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Don’t Believe Viktor Orbán’s Defender-of-Christianity Pose
The hounding of a small church in Hungary undermines the vaunted Christian credentials of Orbán and his party.
THE HUNGARIAN EVANGELICAL FELLOWSHIP (known locally as MET) is a small, independent-Methodist denomination of 19,000 members. It has been internationally recognized for its charitable work operating some 63 institutions—schools, care homes, and homeless shelters—in Hungary’s poorest communities. But its work is visibly disintegrating since the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán withdrew public funding—an apparently vindictive move that undermines his attempt to depict himself as a defender of Christian civilization.
“Two of our schools in Northern Hungary have suspended operations—we’ve lost so many teachers through resignation that classes are now impossible,” said Pastor Gábor Iványi, the president of MET, at a press conference at his church’s homeless shelter on Dankó Street in Budapest last month. “Yesterday was payday, and a number of our staff forewarned us that payment this month was a condition for continuing to work. Four months without pay is too much for many people to bear.”
Iványi added that “a similar situation is expected to develop in our other institutions in coming days.”
In 2020, Iványi and MET’s charitable arm, Oltalom Karitatív Egyesület (Shelter Charitable Society), were given the European Parliament’s Citizen’s Prize, a prestigious award for outstanding contributions to civil society. MET is, however, now left unable to pay employees or meet invoices for goods and services.
Allegedly the result of a dispute over unpaid social security contributions for church staff, the withdrawal of funds is seen by many as in fact the end game in a decade-long effort by Orbán to drive MET into dissolution as punishment for Iványi’s willingness to challenge publicly the policies of Orbán’s Fidesz party.
Here’s the background: Iványi was a leading figure in Hungary’s late-Cold War anti-Communist underground. At the time of Hungary’s democratic transition (1989–90), he was friendly with Orbán—in fact, he baptized Orbán’s two eldest children in 1993 and married him to his Catholic wife, Anikó Lévai, in the chapel of MET’s Budapest headquarters. (Orbán and Lévai had been married in a civil ceremony under communism in 1986.)
But after Orbán returned to the premiership in 2010, as his nationalist drift and growing authoritarianism became clear, Iványi became an outspoken critic. “What he [Orbán] does is against the teachings of Christ,” the New York Times quoted Iványi as saying in 2019. “It is the exact opposite of what the Bible preaches about treating the poor, about justice, about responsible service.”
In 2012, MET lost its legal status as a church and attendant state subsidies (40 percent of its income) under Hungary’s new Church Law—in a process widely criticized as political retribution. The following year, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government’s treatment of MET violated Hungary’s Fundamental Law and a 2017 European Court of Human Rights judgment declared MET’s treatment in breach of Article 9 (Freedom of Religion or Belief) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
MET’s mistreatment is especially striking given that Orbán’s government presents itself as a champion of freedom of religion and belief in general, and persecuted Christians in particular. In recent years, Budapest has hosted two large gatherings of the International Conference on Christian Persecution (ICCP). Hungary also boasts a state-funded aid agency, Hungary Helps, which says it exists “precisely to help persecuted Christians in a world where persecution is increasing year after year.”
Pressure on MET has continued despite the court rulings, intensifying dramatically in recent months. Since July, Hungary’s tax authority (NAV) has seized the equivalent of nearly $2.5 million that would normally go from the state budget to MET because of the church’s role as a provider of public services. NAV claims that money has been withheld in lieu of about $4 million in unpaid social insurance contributions owed for MET’s staff of about a thousand people. NAV’s actions left roughly half of MET’s staff unpaid for five months and others in receipt of only partial payments distributed on a prioritized hardship basis. Remaining employees are usually able to stay on only because they have received bailouts from family or taken on part-time jobs to slow the depletion of their savings.
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NAV explained its actions in a statement: “In the case of organizations performing public duties, NAV acts in a particularly fair manner. . . . However, the goal is for the taxpayer [MET] to cease its illegal activities and have a reasonable plan to fulfill its obligations.”
According to Iványi, however, MET’s liquidity crises stems directly from “the withdrawal of our legal church status. It deprives MET of an annual public subsidy of around [$6 million]. . . . The Hungarian state’s cumulative unpaid debt towards us now stands at above [$40 million]—about ten times our debt to our staff.”
MET’s employees see another agenda—one aimed not at recouping public revenue but ending the government’s decade-long war of attrition with MET by forcing its dissolution.
On September 29, in circumstances of questionable legality, NAV confiscated the equivalent of $200,000 of private donations that had been collected for Oltalom but, in a surprise move, returned the funds a month later while Orbán was in Brussels for a budget-negotiation summit with other EU leaders. (The speculation among some observers is that Orbán’s government restored the money in hopes of lightening anticipated EU penalties Hungary will have to pay for rule-of-law violations, especially as some members of the European Parliament have kept an eye on the MET case.)
“We were glad to get the money in the end—it’s a small but precious lifeline,” said István Ónodi, MET’s chief financial officer. However, he continued, “by the time it eventually arrived, we had already lost a number of staff we might otherwise have retained by offering them at least some payment for their work.”
In Budapest, the opposition-controlled city council has stepped in to temporarily cover the salaries of staff in MET’s homeless shelters, which account for about 20 percent of overnight provision in the capital. Welcome though it is for the council to be stepping into the breach, the move falls short of ensuring the shelters’ continuing viability.
On October 6, the state suddenly withdrew in-kind food delivery support for MET’s homeless shelters (which it had been providing under a longstanding public service agreement) in Budapest, leaving the organization unable to serve the 400 daily meals it offered between two downtown locations. Then, on October 16, state electricity company MVM served MET with a “final notice” regarding unpaid utility bills. The total outstanding balance was listed as $1.6 million. MVM demanded full payment within five days and threatened to cut off power to all MET institutions nationwide if its deadline was not met. To date, the ultimatum remains unenforced, but the continuing uncertainty as to when it might be adds pressure to managers seeking to keep MET’s operations going.
MET is also facing challenges on the legal front. On October 18, Hungary’s Constitutional Court—which is packed with Orbán loyalists—issued a confusing judgment in which it appeared to pronounce itself incompetent to rule on MET’s continuing financial travails, imposed by the state, even though the Court issued a prior ruling in the church’s favor.
Eszter Gerendás, MET’s press officer, says that after MET has exhausted its available domestic remedies, “at long last, we can apply again for compensation” to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. “It is a case our lawyers are confident we can win.” However, she continues, “given the present level of government pressure, by the time we get a damages award from Strasbourg, MET might not be here to receive it.”
Ónodi sees a pattern in developments: “The timing and accumulation of these moves by the government is no accident: If the government finishes us off now, it won’t be a live issue by the time the combined European Parliament and Hungarian local elections happen in May 2024.” This is important, Ónodi said, because MET’s plight “has the potential to mobilize opposition voters and even cause some moderate Fidesz supporters to stay home because of respect for MET’s work for the poor.”
The claim that Hungary’s government intends to force MET’s dissolution is consistent with an earlier assessment published by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), a commission of the U.S. Congress. In a web article published in 2019, Erika Schlager, then the CSCE’s counsel for international law, speculated that “the government may be trying to squeeze [MET] out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.”
ASKED WHAT IT WOULD MEAN for MET to exist without its social institutions, Iványi responds with confusion. “It’s never seriously occurred to me that we could. Serving the poor is the heart of our identity—it’s how we practice our faith,” he told me.
That fusion of faith and service runs deep. In the 1970s, MET split from the Hungarian Methodist Church over state interference in church life and the desire of MET’s members to act publicly for homeless and impoverished people. The two issues were interdependent. Under the socialist planned economy, poverty officially didn’t exist, and the leaders of Hungary’s official churches submissively observed a taboo on the subject mandated by Communist authorities.
While the present crisis has threatened the livelihoods of MET’s staff and the viability of its operations, the risks are much worse for the vulnerable people the church helps.
Budapest’s city government has put mobile generators on standby to supply MET’s homeless shelter there if MVM makes good on its threat and cuts off utilities. However, Iványi remains concerned for MET’s medical clinic for homeless people. “The wards can’t function without power,” says Iványi. “If we can’t operate the facility safely and have to close, that risks pushing limbless homeless people out onto the streets. State hospitals are already overstretched and won’t want to take chronic patients needing slow rehabilitation work,” he adds.
Eszter Gerendás points out that the attack on MET’s school network also has consequences for the groups it serves:
We operate in some of Hungary’s poorest communities; 90 percent of our students are of Roma origin. The schools offer something close to a “wraparound” welfare service. When an MET school closes, the kids don’t just lose their education: They also often lose their only reliable source of food and the early intervention regarding family problems our staff provides.
A public appeal for funds raised has raised the equivalent of $830,000 since September—a generous response by individual Hungarians struggling with high inflation. Longtime U.S. supporters have raised $35,000. These sums, however, are but a fraction of what MET needs to stabilize. “I hope further international sponsors might help us keep some institutions going,” said Ónodi. “But it’s been hard to get the word out—there’re many dramatic world news developments right now.”
Iványi compares his experiences today with what he knew under communism. “Sometimes it feels like we’re back” in those days, he said, “when MET was shut out of its church buildings, and I preached to our people on the street—even in winter. Sometimes I got arrested and spent time in a police cell—the authorities wanted rid of MET then, too.”
Schlager, though, points out how Orbán’s tactics differ from those of the Communists: “Orbán has certain redlines,” she told me. “There are no prisoners of conscience, nobody gets pushed out of windows. Orbán wants losers, not martyrs. What’s happening to MET is death by a thousand legal cuts. As a trained lawyer Orbán knows just how to do that.”