Head of religious aid organization outed as former communist agent

May 4, 2017

Lutheran minister László Lehel resigned on Monday, May 1, as the executive director of Hungary’s Ecumenical Aid organization. The resignation came hot on the heels of a biographical piece published in daily Magyar Nemzet on Saturday that exposed Lehel as a former agent with Hungary’s communist-era state security apparatus.

Lehel allegedly informed on his Christian brethren before taking the lead in the evolving aid organization during Hungary’s democratic transition of 1989/90. Two days after the piece was published, he quit the heavily state-sponsored Hungarian Ecumenical Aid.

Codename “Philosopher”

According to Magyar Nemzet, Lehel officially joined the state security services on April 25, 1983. Interior Ministry files show that the agent code-named “Philosopher” was still in active service as late as 1988.

Lehel’s file shows his hobbies were literature and music. He was a patriot, and joined the service on political-ideological grounds. He was glad to cooperate. His handlers described him as a resourceful person, quick on his feet, frugal and persistent.

While Lehel’s own reports have not been found, likely because the documents were not archived, researchers say they probably do exist. As early as 1972, a religious leader made reference to Lehel, saying he thought Lehel was in the employ of the much-feared State Church Affairs Agency. Other documents also suggested Lehel’s involvement with that agency and the Interior Ministry.

Head of the government’s “official” aid organization

According to Magyar Nemzet, Hungarian Ecumenical Aid has transformed into the government’s official aid organization in recent years. Lehel himself has made such statements in the past. Even Anikó Lévai, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s wife, is an ambassador of the organization.

In 2010, following serious floods in Hungary, the state-run television broadcaster Duna TV organized and promoted a fundraising campaign together with the leaders of five other aid organizations (Catholic Caritas, the Red Cross, the Maltese Aid, Baptist Aid and Reformed Aid). More than HUF 200 million was donated to the cause, and the entire sum went over to Lehel and Hungarian Ecumenical Aid.

The Magyar Nemzet article says Hungarian Ecumenical Aid also has a lot in common with the government’s own “strategic partners”, a term used to describe companies that have entered into unique deals with the Hungarian government. A number of these companies are special sponsors of the aid organization, including Siemens, Microsoft, Tesco and Heineken. Hungary’s state-owned companies, such as Hungarian Postal Service, MVM Group and Szerencsejáték Zrt., also sponsor the group.

But Hungarian Ecumenical Aid also receives a lot of money from abroad. It is a member of Act Alliance, a coalition of 144 churches and faith-based organizations working together around the world, and received more than HUF 870 million in donations from abroad two years ago. Ironically, Act Alliance has been very vocal in urging the international community to provide aid to refugees and allow them to enter Europe in an organized manner.

What does all this mean?

The State Church Affairs Agency was one of the most notorious arms of communist oppression. It was tasked with making sure that “recognized” religious organizations operating in Hungary were not overstepping the boundaries set for them by the state. Today, simply accusing a member of Hungary’s Christian community of being an agent of the State Church Affairs Agency is tantamount to accusing someone of treason.

In addition to censoring the practice of religious freedom, this agency collected information on clergy and the laity for purposes of coercion.

“This agency instilled fear in the churches,” one member of the clergy told the Budapest Beacon. “Its agents were in church leadership and the laity. If a member of the clergy stepped over the line, they would receive an invitation to visit the agency and their ministry would be threatened.”

Another clergyman told the Beacon: “Nothing could happen in the churches without the knowledge of the State Church Affairs Agency. They wanted to know everything. They always kept an eye on the pastors, church leaders, anything unusual.

“When Protestant churches would hold elections for church leadership, only candidates ‘approved’ by the agency could actually be elected. This is how the churches could be controlled from the top down,” the clergy member said. “In other words, while it looked like these churches were being led by freely-elected and trusted leaders, the reality was that these leaders were hand-picked by the state.”

As fate may have it, the State Church Affairs Agency was headquartered at Lendvai utca 28 in Budapest. Sound familiar? Today, that building houses Fidesz’s headquarters.

Recently, a poll performed by Republikon Institute (and commissioned by online daily 24.hu) found that the majority of Hungarians would like the communist-era state security archives to be made public. For years, opposition parties have tried to push legislation through to open up the archives. Politics Can Be Different (LMP) has made at least ten such attempts, all shot down in parliament by ruling Fidesz-KDNP.

The issue is sensitive for Hungary’s elite. Orbán himself has been accused on numerous occasions of being an agent of the state security services before the democratic transition. Most recently, Jobbik chairman Gábor Vona tried to pressure the prime minister to come clean about his pre-transition involvement in the state security apparatus.