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Hungary Church Stripped of Status Awarded 3M Euros in Damages

A Methodist church in Hungary that was stripped of its status by the government was awarded 3 million euros in damages by the court.
Gabor Ivanyi is the pastor of Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and is a known critic of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Google Commons

A Methodist church in Hungary that was stripped of its status by the government was awarded 3 million euros in damages by the court.

The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was among hundreds of other churches and religious organizations that were refused legal status in 2011 after the government implemented a law that was supposed to stop the proliferation of "business churches," the Associated Press reported.

Prior to the implementation of the said legislation, churches in the country were subsidized by the government and were given access to funding programs. The law also allows citizens to give 1 percent of their income to any church recognized by the state.

However, in 2011, about 300 small churches lost their legal status, including their tax-exempt status and their eligibility for funding, Politico explained.

The number of legally recognized churches in Hungary went down from 370 to 32. Religious groups that were stripped of their status included Buddhist and Jewish congregations, and even some groups that opposed the government, but most of them were Christian churches.

On the other hand, the 32 recognized churches included some of the country's largest, including the Reformed Church and the Catholic Church.

Some critics said the move was politically motivated.

"The recognized churches are much more likely to be friendly to the government," Szabolcs Hegyi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union said, according to Politico.

In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the legislation imposed in 2011 was a violation of freedom of religion and ordered the government to amend it. However, the government has largely failed to comply.

"It's part of a strategy to slowly squeeze these groups out," David Baer, professor at Texas Lutheran University, said, Politico reported. "Over the long run, it's a war of attrition. If the government is not going to honor the rule of law, then it's going to win."

The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is led by Pastor Gabor Ivanyi, a known critic of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Ivanyi baptized Orban's two eldest children.

The church operates homeless shelters, elderly homes and schools, and after it was stripped of its status in 2012, things had been difficult.

"We struggle. Only by God's mercy are we able to survive," Ivanyi told The Budapest Beacon in 2014. "It's a miracle we're still alive."

"The state discriminates by generously funding certain churches even as it deprives us of the money to which we are legally entitled," he added.

After exhausting all legal channels to have the church's status restored, Ivanyi said they turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

On Tuesday, the Strasbourg court ruled that Ivanyi's church status be restored and that it be awarded financial compensation for all the subsidies, grants and other funding it has lost since 2012.

Ivanyi said the court ruling could encourage other affected churches to fight. However, their own battle for legal status is not over.

"We remain in no man's land because we haven't been returned our tax number, our church status," Ivanyi said. "Our future is uncertain."

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