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Hungary is a country that emerged into statehood by its adoption of western Christianity in the first millennium. The foundations of the structure of the Catholic Church were laid by St Stephen (997-1038), the first king of Hungary, who founded ten dioceses. Whereas Hungarian history is determined by adherence to western Christianity, Orthodox minorities have been present in Hungary throughout the country’s history.
The Reformation reached the country when the central state power was weak, and the country was engaged in war with the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the Reformation was highly successful in sixteenth-century Hungary, as the majority of the population turned first to Lutheran and, a little later, to Calvinist doctrine. The Reformed (Calvinist-Presbyterian) Church became the birthplace of national culture with respect to Bible translation, schools, and so on.
The Counter-Reformation, supported by the royal court (from 1526, the Habsburg dynasty) also achieved success, but the country has preserved a high level of denominational pluralism to the present time. A generally tolerant approach to religious issues is deeply rooted in Hungarian society. After the Turkish wars at the end of the seventeenth century, ethnic Hungarians became a minority in the Kingdom of Hungary. While the Serbs in the south remained Orthodox, large numbers of Romanians in Transylvania and Ruthenians in the Carpathians entered into union with the Catholic Church.
In the seventeenth century, the Protestant nobility achieved considerable freedom in Hungary. However, due to the re-Catholicising efforts of the Habsburg kings, this freedom was gradually curtailed, whereas the state influence in the affairs of the Catholic Church was also strong, especially in the enlightened absolutist Josephinist (Joseph II, 1780-1790) era, when, for example, contemplative religious orders were dissolved.The Reformed and the Lutheran religions regained their freedom at the end of the eighteenth century. At that time, although the free exercise of these religions was permitted, their status remained far from equal to that of the Catholic Church.
Even though revolutionary legislation in 1848 declared the equality of all accepted religions, the emancipation of Jews did not occur until 1867. Partly due to massive immigration by the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish population had risen to over 5% (1.3% at the end of the eighteenth century). The liberal era of the late nineteenth century enhanced the rapid assimilation of the Hungarian Jewry. This era produced the legislation which proclaimed religious freedom for all, restricting, however, the right of public worship only to the communities that were acknowledged (either incorporated or recognised).
After the trauma of the secession of Hungary that took place after World War I, national conservative forces dominated the political and the cultural landscape, cutting back some of the liberal legislation of the late 1800s. Hungary became a small country surrounded by its former territories with large ethnic Hungarian minorities. The country became involved in World War II and came under German occupation on 19 March 1944. In the following few months, three-quarters of the Hungarian Jewry ˗ who had suffered massive discrimination but had enjoyed relative security until then ˗ were deported with the assistance of Hungarian authorities to Nazi extermination camps.
It has to be noted that in Principality of Transylvania (independent of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1526 to 1848), the development of religious freedom followed different path. The free exercise of Reformed (Calvinist), Lutheran, Unitarian, and Catholic denominations was allowed by 1568 in Transylvania, while the exercise of the Orthodox faith was also tolerated. No other European state displayed such tolerance in its church policies at that time.
After the communist takeover in 1948, religious freedom remained a dead letter of the Constitution. Education was nationalised (1948), religious education limited (from 1949), theological faculties detached from state universities (1950), religious orders banned (1950), property of religious communities mostly confiscated, numerous religious leaders arrested and sentenced, including the Primate of the Catholic Church in Hungary, Cardinal Mindszenty, who was arrested on 26 December 1948 and after being tortured, sentenced to life imprisonment in February 1949. After the arrest of a considerable part of the Hungarian episcopate, the remaining Bishops’ Conference signed an agreement with the Government in 1950, regulating the fate of members of banned religious orders and consenting to the operation of eight Catholic secondary schools managed by four orders.
Other denominations had already signed similar agreements in 1948, basically acknowledging the emerging situation. The Churches were generally put under strict state control that was exercised by the State Office of Church Affairs. Although from the 1960s, state pressure began to relax to some extent, the general rules and practices of the regime did not change until the late 1980s. In 1964, the Holy See and Hungary signed a document on the procedure to be followed with regard to the appointment of bishops, the oath of the clergy on the constitution, and the operation of the post-graduate training institution of the Hungarian clergy, the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Institute in Rome.
On a much longer list of sensitive issues, no agreement was reached. In a remarkable way, the competence of the Holy See with regard to issues of the Catholic Church in Hungary had been acknowledged; a unique development in the Soviet bloc. From that date, representatives of the regime and the Holy See met twice a year, once in Budapest and once in the Vatican, but diplomatic relations were not re-established.
In the late 80s, control over religions became looser, a number of new denominations were acknowledged, and traditional denominations ˗ including members of the Catholic episcopate ˗ began to claim more freedom. The collapse of the communist system (1989-1990) brought a gradual new beginning for religious freedom and in church-state relations. Following the landslide electoral victory of a centre-right political alliance (2010) far-reaching changes were introduced to religion-related legislation, as well as in many other fields of life.
Schanda, B. (2019). State and Church in Hungary. In G. Robbers (Ed.), State and Church in the European Union. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 364-367. Atlas editor's note. According to data from the last census (2011), no RBO reaches 50% of the population. For this reason Hungary, like Estonia, has been considered a country without a religious majority. However, to ensure uniformity with other countries, the infographics include the data from the World Religion Database.
27 faith communities are recognized on the highest level, some of them (Muslims and Buddhists) comprising multiple organizations.
Beyond differences concerning the legal status of religious communities, the mainstream churches (the Catholic Church, the Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church) as well as the Jewish community receive special attention in the public sphere. Traditional and emerging minorities have a variety of characteristics, although a number of small or relatively new religious communities have received full recognition (e.g. Jehovah Witnesses, the Salvation Army, the LDS Church or the Faith Church, an evangelical congregation).
Religious freedom should be equal for all. Differences among religious communities, however, are taken into consideration regarding cooperation between the state and faith communities. For example, only recognised and registered religious communities can teach religion in public schools whereas religious associations do not enjoy this right; organized army chaplaincy is only provided to the four major religious communities.
Generally, the closer a right or a claim affects the freedom and equality of an individual, the less distinction is permissible. Philosophical and non-denominational organizations are not considered to be religious minorities and therefore are regulated through the rules governing community associations.
Migration to Hungary has remained moderate and the presence of Islam in the country has not raised significant legal issues yet. Two Muslim communities are recognized on the highest level.
Data and information concerning religious demography are provided by Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, eds., World Religion Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed August 2021).
General information on minority issues (including some references to religious or belief ones) can be found at the page devoted to Hungary in Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples https://minorityrights.org.
The text of some legislative acts concerning freedom of religion or belief can be found at https://www.legislationline.org.
A report on the Hungarian legal system and government policies about freedom of religion (with some references to religious or belief minorities) is provided in U.S. Department of State – Office of International Religious Freedom, 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: Hungary, available at https://www.state.gov.
For an introduction to the State-religion legal system see Balázs Schanda, Hungary, in G. Robbers, & C. W. Durham (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Law and Religion, Leiden: Brill, 2015 (the table of contents is available at https://referenceworks.brillonline.com.
A discussion of the management of religious diversity in Hungary is provided at http://grease.eui.eu and more widely by D. Vékony, Hungary: religion as the government political tool, in A. Triandafyllidou, & T. Magazzini (Eds.), Routledge Handbook on the Governance of Religious Diversity, Abingdon: Routledge, 2020, pp. 101-110.