Last year, a sudden government decree appropriated HUF 118 billion (USD 413 million) for Hungarian churches. The funds were quietly wired to the churches at the end of December 2016, little more than a year before national elections in 2018.
A group known as Civil Society on the Budget (Civilek a Költségvetésről) caught on to the strange decree, and Balázs Romhányi, director of Budapest’s Fiscal Responsibility Institute, filed a Freedom of Information Request to find out precisely on what grounds the churches received the public funds — but without success.
According to hvg.hu, the Ministry of Human Resources offered Romhányi the opportunity to take a peek at the contracts related to the HUF 118 billion, which the ministry kept at its offices. Romhányi hoped the visit would help him understand why the government transferred so much money to the churches, but he was wrong.
The documents Romhányi saw merely listed projects each church and religious organization planned to carry out with the money, together with the government’s commitment to a lump sum transfer of the public funds.
The beneficiaries in the documents involve a number of organizations, religious orders, and schools tied to Hungary’s Roman Catholic Church and the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church. Other organizations, schools, and parishes connected to the Hungarian Reformed Church, the Hungarian Lutheran Church, and the Buda Episcopate of the Serbian Orthodox Church are also beneficiaries.
(The Fiscal Responsibility Institute of Budapest published an overview of the allocations which can be viewed here.)
There were two peculiarities in these documents. First, the decree allows the churches to use the funds from January 1, 2016, through December 31, 2017. This means the funds could be applied retroactively for projects that were started in 2016, before the decree was issued.
Secondly, the cost estimates of the more than 200 involved projects only needed to be submitted at the end of February 2017, two months after the decree. Those documents could only be accessed from a subordinate – but independent – agency operating under the Ministry of Human Resources, the Human Resources Support Management Authority.
In March, after the cost estimate submission deadline, it was known that the Human Resources Support Management Authority had called on various churches to provide information on missing data related to the public funds they received – meaning their cost estimates hadn’t even been prepared.
“First, they gave the money to the churches, and only after that could we see what HUF 118 billion of taxpayers’ funds could be used for,” Romhányi said. “While it is possible that this is totally lawful according to current laws, it is difficult to imagine that the government minister responsible for this would distribute money from his own wallet in the same way.”
Romhányi has still not seen the cost estimates. The Human Resources Support Management Authority is demanding that he pay HUF 156,000 (USD 550) to access the more than 1,000 pages of material, since Romhányi requested the documents be provided to him electronically. The authority is demanding the money to have the documents collected, scanned, and anonymized.
According to Romhányi, the anonymization is especially strange considering that the only things that need to be anonymized are the contact phone numbers of the funds’ recipients. He has turned to the Data Protection and Information Ombudsman, Attila Péterfalvi, to open an inquiry into this.
“Considering that these funds were wired by the treasury to the beneficiaries in December 2016, this line item should be included in the State Audit Office’s audit report for the final accounts for 2016,” Romhányi told hvg.hu. “Unfortunately, we will not know whether this will have happened until August 2017. However, the beneficiary churches themselves could freely publish their own documents as well.”
The transfer of more than USD 400 million to Hungarian churches during the approach to Hungary’s 2018 national election raises flags for critics of the government’s relationship with state-recognized churches. According to these critics, the lack of separation between church and state in Hungary is best represented by the churches’ financial dependency on the state. Critics have argued that this dependency has caused certain key beneficiary churches to silently tolerate (in some cases, promote) controversial government policies.