Viktor Orban’s long vendetta against a small evangelical church in Hungary is reaching its end as the denomination faces financial collapse. The situation, though, has implications far beyond the church itself.
By Alexander Faludy
“If the government does not stop systematically bleeding the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, hundreds of homeless may end up back on the streets – or die because they are left unattended,” the church’s president, Pastor Gabor Ivanyi, told a press conference in Budapest on Wednesday.
“Hundreds of families will lose their only source of food, thousands of disadvantaged children their chance of an education,” he added.
The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (known locally as the Magyarorszagi Evangeliumi Testverkozosseg, or MET) stands on the brink of bankruptcy after the Hungarian government suddenly withdrew central funding from social and educational institutions operated by the church.
Hungary’s tax and customs authority NAV claims that the money was withheld in lieu of 1.5 billion forints (approximately 3.9 million euros) in unpaid social security payments owed for MET’s thousand or so staff. Since July, NAV has withheld a total of 300 million forints that would ordinarily be due to MET as a public service provider.
MET, a small independent-Methodist denomination, has 19,000 members and operates a network of charitable institutions across Hungary – some 63 including schools, care homes and homeless shelters – located in the country’s poorest communities. The punitive funding cuts have left MET unable to pay employees or pay for goods and services.
NAV has taken an assertive stance, saying in a published statement: “In the case of organisations performing public duties, NAV acts in a particularly fair manner… However, the goal is for the taxpayer [MET] to cease its illegal activities and have a reasonable plan to fulfil its obligations.”
A public appeal for funds and some help from opposition-controlled local authorities have allowed MET to make part payments to 550 members of its staff. Even so, some employees have not been paid for three months; 10 per cent of staff members have resigned. “It’s unclear how we are to continue into October – we are at breaking point,” Ivanyi says.
How has this situation come about?
Ivanyi, a leading figure in Hungary’s anti-Communist underground in the 1970s and 80s, was personally close to Viktor Orban during and immediately after the period of democratic transition following the events of 1989. He baptised two of Orban’s eldest children and married him to his Catholic wife, Aniko Levai, in the chapel of MET’s Budapest headquarters at Danko Street in 1992.
Latterly, however, Ivanyi has strongly criticised the prime minister’s nationalist drift, particularly his growing authoritarianism and incitement of hatred against immigrants. “What he [Orban] does is against the teachings of Christ,” Ivanyi 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, effective from 2012, in a process widely attacked as political retribution. 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.
“Orban’s Church Law forced many minority religious groups to close schools and sell property more than a decade ago,” explains David Baer, professor of Christian ethics at Texas Lutheran University.
MET managed to hold out longer against closure partly on account of its size relative to other minority groups but also, Baer says, “because of Ivanyi’s enormous personal prestige as a Communist-era dissident”.
His hero status “means MET enjoys broad popular respect in Hungarian society: it could thus draw on material support beyond the resources of its worshiping members,” Baer adds.
Yet such support could only cushion MET against the determined state pressure temporarily; it is now reaching the end of the road.
Although the crisis ostensibly concerns the church’s social institutions and its charitable arm Oltalom Karitativ Egyesulet (Shelter Charitable Society) – which in 2021 received the European Parliament’s prestigious Citizen Prize for its outstanding contribution to civil society – the issues overlap strongly with the question of MET’s legal church status and subjective corporate identity.
According to Ivanyi, MET’s liquidity crunch is the direct effect of “the withdrawal of our ecclesiastical status – it deprives MET of an annual public subsidy of around 2 billion forints.”
Thus, “the Hungarian State’s cumulative unpaid debt towards us now stands at around 14 billion forints – almost 10 times our debt to our employees. If MET’s church status and accompanying benefits were restored, the church would have no problems meeting the payment both of our historic backlog of social security payments and the present salary obligations to our employees,” Ivanyi explains.
Moreover, as MET spokesperson Eszter Gerendas tells BIRN, this is very much an issue of religious freedom, not just administrative process, because its charitable work is so deeply stitched into MET’s identity. “MET is known, fundamentally, for being on the side of the poor. Solidarity with the marginalised is what draws many people to become, and remain, members of the church,” she says.
The actions of the state stand in stark contrast to how Hungary’s Fidesz government has marketed itself internationally as a champion of freedom of religion and belief in general, and as a protector of persecuted Christians in particular.
In recent years, Budapest has hosted two large-scale meetings of the International Conference on Christian Persecution (ICCP). Hungary also boasts a state-funded aid agency Hungary Helps, which its director, State Secretary Tristan Azbej, says was “created precisely to help persecuted Christians in a world where persecution is increasing year after year.”
Yet, according to Pastor Ivanyi, not only METs treatment by Orban’s government but the church’s isolation in its struggle says something very different about freedom of religion and belief in Hungary. “We’ve had no support from other churches in Hungary – no public statements, no material aid,” he points out. “Our help has come rather from the Jewish community, who have taken a kindly interest in us over many years.”
The reason for the silence of Catholic, Reformed and other ecumenical colleagues is, Ivanyi says, not hard to discern. “They’re afraid that what has happened to us could happen to them. Orban’s treatment of MET is a useful tool for disciplining the churches – a warning example of what can happen to you if you step out of line,” he believes.
As Daniel Freund, a German MEP notes: “This is Viktor Orban’s private feud. And as usual he is using state resources to fight it. To seek revenge. To go after those who dare to criticise him. Gabor Ivanyi’s ‘mistake’ was to help the poor and disenfranchised, and to criticise the patron. It’s shocking. But, sadly, it’s the reality in Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Gabor Ivanyi deserves our full solidarity.”
The future now looks bleak for MET’s members, staff and clients. Yet some commentators think the church’s fate has implications far beyond the organisation itself.
“That Orban looks finally able to shut down Ivanyi’s church using these tactics is irrefutable proof that Hungary’s government respects neither the European Convention on Human Rights nor the rule of law more generally,” says Professor Baer. “[It] raises difficult questions about why this country continues to be a member of the European Union.”