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US State Dep’t Report Criticizes Hungarian and Romanian Governments on Religious Freedom

By Tom Szigeti // 2017.08.17.

In its annual International Religious Freedom Report, the US Department of State has leveled criticism against both Hungary and Romania; in the case of the former, for the Islamophobic and anti-Semitic commentary of PM Viktor Orbán and other government officials, while in the case of Romania for its treatment of ethnic Hungarian religious communities.

The department’s report, issued by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, examined the state of religious freedom in countries around the world. In the report’s preface, Tillerson emphasized the Trump administration’s commitment to defeating the Islamic State (ISIS), which he described as targeting “members of multiple religions and ethnicities for rape, kidnapping, enslavement, and death. ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controlled.”

The report has been issued yearly by the department since 1999.

Hungary: Accusations of Islamophobia

In its report on Hungary, the State Department documented instances of what some have described as instances of Islamophobic and anti-Semitic messaging on the part of government officials and politicians.

The report catalogues the “repeatedly used antimigrant, anti-Islamic rhetoric” of the Orbán government in its ultimately-failed referendum campaign against the EU’s refugee settlement quota plan (which would require a total of 1294 refugees to be settled in Hungary). In particular, it makes note of Viktor Orbán’s comments on defending the “Christian values of Europe” against Muslim migrants, whom he described as “a poison” and “a public security and terror risk.” The report also quoted Orbán in an interview with German newspaper Passauer Neue Presse, in which he said that

The civilization that stems from Christianity and the civilization that stems from Islam are not compatible. They cannot mingle, but can only exist side by side. … Our perceptions of the world are so different that they lead to parallel worlds. This is not a political issue, but the reality of life.

Politicians close to Orbán have been even more bold. The State Department points out that on August 20th of last year, Fidesz Member of the European Parliament György Schöpflin said in a Twitter argument that a “pig’s head would deter more effectively” Muslims seeking asylum at the Hungarian border.

Consequently, the document notes that Islamic organizations in Hungary have

reported incidents of discrimination by government officials and politicians.

The State Department also made note of the Orbán government’s decision to award Zsolt Bayer, “an openly anti-Semitic journalist and founding member of the governing Fidesz Party,” with a state honor for his “exemplary work as a journalist.” He was criticized by many, including the Israeli Ambassador, for articles that, in the Ambassadors words “openly advocate anti-Semitic sentiments and incite against the Jewish People and the State of Israel.” He had also referred to every refugee over the age of 14 as “a potential killer,” a comment which garnered a fine from the Hungarian state’s media regulatory body.

In response to the Orbán government’s decision to honor Bayer, over 100 former recipients of state awards, including András Heisler, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (MAZSIHISZ), returned their decorations in protest.

Regarding the far-right Jobbik party, the report makes note of anti-Semitic comments made by the party’s then vice-president, Előd Novák. Reacting to the success of Oscar-winning Hungarian film Son of Saul, Novák took to Facebook to attack the “Holocaust industry,” asking while more Hungarian “national” topics were not being made into films. In response, Jobbik leader Gábor Vona (who has been making an effort to spruce up his party’s image) forced Novák to resign from his parliamentary seat and from the party’s leadership.

The State Department report also discusses Hungary’s 2011 law on religion, which “automatically deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations which had previously had incorporated church status.” These groups were made to reapply for incorporated church status, an application which requires the approval of a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament. The report notes that the law is still in effect, despite the fact that repeated Constitutional Court rulings have held certain provisions of the law to be unconstitutional.

Romania: Post-Communist Restitutions that Never Happened

In its report on Romania, the State Department levelled criticism at the government’s unwillingness to return property to ethnically Hungarian churches in Transylvania whose property had been nationalized under Communism.

As the report notes, “virtually all members of the Protestant Reformed, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, and Lutheran Churches from Transylvania are ethnic Hungarians.” And it is these churches, in particular, whose properties the Romanian government has repeatedly refused to return under laws governing restitution for Communist-era nationalization.

According to the report, the Romanian government has rejected several restitution claims on the part of the Hungarian churches “because the entities that operated under the Churches and were registered as property owners in the land registries were not the same entities as the contemporary Churches.” As the Hungarian groups pointed out, however, these entities no longer existed because they had been dismantled by the Communist regime.

In particular, the State Department noted the government’s 2015 rejection of the Roman Catholic Church’s restitution claims for the Batthyaneum Library and an astronomical institute in Alba Iulia, a case which is still pending in court. In addition, the Transylvania Reformed Church noted that restitution of its properties had been “blocked” by Romanian authorities, and that the entire “process was too slow.”

For this reason, the US Embassy in Bucharest has repeatedly raised

concerns with the government, including the president of the property restitution authority and the state secretary in the prime minister’s office, about the slow pace of religious property restitution, particularly properties belonging to Holocaust survivors and the Greek Catholic and ethnic Hungarian churches.

In addition, diplomats from the Embassy met with the Hungarian churches’ leaders in order to discuss issues surrounding property restitution.

Via the US Department of State

Image via Reuters