“I mourn for Viktor Orbán.” – Gábor Iványi, founder and head, Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood
Translation of Péter Cseri’s interview with Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood (MET) leader Gábor Iványi appearing in Hungarian print weekly 168 óra on May 4th, 2017, pp. 22-24) under the title “Impregnable church.”
This is not monetary compensation but the price of staying alive, commented Gábor Iványi on the HUF 1 billion (USD 3.6 million) in damages awarded the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood by the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg recently. In light of the fact that for years MET has been waiting in vain for the restoration of its church status, Iványi feels that the end of religious freedom in Hungary is no longer the main problem, but rather selective religious persecution. The spiritual pastor believes that only fellow minister (and government Minister for Human Resources) Zoltán Balog can prevent Prime Minister Viktor Orbán from continuing on the road to damnation.
Are you happy about the almost one billion forints?
At best cautiously because it is not fitting to rejoice over a ruling against the Hungarian state. Moreover, this is not compensation for damages but the cost of our community being able to maintain its system of institutions. It is also a fact that Strasbourg awarded HUF 150 million (USD 540,000) less than the amount the Hungarian state acknowledged at previous hearings to which MET was entitled. For this reason it is interesting that the Hungarian state wishes to appeal this ruling. The Hungarian government has already been compelled by the Constitutional Court and international court rulings to restore to MET the church status of which it was unlawfully deprived in 2011, although this hasn’t happened to date. On the other hand, as an association we only possess limited rights. The Strasbourg award attempts to rectify the consequences of the unlawful situation.
When will the Hungarian state actually pay?
I am not calculating on it reacting quickly. When three years ago the Strasbourg court awarded us HUF 1.2 billion (USD 4.3 million) under the same title, the money only arrived to our account at the end of 2016. We cannot expect now that they will be in a hurry. Perhaps we will get our money by the end of the year or the beginning of 2018.
What will you spend it on?
We’ve essentially already spent it. We are getting back the money that was stolen from the operations of our institutions over the past few years. May the Eternal One bless all of our suppliers for their patience. We are finally getting our money. We have them to thank for the fact that the system did not collapse and we are still operating at full capacity. We maintain a social and educational institutions, have nearly one thousand employees, and our services reach 15,000-20,000 people. Since they deprived us of our church status, our main objective has been to maintain our ability to operate. For now there is hardly any renovation or modernization taking place: we are using 15- to 20-year-old vehicles, most of which have more than half a million kilometers on them. We are like the Dirty Fred Boat (a Hungarian literary reference-tran.): there are patches everywhere, we can barely manage to fill the holes, but we’ve endured one hundred storms and are not afraid of sinking.
But how did you manage to avoid bankruptcy?
Through God’s miracles.
Can you elaborate?
We are speaking about actual miracles. It frequently happened that we did not have money to pay wages. And then it happened that a private person showed up and donated several tens of millions of forints by bank transfer. It happened that in the very middle of the great crisis a believer left his property to MET.
Is it possible to grow accustomed to the constant confrontation?
It would be possible were the whole thing not unworthy and utterly pointless. The state — instead of fulfilling its legal obligations — compels us to continuously fight, which takes up a lot of time and resources. So long as we could operate as a church, a single legal advisor was sufficient to handle our legal affairs. Now we employ three legal advisors and are contracted with a law firm as well. We have two dozen lawsuits under way against the Hungarian state. The situation is so ridiculous that we had to initiate legal procedures in order to compel the tax authority to reinstate our technical number with which (Hungarian taxpayers-tran.) can donate one percent of personal income tax to MET. There is much at stake, as such donations amount to a hundred million forints (USD 360,000) annually.
Do I understand correctly that you are not suing over the moral damage or disgrace caused the church?
Not for now. So far we have only demanded the state revenue denied us that can be precisely calculated to the last cent. But the six-year-long campaign to discredit us has also caused us damages in the sense that it induced uncertainty in many of our supporters, thereby reducing that part of our income not coming from the state.
And when can MET become once again an accepted church?
I have no need for this special Hungarian designation. We would rather remain unrecognized. I mean in the sense that we do not want to belong to a religious community that has been admitted to the bastion by those in power.
For now MET is a civil organization to which soon new laws will apply.
They are preparing outrageous and unacceptable regulations that try to turn civil organizations against one another. Associations undertaking religious activities, including ours, are singled out and needn’t indicate if they receive contributions from abroad. We have accounted for every contribution so far and will continue to publish every revenue in the future as well.
Contributions from George Soros too?
Those too. We have also received support from him. God bless him for it!
Has it never occurred to you that if you would politicize less actively and not speak out on behalf of the poorest, the fallen and the refugees, then your church would be subject to fewer attacks?
What do you mean by “actively politicize”? That we openly express criticism of the government’s activities? I think that is also politicizing actively if a religious community remains silent when it should condemn. Those churches that did not speak out in the Roma or migrant matters actively, uncritically supported the Orbán government. The Bible says the wisdom of kings is entrusted to a range of advisors, and that furthermore the truly wise ruler also learns from his opponents. It seems the current head of government has forgotten this and has no need of this.
Since you raised the issue of the prime minister, has it never occurred to you to ask a personal meeting with Viktor Orbán for old times’ sake? After all, you baptized many of the head of government’s children.
We have not discussed anything of substance since he first came to power. If we occasionally meet, we exchange some words out of politeness. However, we have hardly met at all during the past fifteen years. The reason I will not initiate a meeting is because I was not the one who changed. He owes us an explanation as to why he launched a campaign against me and against MET. It’s another question if we meet by chance, on which occasions I have to say something to him.
Are you angry or rather upset that you grew apart from one another?
I mourn him and have a hard time understanding what happened. I remember precisely what I thought of Viktor Orbán in 1989. He is before me, leading a political forum, and I watch on in amazement at his freshness and energy. While speaking he was unspoiled, brave and honest. I could not have imagined that this person, who appeared as an iconic figure on the standard of freedom, would completely destroy everything we struggled for together at that time.
As a spiritual minister are you actually surprised by human foibles?
I am also a fallen man, and I do not collapse if somebody who once stood near me behaves in a fallible manner. It is just difficult to know what to do with the pain (arising from the knowledge-tran.) that this man, who I once considered great, unrepentantly, vehemently trod on the rights of others, actively ridicules the weakest, and builds concentration camps on the southern border. If I were to meet Viktor Orbán now, I would warn him that this is the road to damnation.
Is that what you foresee as a preacher?
I do not decide such matters. It is in God’s hands. By the way, it should be Zoltán Balog, in his capacity as an ordained minister, who warns him. It’s another question whether presently minister Balog is on the road to damnation from which he should presently be diverted by someone.
This struggle with the state has lasted for six years. Do you not tire of it?
It’s for sure that it has not been good for my health but I have been renewed spiritually. There is no hatred in me. I am capable of rejoicing in the tiniest aspects of life. I would be a fundamentally peaceful, contemplative person but so far I have never managed to live in peace and quiet. I draw strength from the fact that I am not fighting for myself but for the fallen. I cannot abandon them. Perhaps it is not by chance that it is the form of Moses that I most like in the Bible.
Who in the end does not manage to enter the promised land.
But he glimpses Canaan. I believe that there comes a point in human events when things calm down. I am convinced of this, even if I do not live to see it.
(1951) minister, head of the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood which he founded in 1981.
Without ever joining a political party, he served two four-year terms in parliament as a member of the SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats) parliamentary delegation. He participated in organizing the democratic opposition and was one of the founders of the literary publication Beszélő (Speaking). Organizations, foundations, associations associated with his name have dealt for decades with helping the aged, families, homeless and refugees.
He was awarded three state honors which he auctioned off in 2016 in protest against Orbán’s politics. The HUF 2.6 million raised was used to buy shoes for children.