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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

There are 79 officially recognized denominations, although only 59 of the officially recognized churches received government subsidies in 1997. A total of 300 are registered with the Government. A church can be established with 100 supporters; there are no other requirements. The Ministry of Cultural Heritage, which oversees relations with churches, proposes restrictions for establishing churches with the purpose of excluding violent groups and business enterprises falsely operating as religious organizations to evade tax laws.

The State grants financial support to religious denominations for religious practice, educational work, and maintenance of public collections. To promote the support of religious institutions, the Government beginning in June 1997 signed separate agreements with the country's four largest "historic" churches: the Roman Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, and Calvinist Churches. Prime Minister Viktor Orban defended the agreements, stating that "under the given circumstances, we succeeded in removing all financial, administrative, political, and legal hurdles from the path of our historic churches."

The Government provides funds each year for the revitalization of churches based on annual negotiations between the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the Ministry of Finance. In 1998, the Catholic Church received $7.8 million ($1.7 billion Huf); the Lutheran and Calvinist Churches each received $2.96 million (695,000 Huf); and the Jewish community received $390,000 (93 million Huf). The Government spent $4.3 million (1 billion Huf) in recent years on the reconstruction of the Esztergom Basilica and its vicinity, $6.4 million (1.5 billion Huf) on the renovation of Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, and $426,000 (100 million Huf) on the reconstruction of the Abbey of Pannonhalma. According to the Ministry for Cultural Heritage, in 1999 the State intends to grant the churches $12.8 million (3 billion Huf) for the maintenance and reconstruction of listed monuments, churches, and religious public collections.

Dissemination of statistics pertaining to religion is banned by the Data Protection Law of 1992. Under its provisions, individuals cannot be asked their ethnicity or religious affiliation. The Government estimates that the country has 4,500 churches and chapels. There are between 2,200 and 2,500 Catholic, between 1,500 and 1,700 Calvinist, and 200 Lutheran churches, as well as 106 synagogues. Several synagogues have been built since World War II, generally replacing older demolished synagogues. The first completely new synagogue built since the war was constructed during 1998 at a Jewish summer camp in Szarvas. According to estimates from the World Jewish Restitution Organization, there are currently between 70,000 and 110,000 Jews residing in the country. There also are 9 Buddhist and 7 Orthodox denominations, along with an Islamic community of 800 and an additional 800 Muslims in the country's refugee camps.

The population is not particularly devout. A 1996 law permits citizens to donate 1 percent of their income tax to the church of their choice and an additional 1 percent to the nonprofit agency of their choice. Nonprofit donations greatly exceeded those for churches.

The Government provides state financial support for church education, established under the former government. Church educational institutions receive the same support as state institutions.

In June 1999, Members of Parliament began investigating ties between the Congregation of Faith and the former ruling party, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which may have granted economic and political benefits to this religious group. According to press reports, the Faith and Morality Cultural Foundation of Northern Hungary, reportedly tied to the Congregation of Faith, has been accused of fraud and other white-collar crimes. However, the Congregation of Faith denies any connection to the Foundation.

The traditional practice of going to church and participating in a religious service before taking the oath of office is not compulsory, but it is practiced by some political figures, including Prime Minister Orban in 1998.

Between 1999 and 2011 the State must decide more than 3,000 pending cases of real property to be restituted to churches. In 1991 Parliament passed the Law on Compensation for Previously Church Owned Properties. This law enables the Churches to apply for compensation for real estate that was nationalized without any compensation after January 1, 1946. Real estate cases have involved 12 religious groups: Catholic; Calvinist; Lutheran; Unitarian; Baptist; Hungarian Romanian Orthodox; Hungarian Orthodox; Budai Serb Orthodox; Hungarian Methodist; Seventh-Day Adventist; the Salvation Army, and the Confederation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (MAZSIHISZ).

Overall, 7,220 claims were made by churches for property restitution under the 1991 compensation law: 1,350 cases were rejected as inapplicable under the law; the Government has made decisions on 1,062 cases; approximately 1,000 cases were resolved directly between former and present owners without government intervention; and the remainder must be decided by 2001. Religious orders and schools have regained some property confiscated by the Communist regime.

Between 1997 and 1998 the Government signed agreements with seven churches: the four historic churches (Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, and Calvinist) and three smaller ones (Hungarian Unitarian, Hungarian Baptist, and Budai Serb Orthodox). These agreements are subsumed under the 1991 compensation law and reimburse the Churches for properties confiscated by the Government after January 1, 1946. The first and most significant agreement, between the Government and the Vatican, gives the Catholic Church $9.8 million (2.3 billion Huf) in support and calls for the return of church property confiscated by the Communist regime. The agreement with the Jewish community was signed in October 1998 and gives it $2.6 million (608 million Huf). The Government's payment was made in exchange for the community's agreement to waive its claim on 152 properties. According to MAZSIHISZ, the Jewish community received 4 or 5 buildings as real property restitution and is negotiating with the Government on an additional 10 to 15 properties on the basis of the 1947 Paris treaty on World War II suffering. The Calvinist and Lutheran Churches, in agreements signed in December 1998, receive $4.3 million (1 billion Huf) each. The agreements give the Budai Serb Orthodox Church $190,000 (45 million Huf) and the Hungarian Baptist Church $85,000 (20 million Huf).

In 1998 the Government paid churches $19 million (4.4 billion Huf) as compensation for the assets confiscated during the Communist regime. In 1999 the amount is to be raised to $21 million (5 billion Huf). By 2011 the State is to pay an estimated total of $179 million (42 billion Huf) to the churches for buildings not returned.

In 1992 Parliament passed a compensation law that provides for restitution to families of persons who were sentenced in court under the Communist and Nazi regimes. The Constitutional Court in 1996 decreed that the law was drawn too narrowly. In 1997 Parliament passed modifications to this law and extended compensation for the period 1939 to 1989 to "victims of political autocracy." This category includes victims of political, religious, and racist persecution during World War II, forced laborers in Soviet camps, and victims of the 1956 revolution. The 1997 modifications also established the Jewish Heritage Foundation to provide restitution in the form of life pensions to 17,800 Holocaust survivors born before May 9, 1945. An additional 2,040 labor camp survivors are to receive pensions automatically when they reach 60 years of age.

MAZSIHISZ and international Jewish organizations criticized as unfair a 1998 decision by the Government to provide $128 (30,000 Huf) to the heirs of the Holocaust victims. Previous awards to the heirs of victims executed by the Communist regime were $4,255 (1 million Huf). The Orban Government provided the 30,000 Huf figure as a line item in the Fiscal Year 1999 budget, stating this amount was all that could be paid out without budget imbalances. Opposition parties are seeking to hold a special parliamentary session on this and other issues, but the Government is opposed to resolving the issue in this manner.

In 1998 the Ministry for Cultural Heritage initiated an inventory of museum holdings to identify works of art eligible for restitution or compensation for Holocaust victims.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations between religious groups are amicable.

Under communism the Government maintained ties with the Hungarian Catholic Church, the dominant religious group in the country. After the fall of communism, smaller churches also became established, resulting in a more diverse religious community.

In 1997 changes to the Penal Code made it easier to enforce and stiffen penalties for hate crimes committed on the basis of the victim's ethnicity, race, or nationality. A case is pending against Ehrem Kemal, a skinhead group leader, arising from two inflammatory anti-Semitic speeches he made in 1997. In April 1998, a court in Heves sentenced Istvan Osze, a private citizen with no political affiliation, to 10 months' imprisonment for assaulting Tamas Horvath, because he thought Horvath was Jewish. The conviction was the first for a racist assault.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy actively monitors religious activities, particularly relating to issues of compensation and property restitution for Holocaust victims. The Embassy works closely with MAZSIHISZ and other local and international Jewish organizations to promote fair compensation and access to Holocaust-era archives. Embassy officers have met with representatives of the Office of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, and the Embassy maintains a dialog on restitution issues that arise from several of the Government's agreements with smaller churches. Embassy officers routinely meet with officials from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Church of Scientology to monitor government support for groups that experience problems outside of the country.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 10-09-1999