Budapest, Hungary - Sixteen Hungarian churches have appealed to the country's Constitutional Court to overturn controversial legislation under which they and hundreds of other groups will lose their church status.
From January 1, 2012, only 14 denominations, including Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran and Orthodox churches, will be recognized as a church in this nation of some 10 million people.
Under last month's adopted 'Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Community' smaller evangelical churches and other groups are forced to register again with authorities.
Critics say that will be difficult as churches must have at least 1,000 supporters and operate at least 20 years in Hungary.
Additionally, parliament will have to approve requests by at least a two-third majority.
While no police raids are expected, the law will impact tens of thousands of deeply impoverished Hungarians relying on church support including Roma, also known as gypsies, critics say. The state no longer supports social programs and tax advantages for the non-registered churches.
"We are shocked to hear that we and at least 250 other, honestly working Christian churches, will be robbed of their church status," wrote the church in a letter to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, President Pál Schmitt and Parliamentary Chairman László Kövér.
Orbán's center-right cabinet allegedly violated the trust of church voters. The angry churches described the church law as going "against the basic principle of religious freedom" and called the legislation "unethical" and "unconstitutional."
There is also international criticism, including from influential human rights group Freedom House. "It is unconscionable that any democratic country, particularly one that so recently freed itself from a Communist system in which all religious freedom was repressed, could pass such discriminatory legislation," said Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy at Freedom House over the weekend.
Last month, United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia told the US House Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia that the law on churches give "cause for concern." The legislation, he said, "negatively impacts the religious freedom atmosphere in Hungary."
Melia, who heads the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the US State Department, made clear the law was part of wider concerns including a perceived restrictive media law and a controversial constitution.
He said Hungary, a key member of the European Union and NATO, has a “one-party government (which uses) its unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority to lock in changes to the Constitution that could solidify its power, limit checks and balances, and unduly hamstring future democratic governments in effectively addressing new political, economic and social challenges.”
Zoltán Kovács the state secretary in charge of government communications, said in a statement that the government considers Melia’s remarks to be rooted in a “lack of information and malicious distortions”.
The government says the church law is needed to streamline churches and tackle tax fraud at a time of economic crisis.