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Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law
Tuesday, July 16, 2019

By Erika Schlager,
Counsel for International Law

This is a July 16, 2019, update to the article “Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law," originally posted on July 8, 2017 (reprinted below).

In 2011, Hungary adopted a new church law that entered into effect in 2012. The law stripped hundreds of faiths of their legal status overnight, deprived them of state resources to which they had previously been entitled, and resulted in other limitations.

In December 2018, Hungary amended its religion law (effective as of April 15, 2019). The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of Hungary’s Constitutional Court as well as the European Court on Human Rights which held that Hungary’s religion law discriminated against faiths and churches. However, the amended law includes elements that, in practice, will continue discriminatory elements of the 2011 law for several more years and, in some respects, exacerbate the situation for minority faiths.

The existing (2011) legal framework already distinguished among churches for the purposes of allocating government resources and benefits. The 2018 amendment added additional tiers to the categories, resulting in a more complex system. The four new tiers or categories are: religious association (with the right to be called a “church”), listed church, registered church and recognized church. Only the most “privileged” tier (recognized church) has the rights previously enjoyed by religious organizations recognized as churches before the passage of the 2011 law. Faiths which enjoyed legal recognition before the 2011 law but were stripped of that recognition under the 2018 law continue to be forced to accept the status of religious association and excluded from all the “privileges” granted to the higher categories. In other words, the 2018 amendment simply carries over the framework of the 2011 law. Additionally, the Hungarian Parliament – a body of elected officials – still decides which religious organizations are in the privileged tier (recognized church), making this an inherently political distinction.

The amendment does make two improvements. First, it allows all religious organizations that secure state recognition to determine their own internal organizational structure. (Under the law passed in 2011, this was not the case.) Second, it permits people to donate 1% of their income tax to any religious organization that secures one of the four approved statuses. However, the amendment does not automatically enable organizations previously excluded from this support to receive it.

On net, the December 2018 amendment fails to implement fully the court’s rulings or end the discrimination of the 2011 law, leaving some religious groups in limbo.

The amendment did not provide a remedy for churches that were stripped of their status under the 2011 law, and faiths categorized in what is now the lowest tier (“religious association”) cannot be upgraded to the status of listed or registered churches without renouncing all future state, European Union, and foreign support or collecting the 1% income tax donation but remaining excluded from the benefits of "recognized" status during a prolonged transitional period.


Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law
June 8, 2017

On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary. 

This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages. 

Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law

The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013. 

The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote. 

Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state. 

Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.  

The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations.

In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services.

Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy. 

The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered. 

About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship

The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced undergroundHelsinki Commission Counsel for International Law Erika Schlager in Budapest with Pastor Gabor Ivanyi of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, June 2017 and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law. 

The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.  

Related Issues

In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups. 

During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

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    WASHINGTON–The United States Helsinki Commission today announced a briefing: “Imprisoned in Uzbekistan: Politically Motivated Cases” Tuesday, October 28, 2014 11:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Uzbekistan has one of the highest numbers of persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges of any former Soviet country. Human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups fall victim to restrictive laws and policies that curb basic human rights. In addition, there are consistent reports of widespread abuse and torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, more than a decade after the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur on Torture concluded that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps. Human Rights Watch has issued a new report detailing the cases of 34 of Uzbekistan’s most prominent individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, from poor conduct of trials to mistreatment in prison. While some governments claim that ensuring stability and fighting extremism are paramount, laws restricting political participation, independent journalism, civil society, and freedom of religion may have the opposite effect. This briefing will discuss the Human Rights Watch report and look at what impact such cases may have in Uzbekistan, as well as hear about the human cost directly from a former prisoner and a family member of a current prisoner. Briefers: Steve Swerdlow, Esq., Human Rights Watch Central Asia Researcher and Director, Bishkek Office Dr. Sanjar Umarov, Former political prisoner Aygul Bekjan, Daughter of imprisoned journalist Muhammad Bekjanov Cathy Cosman, Senior Policy Analyst, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

  • Helsinki Commission on Opening of Europe’s Largest Human Rights Meeting

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, released the following statement ahead of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) annual high-level meeting on human rights. From September 22-October 3, civil society and government representatives of OSCE participating States will gather in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting to discuss compliance with the full range of OSCE human dimension commitments, with special focus on migrant rights, minority issues, and combating violence against women and children. “The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting takes place while Russian aggression in Ukraine continues to threaten basic OSCE principles. I expect this will be a major focus of the meeting, as well as Russian actions at home that are cynically rolling back the ability of civil society to comment on or contribute to how that country functions," said Chairman Cardin. "I am pleased that Professor Brian Atwood will head the U.S. Delegation at this critical time. The promises OSCE states made to one another almost 25 years ago, that respect for human rights within any country is a matter of concern for all states, has guided us and must continue to do so. I also welcome the leadership of the U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, who will be taking a high-level study group to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp." Co-Chairman Smith said, “The Russian government’s gross human rights violations in Ukraine must be a central topic of discussion at the Human Dimension meeting. HDIM is an indispensable tool for holding states accountable to OSCE commitments and most effective when both government and civil society representatives have equal opportunity to debate each state’s human rights record.  One issue that states and civil society must discuss this year in Warsaw, and at the OSCE “Berlin Plus 10” anti-Semitism conference in November, is the alarming rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the OSCE region.  The OSCE must also continue to combat trafficking in human beings, including through fulfilling commitments taken last year to train transportation workers to identify possible victims and to improve law enforcement information sharing internationally on potential sex tourists. Commitments are made to be kept.”

  • Commission to Hold Hearing with OSCE Human Rights Appointees

    WASHINGTON—Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: Anti-Semitism, Racism and Discrimination in the OSCE Region Tuesday, July 22, 2014 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Following an escalation of anti-Semitic hate crimes a decade ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) intensified efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination throughout Eurasia and North America. Since 2004, three Personal Representatives have been appointed annually by the OSCE Chair-in-Office (currently Switzerland) to address anti-Semitism; racism, xenophobia, and discrimination including against Christians and members of other religions; and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. In an official joint visit to the United States, the Personal Representatives will address progress and ongoing challenges in the OSCE region a decade after the creation of their positions. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Professor Talip Küçukcan, Personal Representative on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims Alexey Avtonomov, Personal Representative on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Commemorates Romani Revolt at Auschwitz, Deportation of Hungarian Jews

    WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) marked the 70th anniversary of the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews and the Romani revolt at Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. “On May 16, 70 years ago, 6,000 Roma at Auschwitz used improvised weapons to resist efforts to transport them from their barracks to the gas chambers. Sadly, their desperate and heroic efforts only delayed their mass murder," said Chairman Cardin. “I am appalled,” he continued, “when government officials, sometimes at the highest level, characterize Roma as criminals or ‘unadaptable’ using stereotypes that are reminiscent of Nazi racial theories. Remembering and teaching about Romani experiences during the Holocaust is critical in combating anti-Roma prejudices today.” Approximately 3,000 of those who participated in the Romani revolt were sent to Buchenwald and Ravensbruck concentration camps as forced labor, where most of them died. On August 2-3, 1944, the so-called ‘Gypsy Family Camp’ was liquidated and the remaining 2,879 Romani men, women and children were sent to the gas chambers. Altogether, 23,000 Romani people from 11 countries were deported to Auschwitz and approximately 19,000 perished. Some died as a result of inhumane medical experiments by Dr. Joseph Mengele. “This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the final wave of Hungary’s war-time deportation of Jews,” noted Chairman Cardin. “Plans to empty the Romani camp at Auschwitz were, in fact, intended to make room for Jews arriving from Hungary.” Anti-Semitic legislation was introduced in Hungary with the 1920 Numerus Clausus, which established limits on the number of Jewish university students. In 1941, more than 17,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to German-occupied Kamenets-Podolsk, where they were executed. Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, 437,402 Hungarian Jews were deported in the largest deportation of Jews to Auschwitz in the shortest period of time from any country. One of every three Jews who died at Auschwitz was from Hungary. Cardin concluded, “I welcome the participation of Czech Prime Minister Sobotka in the memorial service held on May 10 at the site of the concentration camp for Roma at Lety. I urge the Czech Government to take steps to reflect the historic significance of this site for Romani survivors and their families everywhere.” Lety was the site of one of two concentration camps for Roma in the war-time Czech Republic. The construction of a large pork processing plant on the site during the communist period has generated continuing criticism. The Helsinki Commission supported the transfer of microfilm copies of its archives – the only known complete surviving archives of a Romani concentration camp – to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2000. On September 18, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial will hold a public symposium on new research regarding Roma and the Holocaust.

  • Cardin, Colleagues Ask Kerry To Urge NATO, OSCE To End All Defense Contracts With Russia

    WASHINGTON– In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, – joined by 10 of his colleagues – asked the State Department to urge NATO member countries and participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to end all defense contracts with Russia in response to the country’s illegal annexation of Crimea and violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Cardin was joined by U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Daniel Coats (R-Ind.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), David Vitter (R-La.), and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and U.S. Representatives Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), and Michael Burgess (R-Texas). “We believe the United States must show leadership by terminating all defense contracts with Russia and ask that you strongly encourage our NATO allies and OSCE participating states to take similar actions,” the members of Congress wrote. “We urge you to lead the coordination among NATO and OSCE to halt trade involving military equipment with Russia immediately. We believe this is a crucial step in reestablishing a deterrent against further Russian aggression and strengthening the impact of our targeted economic sanctions against Russia.” Text of the letter is  below.   April 14, 2014 The Honorable John Kerry Secretary of State United States Department of State 2201 C Street Northwest Washington, D.C. 20520 Dear Secretary Kerry: We write to express our support for NATO’s decision to suspend military and civilian cooperation with Russia. We also ask that you further urge both NATO member countries and participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to work cooperatively to cease all trade involving military equipment with Russia in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. This would be a forceful next step by both international organizations (of which the United States is a member) to affirm that there is no more business as usual when it comes to bilateral trade of military equipment given Russia’s hostile actions. As you are aware, two decades ago the Partnership for Peace program was implemented to foster trust between NATO member countries and the member states of the former Soviet Union, and to acknowledge a shared political commitment to creating lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area. This integration with the member states of the former Soviet Union was predicated on shared values and common obligations to uphold international law. Likewise, the Helsinki Final Act, which has been signed by 57 OSCE nations, including the United States, affirmed our collective commitment to sovereign equality, respect for human rights, and fundamental freedoms. Russia violated these shared principles by disregarding its treaty obligations under the bilateral Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.  We should immediately halt the trade in military equipment now that Russia has reneged on its commitment to abide by international law. Russia has clearly violated the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, and its actions are antithetical to the principles that NATO member countries like the United States seek to uphold. Nonetheless, significant bilateral trade in military equipment continues. The United Kingdom announced the Military Technical Cooperation Agreement with Russia in January 2014, which would provide a framework for Russian and UK defense companies to cooperate at an unclassified level and enable British and Russian arms producers to exchange defense components and technical data. France has continued an existing contract to sell two high-tech Mistral warships to Russia, and the Hungarian Ministry of Defense recently acquired three Mil Mi-8 transport helicopters produced by Rosoboronexport. Unfortunately and inexplicably, the United States is, at the time of writing, continuing with plans to receive 22 more Mi-17 helicopters from Russia as part of our ongoing assistance to Afghanistan. We believe the United States must show leadership by terminating all defense contracts with Russia and ask that you strongly encourage our NATO allies and OSCE participating states to take similar actions. We urge you to lead the coordination among NATO and OSCE to halt trade involving military equipment with Russia immediately. We believe this is a crucial step in reestablishing a deterrent against further Russian aggression and strengthening the impact of our targeted economic sanctions against Russia. We thank you for your attention to this matter. Sincerely, BENJAMIN L. CARDIN United States Senate   RICHARD BLUMENTHAL                                                   United States Senate   JOHN CORNYN                             United States Senate   ROGER F. WICKER                                 United States Senate                              DANIEL COATS                             United States Senate   CHRISTOPHER S. MURPHY                             United States Senate   DAVID VITTER United States Senate   KELLY AYOTTE United States Senate   LOUISE M. SLAUGHTER Member of Congress   JOE PITTS Member of Congress   MICHAEL C. BURGESS Member of Congress

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on Human Rights in Turkmenistan

    WASHINGTON - The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today announced the following briefing: Disappeared in Turkmenistan’s Prisons: Are They Still Alive?  Thursday, February 20, 2014 3:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 122 Ten years ago, the Organization for Cooperation in Europe’s Moscow Mechanism was invoked against Turkmenistan after hundreds were arrested in the wake of an alleged coup attempt. The resulting report detailed the lack of rule of law during the arrest process and subsequent trials, as well as the absence of information about the health and whereabouts of those imprisoned. And despite years of inquiries and a change in regime in Turkmenistan, the fate of many of those who have disappeared into Turkmenistan’s prisons over the past ten years remains unknown. Their families deserve answers, and this briefing will take a new look at these cases. Turkmenistan has been characterized as one of the world’s most repressive countries, with virtually no freedom of expression, association, or assembly. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom again recommended in 2013 that the Secretary of State designate Turkmenistan a “country of particular concern,” and the State Department placed Turkmenistan on its “Tier 2 Watch List” for trafficking in persons - the second lowest category. Imprisonment has been used as a tool for political retaliation against those who do speak out, and Turkmenistan’s prisons – closed to outside monitoring - are notorious for torture, poor conditions, and disease. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Catherine Fitzpatrick, Independent Expert on Eurasia Peter Zalmayev, Director, Eurasia Democracy Initiative Kate Watters, Executive Director, Crude Accountability Boris Shikmuradov, Editor, Gundogar.org

  • Human Rights in Hungary

    Madam President, earlier this year I chaired a Helsinki Commission hearing on the situation in Hungary. Today, I would like to revisit some of the issues addressed by our witnesses. Since the April 2010 elections, Hungary has undertaken the most dramatic legal transformation that Europe has seen in decades. A new Constitution was passed with votes of the ruling party alone, and even that has already been amended five times. More than 700 new laws have been passed, including laws on the media, religion, and civic associations. There is a new civil code and a new criminal code. There is an entirely new electoral framework. The magnitude and scope of these changes have understandably put Hungary under a microscope. At the Helsinki Commission's hearing in March, I examined concerns that these changes have undermined Hungary's system of democratic checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, and freedoms of the media and religion. I also received testimony about rising revisionism and extremism. I heard from Jozsef Szajer, a Member of the European Parliament who represented the Hungarian Government at the hearing. Princeton constitutional law expert Kim Lane Scheppelle, Dr. Paul Shapiro from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska from Freedom House presented compelling testimony. Unfortunately, developments in Hungary remain troubling. Even though Hungary's religion law was tweaked after the Constitutional Court struck down parts of it, it retains a discriminatory two-tier system. Moreover, the Parliament is empowered with the extraordinary and, for all practical purposes, unreviewable power to decide what is and what is not a religion. This month, the government announced it is launching an investigation into the Methodist Evangelical Church, a church persecuted during communist times. Today, the Methodist Evangelical Church is known for its outreach to Roma, work with the homeless and is one of the largest charitable organizations in Hungary. As I noted at the Helsinki Commission hearing in March, it is also one of the hundreds of religious groups stripped of official recognition after the passage of Hungary's new religion law. The church has now complied with submitting the necessary number of supporters required by the law and, as a reply, the government has announced an unidentified "expert'' will conduct an investigation into the church's beliefs and tenets. This step only reinforces fears that parliamentary denial of recognition as a so-called "Accepted Church'' opens the door for further repressive measures. Veneration of Hungary's wartime regent, Miklos Horthy, along with other anti-Semitic figures such as writer Jozsef Nyiro, continues. In November, a statue of Hungarian Jewish poet Miklos Radnoti, who was killed by Hungarian Nazis at the end of 1944, was rammed with a car and broken in half. At roughly the same time, extremists staged a book burning of his works along with other materials they called "Zionist publications.'' At the beginning of December, two menorahs were vandalized in Budapest. Reflecting the climate of extremism, more than 160 Hungarian nationals have been found by Canada this year to have a well-founded fear of persecution. Almost all are Romani, but the refugees include an 80-year-old award winning Hungarian Jewish writer who received death threats after writing about anti-Semitism in Hungary, and was stripped of his honorary citizenship of Budapest on an initiative from the far-right Jobbik party, supported by the votes of the ruling Fidesz party. While there are many who suggest the real problem comes from the extremist opposition party Jobbik, and not the ruling government, it seems that some members of Fidesz have contributed to a rise in intolerance. I am particularly troubled that the government-created Media Council, consisting entirely of Fidesz delegated members, has threatened ATV--an independent television station--with punitive fines if it again characterizes Jobbik as extremist. If you can't even talk about what is extremist or anti-Semitic in Hungary without facing legal sanctions, how can you combat extremism and anti-Semitism? Moreover, this decision serves to protect Jobbik from critical debate in the advance of next year's elections. Why? Other new measures further stifle free speech. Unfortunately, and somewhat shockingly, last month Hungary amended its defamation law to allow for the imposition of prison terms up to 3 years. The imposition of jail time for speech offenses was a hallmark of the communist era. During the post-communist transition, the Helsinki Commission consistently urged OSCE countries to repeal criminal defamation and insult laws entirely. In 2004, for example, the Helsinki Commission wrote to Minister of Justice Peter Barandy regarding the criminal convictions of Andras Bencsik and Laszlo Attila Bertok. This new law, raced through under an expedited procedure in the wake of a bi-election controversy in which allegations of voter manipulation were traded, was quickly criticized by the OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media. I share her concerns that these changes to the criminal code may lead to the silencing of critical or differing views in society and are inconsistent with OSCE commitments. Hungary was once held up as a model of peaceful democratic transition and is situated in a region of Europe where the beacon of freedom is still sought by many today. I hope Hungary will return to a leadership role in the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy. 

  • THE TRAJECTORY OF DEMOCRACY – WHY HUNGARY MATTERS

    This hearing focused on recent constitutional changes to the Hungarian Constitution which has brought concerns from the United States and the European Union. Recently, Hungary has instituted sweeping and controversial changes to its constitutional framework, effectively remaking the country’s entire legal foundation. In addition to constitutional changes, there have been some bills passed without the proper democratic spirit and has brought concerns about the trajectory of democracy in that country. The witnesses raised the changes that have created the majority government into a nearly one-party rule structure and compared such actions to President Madison’s written exposé in the Federalist Papers number 47.

  • Hungary

    Mr. President, as the Senate chair of the Helsinki Commission, I have a longstanding interest in Central Europe. For many years the Helsinki Commission was one of the loudest and clearest voices to speak on behalf of those oppressed by communism and to call for democracy, human rights, and freedom from Soviet oppression. It has been a great triumph and joy to see the peoples of this region free from dictatorship. Over the past two decades I have been profoundly heartened as newly freed countries of Central Europe have joined the United States and NATO and have become our partners in advocating for human rights and democracy around the globe. Leadership on those issues may be especially important now as some countries in the Middle East undertake transition, the outcome of which is far from certain. Even in Europe, in the western Balkans, there is a crying need for exemplary leadership, not backsliding. Americans know from our own history that maintaining democracy and promoting human rights are never jobs that are finished. As my friend and former colleague Tom Lantos said, "The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.'' For some time I have been concerned about the trajectory of developments in Hungary, where the scope and nature of systemic changes introduced after April 2010 have been the focus of considerable international attention. At the end of November, Hungary was back in the headlines when Marton Gyongyosi, a member of the notorious extremist party Jobbik and also vice chairman of the Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that Hungarian Jews are a threat to Hungary's national security and those in government and Parliament should be registered. The ink was barely dry on letters protesting those comments when another Hungarian Member of Parliament, Balazs Lenhardt, participated in a public demonstration last week where he burned an Israeli flag. The fact is that these are only the latest extremist scandals to erupt in Budapest over the course of this year. In April, for example, just before Passover, a Jobbik MP gave a speech in Parliament weaving together subtle anti-Roma propaganda with overt anti-Semitism blood libel. After that, Jobbik was in the news when it was reported that one of its members in Parliament had requested and received certification from a DNA testing company that his or her blood was free of Jewish or Romani ancestry. At issue in the face of these anti-Semitic and racist phenomena is the sufficiency of the Hungarian Government's response and its role in ensuring respect for human rights and the rule of law. And the government's response has been, to say the least, wanting. First, it has been a hallmark of this government to focus on blood identity through the extension of Hungarian citizenship on a purely ethnic basis. The same Hungarian officials have played fast and loose with questions relating to its wartime responsibilities, prompting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to issue a public statement of concern regarding the rehabilitation of fascist ideologues and political leaders from World War II. I am perhaps most alarmed by the government's failure to stand against the organized threats from Jobbik. For example, in late August a mob estimated at 1,000 people terrorized a Roma neighborhood in Devecser, taunting the Romani families to come out and face the crowd. There were reportedly three members of Parliament from the Jobbik party participating in that mob, and some people were filmed throwing bricks or stones at the Romani homes. The failure to investigate, let alone condemn such acts of intimidation, makes Prime Minister Orban's recent pledge to protect "his compatriots'' ring hollow. Of course, all this takes place in the context of fundamental questions about democracy itself in Hungary. What are we to make of democracy in Hungary when more than 360 religious organizations are stripped of their registration overnight and when all faiths must now depend on the politicized decision-making of the Parliament to receive the rights that come with registration? What are we to make of the fact that even after the European Commission and Hungary's own Constitutional Court have ruled against the mass dismissal of judges in Hungary's court-packing scheme, there is still no remedy for any of the dismissed judges? What is the status of media freedom in Hungary, let alone the fight against anti-Semitism, if a journalist who writes about anti-Semitism faces possible sanction before the courts for doing so? What are we to make of Hungary's new election framework, which includes many troubling provisions, including a prohibition on campaign ads on commercial radio and TV, onerous new voter registration provisions, and limits on local election committees, which oversee elections? I find it hard to imagine that Jews, Roma, and other minorities will be safe if freedom of the media and religion, the rule of law, the independence of the Judiciary, and the checks and balances essential for democracy are not also safeguarded. With that in mind, I will continue to follow the overall trends in Hungary and the implications for the region as a whole.  

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