Hungary—a champion of traditional values but not religious freedom?

Even as Hungary has drawn admiration from conservative Christians for its strong support of the traditional family and maintaining its “Christian heritage,” the central European nation has appeared to change little in its tendency to restrict the freedom of minority religions in the last decade. Glowing reports on how Hungary serves as a beacon of traditional values in a pluralistic and secular Europe have become prominent especially in the conservative Catholic press. For instance, the National Catholic Register (April 2) reports positively on the country’s increasing birth rate and family-friendly policies (such as favoring large families and discouraging abortion), while decrying the European Union’s “campaign of harassment against Hungary for daring to have a national vision that is explicitly, even audaciously, independent. The Hungarian government has pushed back against numerous policies favored by globalists including open borders, same-sex marriage, gender ideology and legalization of drugs.” The article concludes, “What many refuse to recognize is this: Hungary suffered an atheist, dictatorial regime for over 40 years and it is returning to its Christian heritage in order to restore human dignity.”

In the current issue of the journal Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe (April), H. David Baer reviews recent legislation concerning religious freedom in Hungary and finds that though the legal furniture may have changed, restrictions on religious freedom have remained in place ever since the Fidesz party of Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010. Two decades after a policy of treating all religious groups equally was established in 1990, the Hungarian Parliament instituted a distinction between registered churches (including about 32 churches) that would receive substantial rights and privileges (such as receiving funds from taxes) and unregistered churches and religious associations that would be denied aspects of the right to religious freedom. There was considerable outcry from the European Court of Human Rights against this two-tiered system, which subsequently led to a more complex, maze-like four-tiered model in 2018. Baer writes that those religious groups in the lower classifications still face considerable disadvantages and arbitrary treatment from the state, even if they can now receive tax funds.

“Deregistered” religious groups are treated as “religious associations,” making it difficult for them to move up the ladder to registered status and, in some cases, leading them to close their doors. For instance, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (HEF), which operates numerous homeless shelters and schools for the Roma people and has been one of Orbán’s major critics, is a deregistered church with a high enough membership of 10,000 to qualify for registered status (a certain size is another qualification for registration). But a catch 22-type law stipulates that to achieve such status a church must either certify all tax donations it has received or give up all sources of financial assistance, while the HEF has been prevented from collecting church taxes for five years.(National Catholic Register,; Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe,