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Head of Church Relations Department of the Hungarian Government meets Evangelical leaders and experts in the SCLJ office, Moscow

 /SCLJ news service/ - On January 23, representatives of Russian Evangelical churches met with Dr. Andras Csepregi, a Professor of Theology who is in charge of the Department for Relations with the Church in the Hungarian Ministry of Education and Culture.

Vital problems with Hungarian and Russian governments' respective religious policies were discussed. Vladimir Ryakhovsky of SCLJ chaired the meeting.

Some of the people who took part in the meeting were Sergey Ryakhovsky, leader of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) and member of the Russian Civic Chamber; Constantin Bendas, Administrator of the Russian Pentecostal Union; Vitaly Vlasenko, Head of the External Relations Department of the Russian Baptist Union; Oleg Goncharenko, Head of the External Relations Department of the Seventh Day Adventists’ Church; and Dr. Ilona Kiss, Director of the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Moscow and Advisor of the Hungarian Embassy.

Mr. Ryakhovsky pointed out that a Protestant holds such a high position in government and is, in fact, in charge of the whole religious policy of the Hungarian state. Ryakhovsky noted that since the country is predominantly Orthodox, it would be interesting to know whether any problems arise in relation to this; since in Russia, had a Protestant become a politician, this would have likely attracted an outburst of criticism.

According to Dr. Csepregi, historically, the following religious communities have been present in Hungary:  Catholic Church, accounting for 60% of believers; Calvinist Reformed Church (18%); Evangelical Lutheran Church (4%), which Dr. Csepregi himself belongs to; and the Jewish community with 1% of believers. Apart from this, there are old, established churches which have been in existence at least since the 19th century such as Baptists, Adventists, Methodists and Pentecostals, and new churches which have sprung up after the regime change in 1989. Among the newer communities are charismatic groups (the largest of them is the so-called “Movement of Faith”), the Krishna’s Conscience Society, 13 small Buddhist communities and others. Islam is not very visible in Hungary. In total, there are 180 registered "churches" or denominations (individual parishes or communities are not registered).

From the legal point of view, according to Andras Csepregy, religious activities in Hungary are regulated by the Law on Religion which was adopted back in 1990. According to this law, any religious organization (labelled as a “church”) wishing to be registered, should have 100 followers, a leader, an administrative centre and simple articles of association. If these requirements are met, the organization is registered as a “church” by a local court. Each of these “churches” receives government subsidies to meet the cost of real property and running of a religious school (in case the organization has one). Believers can allocate 1% of their income tax to their religious organization. There are no supervisory bodies which could demand any kind of "activity reports" from the churches. Russian Protestants were also asking questions about religious education. Andras Csepregi responded that catechism is taught in denominational schools, which account for 5% of all pupils; while in state-run schools, religion can be taught as an optional course. If the students are willing to study it and a teacher is available, the state covers the cost of such an optional course.

In response, Vladimir Ryakhovsky stressed that lack of tolerance is one of the main problems in contemporary Russia.  It is difficult for many to deal with the fact that an ethnic Russian can be something other than an Orthodox Christian, such as a Baptist, Adventist or Lutheran. Back in early 1990s, according to Ryakhovsky, the Russian Orthodox Church was already alarmed at the rise of "proselytism” on the part of other denominations, as well as the alleged security threats for the state and society from the so-called "destructive sects." Moreover, some regions of Russia published reference books which labelled all denominations other than Orthodox Christianity as “sects.” Christians who do not belong to the Russian Orthodox Church still have to deal with the most absurd accusations.

For example, Ryakhovsky said that extreme anti-cult activists allege that if a Russian goes to another church, this means that this person was somehow hypnotized or pressured into going. Also, the court decision declaring the Salvation Army to be a “paramilitary organization” has not yet been repealed.

According to Andras Csepregi, there was a certain amount of tension between Hungarian churches after 1989; however, the churches themselves tried to foster tolerance in the society and families and, therefore, no church can label another as a “destructive sect.” The state, in Csepregi’s words, trusts that an adult individual is perfectly capable of deciding whether he or she wants to be a Catholic or a Protestant.

Slavic Center for Law and Justice
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