According to the new church law issued by the Hungarian Government in 2011, only 14 out of 352 religious communities and groups were acknowledged as official churches in Hungary. The former church law adopted right after the political changes in 1989 intended to recompense for the restriction of religious freedom by providing churches with the largest liberty possible. However, the past twenty years proved that the act, which was among the most liberal church acts in the world, had a lot of drawbacks.
Especially in the past five years, there has been a sudden growth in the number of religious communities that registered themselves as churches only for the sake of enjoying the financial benefits provided by the law. The requirements for registration stated by the former church law were relatively easy to fulfil, and several groups took advantage of it, despite their not being involved with any religious activities. The great number of newly born churches caused problems for the budget, which was another reason why the elimination of communities without real spiritual life and function had become necessary.
The new law listed 14 churches that did not have to apply for their church status – beside the Catholic, the Reformed and the Lutheran Church, three Jewish, five Orthodox churches, the Unitarian, the Baptist and the Faith Church were in the list. The registration of other religious communities was not automatic. This law was meant to confirm the separation of state and church, although the state declared its wish to cooperate with the churches in certain issues regarding the betterment of society.
The new law provoked major conflicts between the churches and the government. Although the act managed to eliminate "business churches", there were some congregations who were unfairly deprived of their ecclesiastical status. The historical churches generally agreed that certain church groups that did not officially qualify, should be entitled to the church status, even though they did not fit the new criteria.
Although this version of the church law was met with dissatisfaction, it is important to emphasise that the act, which makes a distinction between communities according to the number of members or the effect on the society, was in harmony with the mainline European practice.
One week after the adoption of the church law, the Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church in Hungary addressed a letter to the Minister of Justice and Administration, in which they asked the record of 5 more denominations which are members of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary (the Methodist Church, the Pentecostal Church, the Salvation Army, the Hungarian Free Christian Community and the Oldchristian Apostolic Church). Furthermore, the appeal pointed out that the new law should also recognise "the church-status of the world religions and religious communities having provided proof of the value-oriented nature of their teachings and serving the interests of their immediate or wider community." The government promised to take the appeal into serious consideration.
In February, 2012 the government issued a new law, in which another 18 religious communities were acknowledged as churches, and 66 new applications were turned down. The latter groups lost their church status from March 1 onwards, and may now function as religious associations, provided that they did not miss their opportunity to register for this status until the end of February. The registration allows for further chances in the future to apply for a church status. So the number of the aknowledged churches is 32. The article of the Ministry of Public Administration and Jusitice of Hungarian Government can be read here.
Translated by Katalin Burns