Gábor Iványi: Hungary leads the pack when it comes to shameful behavior

January 12, 2017

“Fidesz, a party whose headquarters now rests in the building of communist-era State Church Affairs Agency in Lendvai Street, has warped into a party that confiscates the legitimately obtained rights of others, stripping us of our rights, twisting and turning the rules in such a way to ensure that we will never be able to meet the newer and newer requirements. Thus far, we have proven four times that we conform to all the requirements, but they are still unwilling to carry out the Constitutional Court’s ruling or the ruling of the Strasbourg court.”

“Christians aren’t Christians because they have a piece of paper that says they are Christians, or because they create a ‘Christian’ party. Christians are Christians because they are like Christ. In other words, because they aspire to be like Christ. With respect to the treatment of refugees, the homeless, how to treat prostitution, and how to act like Christ, Pope Francis has shown us an example. Pope Francis doesn’t only talk, he also took the homeless into the Vatican and washed them. It is not customary for the homeless to visit the Vatican, but the fact that they were there, that Pope Francis invited refugees, or embraced prostitutes — these are values of Jesus.”

– Reverend Gábor Iványi

The following interview with Reverend Gábor Iványi, head of the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood, aired on Klubrádió, Hungary’s only opposition radio station, on December 28th, 2016:

Gábor Iványi, director of the Protection Charitable Association (Oltalom Karitatív Egyesület), good morning. Thank you for joining us. We are doing a year-in-review, and it was a really interesting year. Let’s start by addressing something we often talk about with you, the status of your church. Your church has undergone a lot of changes in recent years, we’re referring to changes caused by the Church Law, and the persecution your church has undergone. Was this year any different from this perspective?

Nothing really changed. The government is still around, together with its arrogance and unlawfulness, and our lawsuit in Strasbourg continues. Our congregations, religious community and institutions continue their work.

So the changes, specifically the required legal changes which in theory should reinstate your status, have not yet been adopted and you are still waiting for everything to return to the earlier status? The issue here, of course, is that your church status was not reinstated and you took the issue to an international court.

The situation has changed slightly now in that the Constitutional Court received our latest complaint in December. Now, we are suing Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balogh as an employee in the labor court…

Zoltán Balogh as an employee? This is a new situation.

This is because the Constitutional Court issued a decision in 2013 and he is responsible for delivering on the Court’s decision.

Yes, that is what I referred to earlier. So the changes have not yet happened.

He did not deliver. Obviously, there is one person responsible for this and Balogh is simply a pawn in all of this. This entire situation does not depend on Balogh’s decision, he only plays the unconscionable role of the pawn. This is why we have no other option but to sue him personally.

You see, the Constitutional Court ruled that our church and a number of other religious organizations were unduly stripped of our status and that this situation must be corrected. The state does not really have any other choice here. Even if lawmakers slip new rules into the Fundamental Law, such as enabling the National Assembly to decide what organizations can be considered churches, the Constitutional Court’s ruling is still in effect and must be carried out.

Our church, including the majority of other religious organizations, such as Jewish and Christian faith groups, as well as non Jewish or Christian organizations, were not new religious groups, they had retained their church status. The new requirements are inappropriate and unconstitutional, especially when used against those churches who obtained their status before the fall of communism — after years of struggling to obtain the status.

What makes this situation even more scandalous is that regime-change party Fidesz, a party whose headquarters now rests in the building of communist-era State Church Affairs Agency in Lendvai Street, has warped into a party that confiscates the legitimately obtained rights of others, stripping us of our rights, twisting and turning the rules in such a way to ensure that we will never be able to meet the newer and newer requirements. Thus far, we have proven four times that we conform to all the requirements, but they are still unwilling to carry out the Constitutional Court’s ruling or the ruling of the Strasbourg court. This is why we are suing Balogh, the employee.

Well, this is a new title for Balogh…

All he has to do is expand the Church Law appendix and include those religious organizations which had their status reinstated by the Constitutional Court.

I have heard, and this is a very interesting tendency, that it’s as though religious leaders have started to accept this new situation. It’s almost as though – of course, hats off to those who are the exception – the system is starting to stabilize…

The truth is that the churches should have recognized from the very beginning that this new Church Law – which puts churches at the mercy of whoever is in government – is even bad for the Catholic Church…

Do you think they didn’t see this?

I think they did, but they thought they would never end up in a situation as bad as the smaller, less powerful church with no international standing. I think it was reckless and risky of them to not raise their voice against the law. In cases when they did, all they did was grumble. They said things like, “We were never consulted about this,” or “We didn’t want these changes.”

They never really said words stronger than that.

No, and they did not raise their voices in support of those who were undeservedly targeted by the law.

But why not?

Because they are cowards and they depend [on the state] financially. This system is very well thought out. Even now, at the end of the year, the state pumps immeasurable amounts of money into certain churches to make it clear that even a renovation adding a layer of brass on a church steeple depends on one person — Viktor Orbán. So, in Hungary it isn’t only the Prime Minister’s working room that gets an undeserved amount of money, it’s the churches, too.

Our church’s losses, the money for which we are suing the state, is money we are owed by the state for the services we have performed, like running schools. It is a shame that at the end of December 2016 we are still fighting for the money we are owed from 2015. We haven’t even started fighting for the funds we are owed for 2016 because the funds we are owed in 2015 – our social programs, our homes for the elderly, the homeless shelters and our schools – have not been sent to us as of December 28, 2016. And it does not even look like we will receive these funds.

Yes, that’s what I was referring to. It seems some layer of church leaders have really found their place in this new system.

Even they have come to the realization…

So they know where the money comes from and that’s that?

Yes, they know which whistle to dance to.

I conducted a very interesting interview with KDNP [Christian Democratic People’s Party] MP István Hollik. I asked him about MSZP MP Tamás Harangozó’s grilling of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén in parliament. Harangozó asked Semjén how he could nominate Zsolt Bayer for the Knight’s Cross award when Bayer called the Pope “either a demented old man who is completely unsuited to fill the post of Pope, or a rascal.” I also asked him whether his party, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, feels they should have responded to this statement. He told me that his party “does not exist to be the political defenders of the Catholic Church.” He went on to say that “we are building a country which is proud of its Christian past. It is not our job to defend the Catholic Church and its leader from a publicist who shares our values.” From this perspective, how do you see the KDNP phenomenon, its power, and whether it is the party’s responsibility to make some changes is this area?

KDNP is, to all intents and purposes, a non-existent party. It cannot be measured. The party is a corsage on Fidesz’s hat. It is nothing special. Its only purpose is to allow for Christian slogans to appear in Fidesz’s demagoguery. They go hunting, ride around on horses, talk all kinds of nonsense, and say derogatory things.

Now, Pope Francis should not only have been defended because he is the head of the Catholic Church. I was shocked that even at the highest levels [of the Hungarian Catholic Church] there was no defense of the Pope. I myself have said that the Pope does not deserve these rude and disrespectful statements. He is the first Pope in a very long time who has clearly stood on the side of the poor and on the teachings of the Gospel — because those are the values of Jesus.

Christians aren’t Christians because they have a piece of paper that says they are Christians, or because they create a “Christian” party. Christians are Christians because they are like Christ. In other words, because they aspire to be like Christ. With respect to the treatment of refugees, the homeless, how to treat prostitution, and how to act like Christ, Pope Francis has shown us an example. Pope Francis doesn’t only talk, he also took the homeless into the Vatican and washed them. It is not customary for the homeless to visit the Vatican, but the fact that they were there, that Pope Francis invited refugees, or embraced prostitutes — these are values of Jesus.

By calling the Pope a demented rascal, they went so far as to suggest that in Hungary there is someone who really defends Christians, someone more pope-ly than the Pope himself. In addition to being absolutely hilarious, these statements are outrageous and shameful.

Hungary leads the pack when it comes to the kind of behavior that fully warrants feeling ashamed. So the Christian Democratic People’s Party is quiet on this issue, just as it is quiet on other issues. It occasionally does something to create the impression that it is active, but the fact that they use all their strength to support every crazy and evil deed of this government leads me to see…

So these tendencies to challenge the churches, as we have been discussing, did not start yesterday. Will this tendency continue in the future? Will the ability of churches to act in these areas be further curtailed in the future?

Yes. It is not Europe that needs to be evangelized to, but the Church itself. We need to immediately close the gap in our knowledge of the values of the Bible so that the Church does not lose what remains of its reputation. But I don’t see this happening at the moment.

The world is not eager for slogans. The Bible, the New Testament, and the world wistfully awaits the return of the son of God. These are not Christian democrat politicians, or tired and burned-out church leaders, but people who aren’t doing what the world’s most desperately at-risk population need. These people should express solidarity, they should be brave, and they should not act on the desire of sudden desires of the majority. They should not accept ignorance on the handling of the refugee issue, as though this is about Hungary desperately trying to secure its borders.

We quickly learned that we were welcoming many times more [migrants] through our campaign offices [referring to Hungary’s residency bond program]. It does not matter where they came from, whether they had international warrants out for their arrest, if they had money they would be welcomed. If they had the money, we would even release from prison the military officer convicted of murdering another military officer. In this respect, Hungary’s behavior is ignominious. These are the times when the churches and the Christian democrats must raise their voices and express their moral convictions.

But, to the contrary, we have not a single statement from them. They are completely silent. There were a few exceptions in this case regarding the refugee issue, now that you have brought this up, but these were only isolated statements. There churches were almost completely silent regarding the refugee crisis. But Asztrik Várszegi and the Bishop of Vác did speak up and express a different opinion. Of course, these statements came against the backdrop of the entire Hungarian church saying a completely different message, often repeating the same statements that Presbyterian and Catholic church leaders were making. So, to claim that these people are persecuting Christians, who are they talking about? They are talking about the refugees, not themselves. There too is a card that those in power could play. Of course they would use it, but they did not only pit Moslems against Christians, but also Moslems against Moslems and so on. In a situation like this we should not have been allowed to talk about anything else but the fact that people are suffering, refugees are suffering.

But they did not talk about that at all. And that is another issue they could have come up with a better way in dealing with this. Because it needs to be dealt with, no one ever said these people should just come across the border in an uncontrolled manner to do whatever they want.

Did you speak to other church leaders? Are you in contact with them? Was there ever an effort or initiative on your part or together with others?

I don’t really move in the circles of church leaders. And that’s not just because of our status, but also because – I must admit – I flee from circles where there are more than two members of clergy present. However, I was in such company at the end of autumn when I contacted a group of clergy regarding a collaboration to take porta-potties out to those stranded on the border.

I remember this initiative.

We loaded 10 porta-potties onto a truck but [the authorities] did not allow us to set them up. But authorities on the other side of the border quickly set up porta-potties, so I was very happy that our objective was accomplished. It was worth the effort.

What happened when you approached the other church leaders? What kind of response did you get?

There were some troubled smiles. Some said they essentially agree with the idea. But the issue is complicated, as we saw in 2015. That is why I really liked groups like Migration Aid, Migszol [Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary] and other real civil society organizations, and even some that formed right as the crisis hit Hungary. All the while, church-related fake aid groups, like the Maltese and aid groups operated by the Protestants, well, I don’t know…

Are those fake civil organizations?

I think they are. They are just as much civil organizations as the Patriotic People’s Front (Hazafias Népfront) was during the times of socialism. These organizations also wink at whatever the government’s opinion. They receive money from the government. They show up with a cup of hot tea but did not open up their warehouses in Hegyeshalom. They could not even accomplish setting up restrooms in Hegyeshalom.

Our aid organization, the Oltalom Karitatív Egyesület, was able to set up restrooms. And we learned that the reason these other organizations did not set up restrooms was because it might slow the travel of those crossing into Austria from Hungary. Of course, there were two trains that stopped in Hegyeshalom every day, bringing across roughly 3,000 refugees. These people were essentially running across the border. These church-affiliated organizations did not want to slow the speed with which these people were crossing into Austria by setting up restrooms. Now, to not stand up against this and not urge the government to act humanely so that if someone needs to use the restroom they should not be forced to cross into Austria, this shows how barbaric we are…

Was this the case earlier, that the churches had this mentality? Or is this something that just happened now during the refugee crisis?

That’s a good question. I remember March 15th, 1990, when new parliamentary elections were only two months away, when the entire opposition successfully won, when the churches celebrated with Imre Pozsgay, the Patriotic People’s Front then-president. The churches were there, too, and they could not believe that there would really be a system change. They were so sad when the State Church Affairs Agency was closed. They did not know who they would have to meet with, who would take care of their affairs for them. They even cried when the Council of Free Churches collapsed. But these were terrible organizations and normal, thinking people could think about nothing other than that these organizations needed to be dismantled and held to account for their deeds under socialism.

But the churches cried nonetheless.

They cried, they cried for these false idols. Don’t forget how the prophet reacted when the people were weeping for Tammuz. Why? Because they had some interest, some earth-dwelling primitive interest to do so.

So not much has changed in this respect since 1990, 2000 and even 2016.

Unfortunately, no. That is why I am saying that we have to return to the Bible, we must return to the teachings and values of Christ and have these be the examples we follow.

If I understand correctly, there isn’t much hope of that happening. It hasn’t happened until now. This sounds very sad.

Yes, it does. If we skim over the 20th century, where there were at least 17 powers that the churches had become intertwined with, we can say the churches acted rather poorly — to put it lightly.

There was an interview with you once where you said, referring to this current situation, that there is a notion amongst church-goers and Christians that only Fidesz can be their ally. This is understandable because, by and large, the rest of the churches have turned away from [their trust]. We should not, however, in clinging to some kind of status, believe everything that party tells it.

We aren’t dummies, we are people capable of thinking. Based on what you said, it really looks like we are dummies. Of course, I’m not thinking of you, or this situation, just generally.

Generally speaking, what you said was very thought-provoking.

The state likes loyal churches because they provide the biblical justification for obedience, that this particular power obviously get its competency and authority from God.