International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. There is no state religion; however, the four "historic religions" and certain other denominations enjoy some privileges not available to other faiths.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 35,910 square miles, and its population is an estimated 10.2 million.

Strict enforcement of data protection regulations impedes the collection of official statistics on popular participation in religious life. However, independent surveys in 1996 and 1997 indicated that the population is not particularly devout. Only 15 percent of those surveyed considered themselves to be religiously active and closely followed the tenets of their religion. The majority, 55 percent, said that they practiced religion in their own way or were nominally religious but not regularly active in their religious community. Approximately 30 percent said that they were nonreligious.

The 2001 national census contained an optional question on religious affiliation, and 90 percent of the population provided a response. According to the census results, 55 percent of the country's citizens are Roman Catholic, 15 percent are members of the Reformed Church, 3 percent are members of the Lutheran Church, and less than 1 percent are followers of Judaism. These four groups are considered the country's historic religions. Three percent of respondents identified themselves as Greek Catholics, and 15 percent of respondents declared no religious affiliation. The remaining percentage of the population is divided between a number of other denominations. The largest among these is the Congregation of Faith, a Hungarian evangelical Christian movement. Other denominations include a broad range of Christian groups, including five Orthodox denominations. In addition, there are seven Buddhist denominations and two Islamic communities.

A 1996 law permits citizens to donate one percent of their income tax to the religion of their choice and an additional one percent to the nonprofit agency of their choice. Statistics from the collection of tax revenue voluntarily directed for use by religious groups confirm the ranking of traditional estimates of religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors.

The 1990 Law on the Freedom of Conscience regulates the activities and benefits enjoyed by religious communities and establishes the criteria by which they attain that legal designation. To become registered as a religion, religious groups must submit a statement to a local court declaring that they have at least 100 followers. While any group is free to practice their faith, formal registration makes available to a religious group certain protections and privileges and grants access to several forms of state funding. The courts have registered more than 136 religions.

Religious instruction is not part of the education curricula in public schools; however, the State permits primary and secondary school students to enroll in extracurricular religious education classes. Optional religious instruction is held after the normal school day and is taught by representatives of religious groups in school facilities. While the Government makes provisions for minority religions to engage in religious education in public schools, the four historical religions provide the majority of after-hours religious instruction. During the 2002 school year, 34 registered religions provided religious instruction to 517,370 students in public schools.

A 1994 government decree on the military chaplain's service created permanent pastoral representation for the four historic religions in the country's defense forces. The decree also requires the military to facilitate the rights of other religions to practice their religion and to provide pastoral care for members of the military. The Ministry of Defense funds and maintains the chaplain's service. Under the decree, soldiers do not receive preferential treatment for either foregoing or using the chaplain's service. This provision is respected in practice. A similar system exists for the provision of religious services to prisoners.

In the second half of 2002, Parliament repealed a law that would have modified the way in which the State allocates public funds to registered religions. The repealed law, which was passed by the Orban government before the April 2002 general elections but did not come into force, would have permitted the Government to calculate support for religious groups based on the 2001 census data rather than by measuring the number of voluntary 1 percent tax contributions to individual religions. Use of the census data would have benefited the historical religions and shifted funds away from smaller, newly established religions. The repeal of the law reinstated the 1 percent method of determining support for religious groups.

In 2002 the State allocated approximately $89.6 million (20.6 billion HUF) in public funds for various religious activities and all related programs. Government expenditures supported religious practice, educational work, and the maintenance of public art collections of cultural value. Compensation for non-restituted religious property, the reconstruction of religious institutions, and the general subsidy for religious activities comprised the largest components of state financial support. The Government provides the same level of financial support for private religious education as for state institutions on a per child basis. Government support generally remains constant year-to-year.

At the end of 2001, the Government also reached an agreement with the four historical religions to support clergy in settlements with a population of less than 5,000. Clergy in the small settlements receive supplementary wages for their services. The money, which in 2002 totaled $5.8 million (1.35 billion HUF), has been distributed through the religious groups since January 1, 2002. As there are no functioning synagogues in small settlements, the Government modified its agreement with the Jewish community to allow it to spend the money on reconstruction and maintenance of Jewish cemeteries. After a lengthy series of talks, the Government concluded a similar agreement in the beginning of 2002 with six minor churches: the Baptist, Unitarian, and Pentecostal Churches, and the Budai Serb, Romanian, and Greek Orthodox Churches.

To promote the revitalization of religious institutions and settle property issues, the Government signed separate agreements with the country's four historic religions and with two smaller churches (Hungarian Baptist and Budai Serb Orthodox) between 1997 and 1999. The religious groups and the State agreed on a number of properties to be returned and an amount of monetary compensation to be paid for properties that could not be returned. These agreements are subsumed under the 1991 Compensation Law, which require the Government to compensate religious groups for properties confiscated by the Government after January 1, 1946. In 2002 the Government paid religious groups $24.3 million (5.64 billion HUF) as compensation for the assets confiscated during the Communist regime. By 2011 the State is expected to pay an estimated total of $179 million (42 billion HUF) to religious groups for buildings not returned. While these agreements primarily address property issues and restitution, they also have provisions addressing the public service activities of the religious groups, religious education, and the preservation of monuments.

As of the end of 2002, there were more than 1,550 pending cases of real property that once belonged to religious groups, which the State must decide whether or not to return before 2011. Real estate cases have involved 12 religious groups: Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, Unitarian, Baptist, Hungarian Romanian Orthodox, Hungarian Orthodox, Budai Serb Orthodox, Hungarian Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, the Salvation Army, and the Confederation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz). In the spring, the Government announced a decision to return about 150 properties primarily belonging to the Catholic, Calvinist, and Lutheran Churches. Overall 7,220 claims were made by religious groups for property restitution under the 1991 Compensation Law: 1,600 cases were rejected as inapplicable under the law; the Government decided to return property in 1,129 cases and gave cash payments in another 1,770 cases; approximately 1,000 cases were resolved directly between former and present owners without government intervention; and the remainder (approximately 1,660 cases) must be decided by 2011. Religious orders and schools have regained some property confiscated by the Communist regime.

In January the Medgyessy government reached an agreement with the Mazsihisz on compensation payments to Holocaust survivors and their heirs. The agreement settled a 6-year dispute between the Government and the Jewish community. Under the terms of the plan, which came into force the same year, qualified recipients received $1,724 (400,000 HUF) from the State. Only applicants who complied with a 1994 registration deadline are eligible to participate in the program, a number estimated by Mazsihisz to be 150,000 persons. Mazsihisz stated that many potential beneficiaries did not originally register, either out of concern for identifying themselves on a government register as Jews or from skepticism of the 1992 compensation law.

Easter Monday, Whit Monday, All Saints Day, and Christmas Day are all celebrated as national holidays. These holidays do not impact negatively any religious groups.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

However, the Government has demonstrated a willingness to treat the larger or longer-established religions more favorably than the minority religious communities. Several laws and government decrees specifically grant rights and privileges to historical religions that are not directly granted to other religious groups, such as in the decree on the military chaplain's service and, until January, the tax code.

Before January the tax code only permitted tax-deductible donations to the country's large or long-established religions. For donors to have qualified for the deduction under the previous tax structure, a religion had to document one of the following: that it had been present in the country for 100 years or more, that it had been registered legally for at least 30 years (as no new religions were registered under the Communist regime, this essentially meant religions registered before 1925), or that the present religion's following equaled 1 percent of all tax contributors (approximately 43,000 persons). These criteria limited the tax benefit to only 14 of the some 136 registered religions in the country. As of January, an amendment to the law governing state financing of religions made donations to any registered religion tax-deductible.

There were credible reports that the Government delayed and, in some cases, denied accreditation to religious schools run by smaller, newly established religions in a manner inconsistent with the law. An application by the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness to operate a theology institute has been pending before the State's accreditation board since 2000. Despite a recommendation in favor of the accreditation from the Ministry of Education, a lengthy examination of the school's proposed curriculum has delayed a final decision from the board. The Government has not subjected accreditation requests from the historical religions to similar scrutiny.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations between religious groups are amicable, and there is little friction between religions. Several Christian churches and the Jewish community have institutionalized a Christian-Jewish dialogue, bringing together religious academics for regular discussions. Across a wide range of other areas, religions also have shown a great willingness to work together to achieve common social or political goals.

Overall society welcomed the increasing religious activity that followed the transition from communism. However, there also is some concern over the ease with which regulations on religion may be exploited, as well as concerns about the perceived undue influence that some "new religions" have over their followers.

The 1997 changes to the Penal Code made it easier to enforce and stiffen penalties for hate crimes committed on the basis of the victim's ethnicity, race, or nationality. Although the law does not explicitly mention religious affiliation, the Government has used the law's prohibition against public incitement to curb hate speech targeted against religious groups. In early 2003, the Office of the Prosecutor successfully prosecuted a member of the extremist Justice and Life Party for publishing an anti-Semitic article in a local newspaper. In fall 2002, two individuals faced charges for printing and distributing anti-Semitic tracts from the World War II era.

There continued to be occasional reports of vandalism or destruction of Christian and Jewish property. During 2002 the National Police reported 200 cases of vandalism to cemeteries, compared with 68 cases in 2001. During just the first quarter of 2002, the National Police reported 50 cases of burglary involving places of worship and 140 cases of burglary involving cemeteries, compared with 50 cases involving places of worship and 4 cases involving cemeteries in 2001. Most police and religious authorities consider these incidents as acts of youth vandalism and not indications of religious intolerance.

Anti-Semitism remained a problem, which the Government continued to address. While there were no reports of anti-Semitic violence, there were incidents of desecration of Jewish tombstones and anti-Semitic graffiti on property. In the campaign period before the autumn 2002 municipal elections vandals spray-painted the swastika and Star of David on some campaign posters of the Socialist party. In August 2002, a Catholic bishop speaking at a St. Stephen's Day celebration made derogatory statements using an oblique reference understood to mean Jews. The Government initiated criminal proceedings against a former Member of Parliament for remarks that were considered anti-Semitic. These proceedings continued without a verdict at the end of the period covered by this report.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy actively monitors religious activities, maintaining regular contact with government officials, Members of Parliament, leaders of large and small religions, and representatives of local and international nongovernmental organizations that address issues of religious freedom. Through these contacts, embassy officers have tracked closely recent government efforts to modify the country's laws and the impact this might have on smaller, less well-established religions.

The Embassy also has remained active on issues of compensation and property restitution for Holocaust victims. Embassy officers have worked with Mazsihisz, the Hungarian Jewish Public Foundation, other local and international Jewish organizations, and with Members of Parliament and the Ministry of Cultural Heritage to maintain a dialog on restitution issues, promote fair compensation, and secure access to Holocaust-era archives.

The U.S. Embassy continues to urge the Government to speak out against anti-Semitism and hate speech.