In recession-hit Hungary, churches take over state schools

September 8, 2011

Warsaw, Poland, September 8 (ENInews)--Local government officials in
Hungary are handing state-owned schools over to churches, unable to afford their
upkeep during the economic recession, according to church sources.

"Churches are entitled to run schools in Hungary as public service
providers, receiving the same taxpayers' money as public sponsors," said Balazs
Odor, ecumenical officer of Hungary's Reformed Church, in an interview with
ENInews. 

"The school system has its own problems here, which affect church-run
schools as well. However, it's generally true that the wellbeing of church
schools is better looked after since each has a community behind it," he added.

Hungary's Heti Valasz weekly newspaper reported this summer that local
councils had been forced to abandon schools in the face of shrinking state
subsidies, heavy municipal debts and a decreasing number of children, adding
that more than 60 had been given to religious associations in recent months.

Odor told ENInews that the church's governing Synod Council had issued
guidelines in February, requiring local congregations to "study each case
carefully" and obtain approval for school acquisitions from church leaders.
"There've been discussions with the state, where our church committed itself
to be cautious and reserved in its approach," he told ENInews.

"Congregations have not only to consider the financial resources which
have to be secured for a takeover. They must also guarantee the spiritual
capacity and potential of the community needed for such an enterprise and study
the attitude of concerned parties, such as parents, in advance."

The Reformed, Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches ran most schools in
Hungary before the imposition of communist rule after World War II, when 3,750
church schools were taken over by the state and 4,500 teachers forced to
resign, leaving only a handful of colleges in church hands.

In April, the premier Viktor Orban's center-right government steered
through a new national constitution that states Hungarian citizens "recognise
the key role of Christianity in upholding the nation." A new religion law in
July strengthened the position of mainstream churches when it deprived all
but 14 of Hungary's 358 registered churches and religious associations of
legal recognition, and required others to re-apply for court registration
after parliamentary approval.

Odor said the Reformed church "co-operated loosely" with the 12 other
denominations running their own schools, and had been helped by the federal
government's sympathetic attitude to Christianity. "The current government
places greater emphasis on the Christian heritage ... and this is important in
a post-communist country. Even while facing a difficult economic and
social situation, it makes efforts to maintain good co-operation with church
communities," he said.

In its report, Heti Valasz said many teachers and parents were "unhappy
with the changes," adding that the Roman Catholic bishop of Szeged-Csanad,
Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, whose diocese was negotiating the handover of schools with
38 local councils, had pledged that no "mandatory religious education"
would be imposed on already functioning classes.