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Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship Raided amid Ongoing Conflict with Viktor Orbán

Allegations of tax fraud latest trial for Wesleyan pastor who has spoken out against Christian nationalism.
Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship Raided amid Ongoing Conflict with Viktor Orbán
Image: Courtesy of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship

The wounds of a friend may be faithful, but Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has not forgiven his former pastor for criticizing him and says he will not, ever.

“He called me a fascist,” Orbán told The Atlantic in 2019. “And that is the only thing for which I cannot forgive him.”

The years-long conflict between the nationalist political leader and Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship pastor Gábor Iványi led to a federal raid on Monday, amid allegations of “large-scale budgetary fraud.”

The evangelical association, which employs about 1,000 people, allegedly owes 156 million forints in payroll taxes, plus a 90 million forints fine (about $742,000 total). Orbán’s government revoked the fellowship’s legal status as a church in 2011, so Hungarian Christians cannot designate part of their paychecks as tithes, a standard way of funding churches in much of Europe.

The government also stopped paying the fellowship for social services it has been providing since 1989. The charitable arm of the church association provides food, health care, legal assistance, and social work for the nation’s poor and vulnerable. Iványi told the independent news organization Telex that the government owes the charity about 12 billion forints ($36 million)—more than enough to pay the tax bill.

The National Tax and Customs Administration does not appear to agree with that accounting.

On Monday, dozens of revenue agents searched the Budapest offices of the fellowship, homeless shelter, hospital, and theological college. Hungary Today reported they seized computers and documents, which they said could contain evidence and information about “assets.”

The mayor of Budapest, an Orbán opponent, dismissed the allegations against the fellowship and condemned the raid as a personal vendetta.

The mayor said Iványi is the “conscience of the Hungarian nation,” whose witness reminds Orbán of “the democrat he once used to be, who betrayed everything he once stood for.”

Iványi told local journalists he can still recall how Orbán rose up as a democratic leader opposed to the Communist dictatorship, but recent events make him wonder what happened to the man he once ministered to.

“I mourn him and have a hard time processing what happened,” the pastor said. “He was unspoiled, courageous, and pure in speech. I couldn’t have imagined that this man, who seemed to be the iconic figure of the flag’s desire for freedom, would ruin everything we fought for together two decades later.”

Orbán achieved national prominence in 1989 when he gave a bold speech demanding free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. He was elected to Parliament the following year, and before the decade was out, he became prime minister. He was only 35.

In the transition from Communism to democracy, Hungary experienced a burst of religious freedom and Orbán, as a rising political leader, committed himself publicly to Christianity. He and his wife renewed their marriage vows in a church and had their first two children baptized.

For all three services, Orbán chose Iványi to preside.

Iványi, the son of a Methodist minister and a schoolteacher, first clashed with the Communists in 1968, when he was in high school. In 1974, he was expelled from a Hungarian seminary for opposing government control over church affairs. He became an independent Wesleyan, spent two brief stints in jail, and was occasionally forced to preach in the street when Communist authorities locked him out of his church.

In 1981, a group of separatist Wesleyans were allowed to form an association and founded the Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség, or Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship. The fellowship is not part of the national evangelical alliance, where the Hungarian Methodist Church is a member, but acts as an independent denomination. It is an association for “sincere Christians who seek salvation through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, conform to His gospel, and follow Him.”

When the country first held free elections, Iványi and Orábn were part of the same broad group of new leaders pushing for reforms. However, the relationship grew cold, according to The New York Times, when Iványi declined to publicly endorse Orbán for reelection in the early 2000s.

Orbán lost, but his party came back into power in 2010 with a sweeping victory. When the minister-elect invited the pastor to pray at an official event, he declined and wrote a public letter objecting to Orbán’s Christian nationalism. Orbán proposed to transform Hungary into what he called an “illiberal democracy,” centralizing government power and restricting civil liberties to fight against multiculturalism, immigration, feminism, LGBT ideology, “wokeness,” and anything else that would erode the dominant cultural order.

Iványi and other evangelicals were especially alarmed because Orbán claimed that Christianity could survive only when defended by a strong state. In one famous speech, the prime minister explained that “the essence of illiberal democracy is Christian liberty and the protection of Christian liberty.”

One of the first actions of the Orbán government was to strip more than 200 mostly smaller churches of their legal status. The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was one of the groups targeted.

The nation’s top court overturned the ruling, saying it violated constitutional protections of religious freedom, but the fellowship’s legal status has remained in limbo since then. The fellowship has about 18,000 members and 40,000 people who have elected to contribute part of their paychecks to the fellowship’s charitable work, if that is legally allowed.

The ambiguous legal victory was followed by trouble with the National Tax and Customs Administration.

Some Christians in America have applauded Orbán and his vision for what they call “national conservatism.” Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, argues that the soft totalitarianism of the Left may leave Christians no option but to seek political power as a “bulwark against cultural disintegration.”

Dreher cautions that he doesn’t know if Orbán’s approach—using the government, for example, to shut down gender studies programs at universities and banning children’s books that talk about homosexuality—will actually work. But, he said, “this is what an actual pro-family, socially conservative government acts like.”

Iványi, now 70, says Orbán’s approach does work, but it shouldn’t be called Christian. It gives one party power to shut down churches and ministries and to limit free speech, free assembly, and freedom of the press, while claiming to defend “Christian liberty.”

True Christian liberty, he argues, cannot be protected by a government. It is given to Christians by grace in baptism.

In 2019, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship released a statement condemning Orbán’s politics. It was modeled on the Barmen Declaration, when German Christians including Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer condemned Nazi attempts to co-opt Christianity.

The Hungarian Christians called their statement the Advent Statement.

“We are concerned about the arrogance of power that mixes the language of national identity with the language of Christian identity in a manipulative way,” it said. “The authoritarian exercise of power … deliberately eliminates political differences of opinion through the eradication of independent media, spreading fake news, discrediting and character assassination, and harassment by authorities.”

That may be why Iványi wasn’t surprised to see government agents blocking the door to the fellowship offices on Monday. An independent video journalist, broadcasting live, showed the pastor walking up to the door, a disposable mask partly covering his large white beard, and addressing the agents calmly, before going inside to see what they took.

In this political climate, Iványi has said before, he is called to go straight into a headwind that might sweep his entire ministry away. But he trusts God.

“If it is swept away now, I will say that with the blessing of God we have endured [so many] years in the hurricane,” he told a Hungarian journalist. “As a deep believer, of course, I am convinced that our mission will not end when the head of government decides on it, but when the Eternal decides that he no longer needs this work. … My job is to go to the wall and trust firmly in the wisdom and mercy of the Good God, as he is one level above the [tax authority] and the head of government.”

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