliament’s summer recess. Literally in the last few hours, however, the major party in government, the Young Democrats, filed a modification motion which completely changed the law.
“It reserved Parliament, rather than the court, the right to register a church, tying to a two-thirds majority,” explains Madhupati. “Not only that, but the list was radically curtailed and only the three major Christian churches, some Jewish communities and a Pentecostal new church called HIT was left on it, leaving all the small religious communities out. No Eastern religions are represented on the list—there are no Buddhists, no Muslim communities, and, of course, no Hindus, either. Dozens of small, well established Christian communities such as Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons etc. were also left out.”
These communities are now required to re-register, under the following strict conditions: 1) Predominantly religious activities (formations which do mainly charity, education, health service or other activities, however useful, do not qualify as churches); 2) A minimum of twenty years of active presence; 3) a minimum of one thousand members [this condition, Madhupati says, was deleted, but the signatures of at least one thousand members stayed as compulsory documentation]; 4) negative vetting by the State Security services; 5) Those churches which do not comply with the above conditions can continue as associations, but they lose a number of privileges, such as tax exemption and additional state subsidies.
“The text of the law reflects the circumstances of its passing,” Madhupati comments. “It contains numerous inconsistencies: for instance, the list of conditions for registration does not stipulate a minimum number of members, but the required documentation does; and various dates are contradictory, so that it is unclear when the churches left out can file their application.”
ISKCON Hungary intends to comply with all the requirements, and is already in the process of compiling lists of signatures from its members to support its re-registration. While this is not a requirement, it’s an important step.
“Of course, this being sensitive, personal data, we are seeking approval from signers that their particulars may be filed with the government,” Madhupati says. “We are also keeping these lists confidential and secure until it is clarified that they have to be filed; otherwise they will be destroyed.”
ISKCON Hungary aims to register at the first opportunity, which is expected to be later this year or early next year. What happens then all depends on the political will.
“If those churches, including ISKCON, which comply with the list of conditions get registered without much hassle, the incident will be not more than a passing inconvenience,” says Madhupati. “However, if registration is denied directly or the members of Parliament happen to disagree, there will be sweeping changes.
Book distribution could even become technically illegal unless a different legal structure is found.”
Many religious organizations and international human rights agencies, as well as the US government expressed their concern about the new religious law.
Still, ISKCON Hungary remains positive.
“I expect that this law will be adjusted soon, the inconsistencies weeded out and procedural aspects elaborated,” Madhupati concludes. “And once we do get registered, either under the present law or an adjusted one, our normal preaching activities will continue largely as before.”
ISKCON Hungary`s official statement about the new legislation:
"The Hungarian Society of Krishna-consciousness, representing the world religion of Hinduism receives the new legislation in Hungary on churches with mixed feelings.
We acknowledge with satisfaction that the new legislation does not restrict freedom of conscience and religion and, as against previous drafts, does not set up categories of registered churches, thus does not discriminate among citizens based on their creeds.
Our religious community considers it a step forward that the new law defines what is a religion, thus, it makes possible to distingish bona fide religious activities from others.
We deem the criteria for registration acceptable and reasonable and we welcome the possibility that communities that meet the said criteria can apply for registration.
At the same time, we were very disappointed to find that no oriental world religions were included in the initial list of registered churches, not to speak of communities that have practiced sincere religious activities as well as done very valuable services to the Hungarian society during the last few decades.
We also object to the stipulation that deliberation whether a religious community can be accepted as a church is left to the Parliament rather than an independent court. In this way, political interests will determine which community will be accepted rather than their actual religious activities and community work. We see this element of the law as a violation of the principle of the ideological neutrality of the state.
As the representative of the Hindu tradition that goes back to millenia, the Hungarian Society of Krishna-consciousness intends to keep equal distance from all political interests, but is ready to cooperate with all organizations, parties or individuals who share our views on the importance of the sanctity of life, religious piety, non-violence and moderation.
Our community expects the government and Parliament of Hungary to cooperate and make possible that we can continue our religious activities in our temples and centers as a registered church just like we have done since 1989 and that we will enjoy continued support for our educational, environmental projects, our drug prevention and mental hygiene programs and last, but not least, for our charity project feeding hundreds of thousands of people every year".