Hungary amends religion law; Seventh-day Adventists among churches recognized

'Today, we join our brothers and sisters in Hungary in giving thanks to God,' says president of church in Trans-European Division

Feb 28, 2012 ... A difficult saga for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hungary has taken a new turn with a vote by the nation’s lawmakers restoring the denomination’s official church status. Hungary’s parliament took the action February 27, amending the country’s controversial “Law on Churches” and expanding 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.

Pastor Tamás Ócsai, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Hungarian Union Conference, says the vote concludes months of uncertainty. Pastor Tamás Ócsai, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Hungarian Union Conference, says 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 says 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 Pastor Ócsai, speaking just minutes after the 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.”

Pastor 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 though 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.”  

Pastor 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.

Pastor Raafat Kamal, public affairs and religious liberty director for the Trans-European Division, calls passage of the amendment “an immense relief for all those who’ve been working tirelessly for this outcome.” But he also notes 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. 

Dr. John Graz, public affairs and religious liberty director for the Adventist world church, says Seventh-day Adventists in Hungary and around the world have reason to give thanks.

“But 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. [Bettina Krause/TED Staff]