A difficult saga for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hungary took a new turn this week when the nation’s lawmakers voted to restore the denomination’s official church status.
Hungary’s parliament amended the country’s controversial “Law on Churches” February 27 to expand the list of officially recognized churches from 14 to a total of 32. Among other faith groups added to the law were the Methodist Church, the Pentecostal Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Hungarian Islamic Council.
The vote concludes months of uncertainty for both church leaders and members.
Ócsai Tamás is president of the Adventist Church in Hungary. [ANN]
Tamás Ócsai, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hungary, said the vote concludes months of uncertainty for both church leaders and members. Under the Law on Churches, first passed in July last year, 14 denominations retained their traditional legal status while some 300 minority religious groups, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, were “de-registered” and invited to reapply for church status. The Hungarian government said the law is part of its broader efforts to shore up the country’s struggling economy, and is aimed at preventing sham religious groups from claiming rights and privileges extended to churches.
“The past six months have been challenging,” said Ócsai, speaking just minutes after parliament voted on the amendment. “But throughout it all, we haven’t felt alone. We’ve experienced a tremendous sense of support from our worldwide church family who’ve been praying, along with us, that God’s purpose will prevail.”
Bertil Wiklander, president of the Adventist Church’s Trans-European Division, welcomed the news, saying the vote allows the church in Hungary to look to the future with renewed purpose and energy. “The Hungarian Seventh-day Adventist Church has a long tradition of community service through its houses of worship, education programs, and welfare and public health initiatives,” he said. “We’re very pleased the government of Hungary has recognized this rich heritage, and that our church’s many fine ministries for the public good can continue.”
Wiklander also commended church leaders in Hungary for their “balanced, persistent approach in dealing with a complex political and legal situation.”
“Today, we join our brothers and sisters in Hungary in giving thanks to God for leading them through what has been a tremendously difficult time,” he said.
Raafat Kamal, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Trans-European Division, called passage of the amendment “an immense relief for all those who’ve been working tirelessly for this outcome.” But he also noted that the Law on Churches has stirred considerable international concern since it was passed last year, with some analysts saying it overtly politicizes the religious landscape in Hungary.
In response to criticisms, the Hungarian government has emphasized that even religious groups without church status can continue to meet, worship, and evangelize — rights which are protected under Hungary’s constitution.
John Graz, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Adventist world church, said Seventh-day Adventists in Hungary and around the world have reason to give thanks.
“My hope,” he added, “is that the government of Hungary will continue to reassess the way it deals with religious minorities. Religious freedom is best served when a government makes no legal distinction between religions, and extends the same protections and privileges to all.”
The Adventist Church in Hungary was first officially recognized by the government in 1957, and today has more than 100 congregations and 5,000 members. It also operates the Adventist Theological Seminary in Pécel, near Budapest, which serves 66 students.