Gábor Iványi: It’s a miracle we’re still alive!

December 11, 2014

“This is not Christianity. This is barbaric pagan behavior. It is so disgraceful to God, and I’m not even being extreme with my words. It’s so wrong that it fills me with pain and shame and I refuse to be quiet about it.  This is not Christ-like.” – Gábor Iványi, President, Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood, on the policies and programs of Viktor Orbán’s  “national Christian” government of Hungary

Budapest Beacon senior correspondent Benjamin Novak spoke to Gábor Iványi, President of the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood, about his organization’s struggle to regain its official church status, how it has survived despite a significant decrease in state funding, the danger of “religious politicizing” in Hungary and what it means to be a Christian.

(English subtitles can be turned on by clicking on the “CC” button on the lower right side of the screen).

Having been stripped of its official church status by the 2011 Church Law, and having exhausted all domestic legal remedies to regain its status, the Brotherhood, which operates a number of homeless shelters and schools in Hungary, turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Strasbourg court ruled that the government of Hungary had violated Article 11 of the Convention on Human Rights by stripping the Brotherhood and other religious organizations of their official church status.  Rejecting the government’s subsequent appeal, the court ordered that the organization’s church status be restored with retroactive effect and that the government compensate it for losses incurred as a result of its deregistering.

So far, the Hungarian government has failed to do so.

Iványi is concerned the government is drafting a new Church Law without first consulting any of the affected parties.

Beyond the trials and tribulations of the church he heads, Ivanyi is deeply concerned about the impact of mean-spirited government’s policies on society’s weakest members.  He is particularly critical of the government’s work-fare program and the decision to lower the mandatory school age from 18 to 16.

The following is an English transcript of the full interview (which is conducted in Hungarian).

What is the current situation?

The life of our church and that of other churches in a similar situation has changed (with) the decision of the Strasbourg court, to which we turned after exhausting all possibilities in Hungary and after the Hungarian Constitutional Court ruled that the deprivation of our rights was unlawful and unconstitutional, and ordered the restoration of our status with retroactive effect as of 1 January 2012.  But nobody enforced the ruling, so we had no choice but to turn to the Strasbourg court on the basis of our international agreement.

This court ruled in April that our rights be restored and we be compensated for our damages. The court rejected Hungary’s appeal and the ruling came into force in September.  The Hungarian government responded by again attacking us as “business churches” and of requesting compensation because money is what is important to us. The government made our lives impossible for the past several years.  Hungary was given half a year to reach an agreement with us on material questions.

. . . the compensation for damages.

We demanded payment for services we provided on behalf of the state but were never paid for. Now they are claiming that we are not a church but an association, and that associations are different from churches in that we can obtain from other sources the funding necessary to maintain schools and social institutions. We have not asked money for the operation of our church. The claim that we want the money for our church is deliberately misleading.

We do not ask money for the operation of our church. But we do expect payment for the services we’ve been providing on behalf of the state for 25 years. Since then we have faithfully operated a number of homeless shelters, hospitals, schools and retirement homes that provide assistance to thousands. And from one day to the next they suspended the funding of these institutions, thereby strangling their operation.

We struggle. Only by God’s mercy are we able to survive. 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.  The Strasbourg ruling can be enforced because if we cannot agree within half a year, then we can once again turn to Strasbourg and so far in cases like this the Hungarian state has paid up. It has been more than two months since we asked a meeting to discuss the matter and they have yet to respond. They’re playing games with us . . .

. . . you mean the government isn’t responding?

The government is not responding.  There are reports that the ministry has met with organizations that were stripped of their rights but did not turn to Strasbourg, such as the Evangelical Alliance, and reportedly even gave them some money.  At the same time they jointly declared they would neither turn to Strasbourg nor to Hungarian courts because the Fundamental Law and the cardinal Church Law guarantees everybody religious freedom.

But religious freedom isn’t the issue here.

No, and that’s why we regret that they decided to play this game which partially takes the side of the government and partially takes our side, because the communist constitution preceding the 1989 system change also guaranteed freedom of religion.

Back then I, too, was persecuted, arrested and given a suspended sentence in the 1970s. For years I preached in the streets because even then we raised our voices against unlawful state interventions, even then we referred to the fact that the constitution guarantees the freedom of religion.

But in practice they always found a way to take away our rights without limiting “freedom of religion” but something else, be it abusing the right of assembly according to them in the 1970s or accusing us of being “business churches”, which is seriously insulting. Strasbourg had enough legal sense and investigated the matter thoroughly enough that we would not have won the case had the accusations been true.

When they created the Church Law it was extensively modified at the last minute  before being adopted. The rationality for it was to prevent “business churches” from receiving state funds. 

There was no actual problem of this nature.

There must have been some court proceedings if they passed such a law.

There weren’t any. This was never an issue. There were abuses on the part of the largest churches.

Even now fraud exists in the manufacture of candles and other such “businesses” in the hundreds of millions of forints. We could say jokingly “Big church, big business”, “small church, small business”, if there was any. Perhaps there are or were problems. Not with us because there are so many inspections so as to make it impossible.

The government, specifically the National Tax and Customs Authority (NAV), uses inspections as a means of oppression. They hold so many inspections that we couldn’t even make off with a matchstick, not that we want to. They are instructed from on top to find something on us that would make it possible to ban us. That is why it is uncomfortable for them that the United States has banned the heads of NAV for corruption.

It’s shameful for Hungary that the head of the authority entrusted with collecting taxes cannot enter the US. The point isn’t that they have a problem with us.  They are starting from their own example. Prosecutors could have acted before now on such matters.  If they didn’t act it was because no such matters existed. They made this up. It sounded good. Such “abuses” are used in Hungary to justify limiting free speech as well as the rights of pensioners, those farming state-owned ground, civil society and the impaired.

They maintain that everyone “cheated” and “abused” their privileges. Even as they were accusing the various actors and took away their rights and their money, it turns out the very ones who wanted to wrest from our hands the possibility and means of action were the ones who were abusing their position with regard to money and the law. Even as they accused us, there was no forum for listening to our complaints.

How did your church come to be in this position? How does it differ from the Catholic Church? Or the Methodist Church? Or the Evangelical Church? 

This is one of the serious mistakes of the Church Law.  After years of persecution and fighting for our independence and our status as an independent church we finally reached our status as an independent church in 1981 on the basis of an 1895 law.

But now the head of government says none of that counts, and takes away our rights with retroactive effect. And they determine incomprehensibly whose rights are to remain.

It was like that in the case of the first round of 14 churches from the Roman Catholic church to the Baptists as well as the Faith Alliance, a newly formed neo-Protestant church. Expressly old, big churches were included among those the head of government was willing to regard as churches.

The rest have to go through another procedure and even though they met all the legal criteria, only those were recognized as churches — the Methodists, the Pentacostals and some others — because this is a kind of grace according to chairman of the parliamentary committee on churches in which some organizations are accorded church status in Hungary and others are not. We say the law and grace are two different things. You cannot retroactively take away a church’s rights and say that from this time forward no matter what you’ve accomplished, you can only be  a church if we are willing to permit this.

In your opinion, what is the reason for excluding the Methodist church? The law itself offers no rational explanation.

There is none.

So why you, who have operated in Hungary for a long time?

I can only speculate as to the reasons. One reason is that we deal with the kinds of issues to which the current government is opposed such as improving the situation of Gypsies, supporting and educating those living in dire poverty. The point of the new education law is that the state wants  to decide who can obtain a high school diploma, that’s why they lowered the obligatory  school age from 18 to 16. In this way the state can say it does not want to fund the education of those between the ages of 16 and 18.

We know 18 to be the age when people complete their high school studies. Now who are the ones affected? People living in the  countryside in dire poverty.

If I’m not mistaken, you operate a lot of schools. 

We only want to participate in the education of the poor because this is a complex problem.

On the one hand, families are unable to provide support. Children come from a poor environment. There is no library at home. In the countryside there are no museums or public libraries. It’s not possible to go to the theatre. It’s not possible to gain access to culture. The parents are uneducated, unemployed.

The houses in which they live are largely unsuitable for human habitation. They struggle for their lives, especially in winter. In such an environment it’s nearly impossible to undertake  a child’s education or provide them with cultural experiences or take them to academic competitions or buy them shoes in winter and arrange for there to always be firewood.  All of this together represents a problem beyond simple education. I am not happy with the church’s role in public education or the way the state is turning responsibility for public education over to the churches.  It is not the children of the poor but middle-class children who are involved in this.  Their ambition is to bring about certain conditions.

Our argument with them is not over basic ethical norms but rather with their social outlook, which, unfortunately, in the case of every church in Hungary is characterized by impatience towards national minorities, opposition to the West, insistence on the death penalty which died out a long time ago in progressive, developing, Western societies.  It saddens me to say that in Hungary a type of conservatism characterizes the majority of Christian churches which . . . In the West there are many places where life has overtaken the church and we painfully experience the church seeping out of society. And in its place will be a servant to authoritarian power instead of playing some kind of prophetic role.

How have you financed the operation of the schools, the homeless shelter and the many other institutions? You were deprived of your church status in 2012. How were you able to maintain this?

By the grace of God. But looking beyond the payment for basic services we provide we managed to obtain, they didn’t dare close our institutions for a number of reasons. There is a lot of unemployment in Hungary and we employ some 800 people full-time. Together with other employees we employ at least 1000 people. So that’s 1000 families, let’s say. We care for many thousands of people. If they eradicate our presence here then living standards will continue to decline and impoverishment grow. Many hundreds will be unemployed. So with clenched teeth they paid us the basic “normative” fee.

The system is such that the normative paid by the government does not cover the actual cost. Whenever possible we accept whatever is voluntarily offered to us from financial donations to the completion of work. For example, every year groups of youth arrive at their own expense, especially from Holland. With their own money they buy tools and paint and they paint our schools and our homeless shelters. This is an enormous help for us. We receive a lot of donations in kind like food, clothes.

There is a new donor program by the name of Hungarian Bread undertaken by a wonderful person, a university professor, which started with a loaf of bread. He has offered us 17 tonnes of flour. This is a right-wing person who sees that what we do is indispensible and important. So he made the brave and commendable decision to openly support us. And we’ve been pleasantly surprised by people taking it upon themselves to raise money for us. One even raised a million forints!

Or those who brought us two jars of jam. From minimal donations to large donations — we never received any huge donations — I always liked that we received whatever we needed to get by like those wandering in the wilderness who received just enough manna to last the day.

In this way from day to day God has preserved us. But the government continues to tighten the belt and now it is attacking the non-public, non-church schools. We don’t want to prematurely panic. We believe that God will help us. We’ve only just learned of this.  We will see later how this affects society.

Earlier you started explaining what changes the government plans to make to the Church Law.

We were grateful for the criticism voiced by the United States. Having clearly stated, written and defended our opinion it was clear that we were not strong enough to achieve anything. And due in large part to criticism from the US on certain issues together with that of the EU and the Strasbourg decision . . .

The Hungarian state, for example, in connection with the Church Law, said it was unalterable. The story of the Church Law is that the first version was struck down by the Constitutional Court. They passed a new one that was even stricter than the first one with regard to certain matters. That, too, was largely invalidated by the court. The Venice Commission also condemned it. And now Strasbourg has judged the same points to which we objected to be unacceptable.

In response to this the government says the law cannot be modified. Let’s make a new Church Law. But they won’t involve anybody in the preparation of that either. They don’t ask what our opinion is. By contrast, before the system change in 1989-1990 when the last Kadar government they asked our opinion.

And this was even before the system change. There was a large consensus, from the Catholic Church to the free churches. In fact, all of Europe celebrated that law which was a very good and acceptable law that the government and parliament swept away at the insistence of the Christian Democrats. They exclaimed in vain what a wonderful law it is. Now they say it cannot be repaired and the ministry is preparing a new one which it  will introduce in one year’s time. Rumor has it that they want to base it on the German church law.

Until now our problem with this and other laws, like the ones governing freedom of speech, they cobbled together all the bad provisions of existing laws within the EU and they said “the very same thing you are attacking exists here”. And they ignore the fact that more advanced democracies have counterbalances, forums where through appeal it is possible to avoid being stripped of one’s rights.

Here there is neither an independent Constitutional Court nor an independent judiciary. The same goes for prosecutors. Everything is under serious pressure from the government and from one political party. There is no freedom to discuss or challenge these things.  I am not familiar with the German church law. There, too, a distinction is made between the old “imperial” churches, that’s not what they call them today, like the Evangelical church in Bavaria or the Catholic Church, and the ones that came later in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many emigrated to America. For example, those in the German lands who were persecuted by the authorities for their religion who could not get their church legalized emigrated to America.

That’s not a solution today. In Germany even if a Church Law isn’t perfect, the possibility exists to bring it into balance. I’m afraid that citing German law, they will make a law that is identical to the existing one, the only difference being that it is not parliament who decides in the matter but the court.

That was one of our criticisms. Presently it’s two-thirds of parliament who can say who is a church and who isn’t. If they don’t make a “salad law” in which they combine increasing the salaries of MPs with the removal of certain provisions of the Church Law, then they won’t be able to get two-thirds of parliament to vote for it.

As a believer, how do you see this Fidesz-KDNP Christian conservative movement? If you were a member of Fidesz or KDNP you wouldn’t be in the current situation.

Let me make it clear that I wouldn’t be a member of either party. Because I am a minister. I am totally liberal when it comes to people working here or members of our church. They are free to believe in KDNP or Fidesz. Nobody bothers them for that. Not all of us have to think the same way.  But what you are asking is whether the Christianity professed by KDNP and Fidesz is really Christianity.

I think it is necessary to differentiate between political Christianity which is a little different in Hungary than in the United States. There it is much more natural for someone to express their faith in public. And there is no state religion. You don’t have to be either very Protestant or very Catholic. There was a President who attended a church Europe’s never even heard of. And it didn’t bother anyone that he wasn’t Catholic, or Baptist, or Methodist.

This works differently in Hungary.

Political Christianity is when one’s church plays a decisive factor and whether the church as a means of defining one’s political and social base plays a role in their life, their work, education and social views. I think this is a serious mistake, quite unacceptable. Christianity means to be Christ-like. One wonders whether what the government is doing is compatible with being Christian. It is worth examining whether a government that claims it does actually fits with what it means to be Christ-like.

To give you some examples:

Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus Christ said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And he explained that he is merciful to those who are good and those who are wicked. He created the sun to rise for both the good and the wicked.

Jesus encouraged love towards children and orphans. Jesus said those who sought his company must also invite the street children that he so loved. So if he was invited somewhere he would bring the children along. By these “children”, Jesus wasn’t referring to well-raised family children because those children weren’t out on the street, they were with their families or studying at the yeshiva.

So when Jesus puts children in front of the people and says “If you are not like these children then you will not enter the gates of Heaven.” He’s actually showing them a child from the street!

Now, in a country like Hungary today which misleadingly says that it wants society based on work, meaning that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat, if such a country is not willing to recognize that people aren’t working because there simply aren’t enough work places . . .

People also aren’t working because that humiliating work, the so-called public works, that work doesn’t even provide an opportunity to work throughout the year, or a decent wage, or to contribute in any meaningful way. Such work is fake work. It generally only lasts for three months, after which there is a long break so someone else can earn a little money. This work is the shame of Hungary.

The legislative changes to Hungary’s education system adversely affect the poor.

Our Prime Minister has many times said the he doesn’t want refugees coming to Hungary. We were even denying our neighbors in the Ukraine shipments of natural gas which is used for heating, while others continue supplying them.

What is this?

You should always ask yourself: What would Jesus do in my place? A Christian or a Christian Democrat responds by asking “What would Jesus do?” I once debated the mayor of this district because he passed an ordinance making vagrancy illegal which obviously targeted those who look homeless. The fine for this is HUF 150,000 (USD 625).  Now this district mayor’s recommendation made it into the Hungarian constitution with the support of the mayor of Budapest.

There isn’t a single country in the world whose constitution says that those who are living on the streets – meanwhile we all know there aren’t enough beds in the homeless shelters – that such people first be fined, and if they can’t pay it, that they be thrown in jail. Now this is just scandalous! When Jesus Christ says “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” The garden where this was said or you call it a campground. But it wasn’t a house where Jesus and disciples rested.

When a so-called Christian country reaches the point where its legislators insert passages into the constitution which say that those who fall asleep on a public bench can be taken away by the police, if he does it again he can be fined if he doesn’t pay – and how could he because he has no money – that person can be locked up in prison.  This is not Christianity. This is barbaric pagan behavior. It is so disgraceful to God, and I’m not even being extreme with my words. It’s so wrong that it fills me with pain and shame and I refuse to be quiet about it.  This is not Christ-like.

Now, if the Hungarian churches do nothing to oppose this, if they do nothing to challenge this situation, if they think it is “political” to raise your voice against something like this….

I’ll give you another recent example.

In the settlement of Ozd in the middle of summer they imposed restrictions on water use, they shut off the water pipes, and there was a huge scandal because of this. Those responsible for making the decision claimed that the water was being wasted. But Hungary is a country rich in fresh water! Many of the residents had been encouraged to connect their homes to central water.  So, after they connected the public water was shut off. But because the people are unemployed they can’t pay their water bill.

So their water was shut off. But they couldn’t even get water from the public faucet because that too was shut off. These are scandalous things. Even while Jesus said, “Let those who are thirsty come!” So, what I see here so obviously contradicts with the biblical notion of being Christ-like, a contradiction between practical Christianity and what the Hungarian government is doing which I consider to be a sin.

This government lives in sin. The Christian Democratic party lives in sin. And the churches are living in sin when they stand by idly and let this happen. We couldn’t do anything except go down to Ozd with a truck with 2,000 liters of water, which was only a drop of water in that particular case, but we did this publicly and we encouraged people to protest publicly against this. It was just impossible. We measured that it took seven minutes to fill a single bucket of water. 200 people were standing in line day and night so that everyone could have a bucket of water! And Hungary did not experience any moral outrage! The people of Hungary didn’t tear their clothes in outrage and say that this is terrible and intolerable!

Like I said, this isn’t like the fresh water in poor Israel where there is one River Jordan and a Sea of Galilee which has to provide for the water needs of an entire country. Hungary is a water-rich country! Any place where the poor are humiliated like this, where the poor are hurt like this, they had long ago expelled, crucified, sentenced to death, jailed and committed many other terrible acts to Jesus.

The reason I said all this is there were times when this actually happened with people who dared think differently.

Therefore, the way I see it there is a kind of political Christianity, like those who display the flag of the far right on the outside of the church, or even inside the church, and that is the kind of political faith I want nothing to do with.

I want nothing to do with that.

If you had one message that you’d like to give to Hungarian society, a short message for Hungarians, what would that be?

I would encourage them to seek peace, justice and solidarity and to be brave in seeking all these things. It is up to us to determine whether Hungary changes. This isn’t Syria or Iraq where the U.S. and its allies have to drop bombs so that people stop crucifying Christians as it is happening right now in the Islamic State.

Here there isn’t so much risk for those who want to raise their voices.  So long as people don’t vote, so long as they don’t protest, if they continue with this war against the poor and this warmongering against everyone . . . They need to see that there is no need for this. Why must we constantly seek conflict? With the banks, with the Americans, with the European Union, with the small churches, with the disabled or what have you. The leader keeps finding newer and newer enemies for us as a society to fight against. What a sick thing to do. We need to make peace. We need to stand up for what is just and we need to take care of the poor and the dispossessed.

When Israel lost its independence and became a captive of Babylon or two thousand years ago when the nation of Israel was dispersed, the scripture says it always happened because it abused the laws, because the rich made laws to satisfy their immediate needs and they trampled the poor and because they had no solidarity. They allowed people to die in the streets. These were the two reasons why Israel always lost its independence and all its possessions. Because God is the God of justice. God is the God of peace. God is a God of solidarity. This is how He created the world: for those who are strong to stand by those who are weak.