Open Letter of Pastor Gabor Ivanyi, Head of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship



Mr Zoltán Balog, Minister

Minister of Human Resources

Budapest                                                                                            Reference: M-7823/2012

Dear Minister,

The May 24 issue of  Heti Válasz [Weekly Response] contained an interview with you by Stumpf András, entitled “We won’t put up with it”, which you thought important enough to reproduce on your ministry website. Since you deal prominently by name with me personally, my church, and our social and educational activity, and the journalist claims in his lead that his interviewee “does not take seriously… Gábor Iványi, who baptised the older children of the prime minister,” it behoves me, indeed it is essential for me to seek an opportunity to publicize my reactions to the statements you made before the public.

A few preliminary remarks

I have chosen this seemingly direct form of address because it would be a sorry thing to behave as if we had not known each other before the change of system. We were both members of the team that contributed to the journal Egyház és Világ [Church and World] edited by Tamás Majsai. I built up good relations with the group of young, mainly Reformed Church theologians around Ervin Vályi-Nagy (indeed there were occasions when I provided a venue for your discussions, even for an international meeting), to which you belonged. During the refreshing, mutually respectful period after the change of system, I was often invited to sessions of the European Protestant Hungarian Free University, where you often appeared as well. This society showed lively interest in the theologically based social work that I was doing among the poor. Although the differences in our political inclinations soon began to appear, it was natural that I, at a difficult period in your life, should invite you for a semester to the John Wesley Theological College, where you taught New Testament exegesis. I as rector sat in out of politeness on a lecture of yours in which you analysed the story of the temple tax. I still remember your instructive explanation of how Jesus stirred the conscience of those who were provoking Him and sought to entice Him into the trap of antagonism towards the state, and how the Master revealed the hypocrisy by drawing from His pocket a coin bearing the image of the emperor “to be worshipped as a god”. I fully agreed with you that those who strike a bargain with the emperor fall into a trap, for it makes it increasingly difficult to give back to God what is God’s.

When you ran the office of President Ferenc Mádl you drew his attention to the broad social work done through the Oltalom Charity Society and the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, which was associated with it from the outset. Indeed the president of the republic came personally to visit our “Heated Street” institution for caring for the homeless (during his terms of office his visits were repeated at festival times and he always brought gifts out of concern for the homeless). Thereafter, in 2003, I was awarded the Gold Medal of Merit of the President of the Hungarian Republic as an appreciation of our extensive welfare work. You too were present at the state ceremony in the Sándor Palace and shared in my delight. It never crossed your mind that our system of institutions was too extensive compared with the size of our church. You saw the quality of our work, the exemplary nature of the work we do in social and health provisions for the homeless and in education for the poor.

I will note here that neither I nor our church have been doing social work and caring for the poor only since the change of system. You will certainly remember that we established with Ottilia Solt and others at the end of the 1970s the Fund for Support of the Poor (SZETA), which was constantly harassed by the police. But as a travelling pastor in the latter half of the 1970s, when the churches were being persecuted, it was a decisive part of my pastoral work in the settlements of the poor and the Gypsies in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg,  Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén, Nógrád, Baranya and Pest counties to deal with all the needs of the destitute. So I saw no tension between my spreading of the word of God and my active social activity. Why should there have been then or be now? For the work permits of Jesus or His apostles might be withdrawn now retroactively by arguing that “they do not primarily engage in church/religious activity.” When Jesus sends out His twelve apostles (and likewise when He sends out several dozen, seventy, disciples) He instructs them (see for instance Matthew 10:1-16) that alongside their teaching and consolation they should heal the sick, cleanse leprosy, and perform other social tasks. When John the Baptist is in crisis in prison (Luke 7:18-22) and through his disciples asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” He does not give a doctrinal reply, but tells them to report, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear…” and so on. When His disciples start on their tour, He quotes in his first explanatory speech to them in the synagogue of Capernaum the words of Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me… he anoints me… that I may free the prisoners…” and of the direct, “religious activity” there is only, “today this writing has been fulfilled.” As the Crucifixion approaches and Jesus delivers His final sermons, He quotes on the subject of the last judgement the future separation, where no one will be questioned on the catechism or their religious affiliation or the membership of their churches, for they will have to hear the simple words of the Lord, expressed in positive and in negative terms (Matthew 25:31-46): “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Or else you did not give or come to visit. There is no other alternative. I will not go into any more detail. I would like to declare in general that the intention of your new church laws is a false one when you artificially separate so-called “primary” church activity (which you kindly allow, some in church form and some as an association) from practical theology (which you support only in churches chosen on political grounds). This is not biblical, not just, and not useful. Those suffering in the world and in the afflicted areas of Hungary, have need of the words of the Gospel along with solidarity. Of course the state has a huge role to play in this service. But “the state” does not only mean those who in your view do not take me seriously, but also those decreasingly able to assert their interests and maintain or in some cases save their lives.

The report you compiled contains some things with which I agree.

You speak after my own heart when you say that where all Christians are either national or in the end they are nothing,” and I am pleased that the name taken by the ministry you head has been christened “Human” instead of “National”. I confess that I too am disturbed by this constant talk of nation, waving of symbols from the period between the two world wars, irresponsible exploitation of the sad tragedy of Trianon, and the exclusiveness of describing half the land as Hungarian and national and dubbing the other half as foreign, alien in heart, and inimical. No nation can stand on its feet or score lasting success if it seethes with domestic battles and sees enemies to be crushed where it should seek allies.

I can but ask God’s blessing for effort to see “all children receive not just food, but attention and the chance to leave social disadvantage behind them.” I agree wholeheartedly.  I personally and my church, in our role in public education, are continually and exclusively guided by this aim. We have never supported or intended to support the idea that churches (even ours) should play a decisive part in public education. But in the process of catching up and in raising material and spiritual resources for the poorest, that is another matter.

However, on several other matters I cannot agree with you even conditionally, and in some cases I reject them categorically.


First, I would deny I committed any kind of error in making no secret of the fact that I baptised the first two children of the Orbán family. Here I would also deny that my pastoral conduct of this kind or that could ever, in a constitutional state, play a role in whether my church, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, could or could not retain its church status.

You depart from the truth when you say, “I consider it distasteful for someone to keep parading before the media that he baptised the head of government’s children.” I have never paraded before the media on this matter or any other. The media (if left alone) lives its own life and brings up questions that intrigue people. I phoned nobody, sought nobody, whispered in nobody’s ear about baptising two of the head of government’s children. But the news is correct. Why should I hide the fact? This is no secret of the confessional. The press became interested when it turned out that my church, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, was among the denominations that your government wished to deprive of church status. People were rightly surprised to find you acting like this also against a church whose system of values and ceremonies had previously suited the taste of choosy parents, and they did not understand why those in power were now so antagonistic to it.

Since you, as a pastor, put me up as a positive bad example (“Why kind of spiritual leader makes disclosures about the spiritual life of believers entrusted to him? I would never do such a thing, because I take my calling as a pastor seriously.”), allow me to point out that according to your outraged reasoning, we cannot take seriously either Philip, the evangelist of the early church, and we should withdraw his permit retroactively, for though he baptised a high official of the Ethiopians on a desert road, he made this known publicly, along with details of their conversation (Acts 8:27). Nor would the Apostle Peter fare any better after baptising a centurion and his household (Acts 10:24–47). There would be no escape either for Father Ananias, who baptised no less a figure than Saul, who had become Paul the Apostle on the Road to Damascus. Indeed Paul himself could probably function at most as an association chairman having asserted that he baptised Crispus and Gaius and “the household of Stephanas”. The christening of the Orbán children took place at a public service (not a secret gathering), before the eyes of many people. This reveals that we once saw many things of value in the same terms. I have not changed since. I do not know if you are a better pastor than I. Both of us will give an account of that to God. It is not the question in any case. The question is: Are you a good minister? Can you afford, as one holding a government portfolio, to leave unanswered an uncultivated, unmannerly journalist who asks, “So does that means the young Orbáns were baptised into a sham church?” You did not correct him, simply explained that “baptism is still valid if performed by a midwife.” If I understand you right, the liquidation of our church is a punishment for my purported indiscretion. You express yourself thus: “Why should one who does not take the calling of a pastor seriously be amazed that the state does not take him so either?”


I do not require either the state or even you to take me seriously. But it is unprecedented and unacceptable that you, by manufacturing such a grievance, should deprive us, at a price of no small suffering, of civil and political rights won well before the change of system. You well know the history of the Methodist Church of Hungary and how Methodist pastors who spoke out against interventions by the State Office for Church Affairs (including me) were dismissed from their posts, harassed by the police and the courts, evicted from their homes and deprived of their churches; how I preached for years in the street in front of the vacant, later demolished meeting house, and how several people (including me) received suspended prison sentences. I can mention how that much blamed communist, atheist state power (which likewise ensured freedom of worship to every citizen in its constitution) never stooped to ban churches. Certainly some pastors were persecuted, we included. To find churches being demoted into associations and persecuted on suspicion of communism you have to go back to the dark Horthy inter-war period.

You acted unconstitutionally and thumbed your nose at international law in robbing us (and other congregations) of rights obtained decades ago and practised fairly and honestly, and compelled us to apply for new recognition. The journalist’s question to you was, “So in your view it is not a church that Iványi is running?” And your reply: “The list is open, people can apply.” That was done, and we met all the conditions of the legislators, although they are limiting and flout the basic laws on several points, and yet the Fidesz–KDNP and Jobbik majority in Parliament threw back the application. It is intrinsically absurd for a political body to decide to whom to accord a right defined closely all over the world and for there to be no appeal against its decision. We were forced to register as an association, but the courts all over the country are rejecting our applications in a demeaning manner, to keep us running the gauntlet.

The interview also reveals (for you have not contradicted the interviewing journalist) that László Szászfalvi (on whose expertise you still rely) – like you a pastor of the Reformed Church, then a state secretary – is the one “who devised… how the church of Gábor Iványi, who had christened the earlier children of Viktor Orbán, should be a church no more.” It is in that light that we should see your assertion that the question of whether the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is a church or a religious association is still not a decided thing. As you put it, “The list is open, it is possible to apply.” So you deprived us of our rights in such a way that we can try to climb back onto an open list. László Szászfalvi did not devise a procedure by which those who fit the regulations can retain their rights, but one that decides how they can be taken away from us. After that to behave as if “some transitional situation” had “arisen” that you would remedy one day, as you apparently told our foreign friends, is simply misleading. To borrow a literary parallel from Ferenc Molnár, the Pásztor brothers (Reformed Church pastors) take away our colourful toys, then twist our flag out of our hands, and then gloat over us, because they are the stronger. In the meantime, “they believe they are working to praise God.”

We must appear “before the judgment seat of Christ” not only to say whether we have handled with remarkable secrecy some facts to do with baptism known to all, but how we as responsible people treated the basic rights of others.


To the journalist’s question mentioned already (“… so it is not a church that Iványi heads?”), your other answer is: “Still, is it really a rightful proportion if a religious community of a few dozen people maintains educational and social services for several hundred million?”

First, it is untrue to say the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is a “religious community of a few dozen people.” (Incidentally, many far smaller and more recently founded churches than ours have been recognized as churches.) But let us say it were true, you are forgetting what I mentioned before, that Jesus sent a dozen apostles and then several dozen (seventy) disciples out to pursue nationwide, comprehensive social, health, teaching and spiritual activity. Finally, He told not even a dozen apostles on the occasion of his Ascension to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)

To use your words, “Is it a rightful proportion” for a man who has undergone a shameful death and seen His work fall apart to find not quite a dozen to evangelize and serve the world? Certainly the risen Jesus would also try in vain to run His church in Hungary today.

As I wrote in my preliminary remarks, it was not now, in the second decade of the millennium, we began our system of assistance, nor with the change of system, nor with the foundation of the Fund for Support of the Poor. We have always traditionally interpreted our service in this way. Up to now the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship has done notable work in the social, health-care and educational fields. We have assumed state tasks not exceeded by the Reformed or the other churches.

In the social field, our auxiliary supports have been prohibited in the capital and nationally.  Now is the turn of the successful schools we run for the poorest people. Although you have stated “that there are valuable elements in this system of institutions; on these we have to conclude agreements,” there is still no sign of them. We are being bled to death and things made impossible for us. Yet you must know for sure that we are serving children in their hundreds “who came out of great tribulation” and believed that this was their country too, trusted that they too could become somebody. Very many of them have passed their school-leaving examinations or obtained a trade; the rest can pull out their tent pegs now.

May I diverge for a moment onto the often purposely misleading, protracted matter of public financing. (I will not waste words here on the stigmatizing statements about “business churches”, false from the outset, made in support of the new law.) You can regularly hear the hypocritical argument that there is total freedom of worship in Hungary, which cannot be confused, however, with the fact that the state has a sovereign right to agree as it will with religious communities about supporting them out of public funds for performing services on its behalf. You too hastened to subscribe to this argument, announcing that Iványi’s community “is in the religious sense [… a church] and can practise its faith.” On the spuriousness of this remark of yours I will make only one observation: this view is almost entirely the same as the one on which the doctrinaire communists thought and acted, when they continually emphasized the fundamental human right of freedom of worship, but (as with “primarily” and “not primarily” church activity) sought to confine congregations and churches to a defined public and social sphere. (The enforcement was then by the police, now by the legislature and the fiscal system.) The situation certainly altered fundamentally with the change of system, which you supported. Hungary became a Rechtsstaat, in which freedom of worship was defined according to the philosophy of the civilized world, whereby it does not just mean church services and liturgies according to religious teachings, but that the members of a religious community be treated as a legal entity and take part in the life of society on equal terms with other associations (irrespective of these or those political criteria). Under the conditions in Hungary, churches might take over from the state public tasks through educational and social institutions. Until you came to power for the second time, no religious community need assume that the fruits of their service, in a world committed to democratic legal principles, could suddenly be declared naught, their achievements taken away from them, and handed to somebody else. (As early as last summer your offices called on us to give full accounts of our social institutions and state who we were transferring them to.) Finally, in addition to this, I am asked by some, if I do not commit myself clearly to one government or another, whether I have a bad conscience – as in my preliminary example of the temple tax – when accepting the monies for our institutions that come from government budget. I answer honestly that I do not. These monies are not the private property of some governing body, but wealth handled for the state by the presently elected political executives, to whose people we also belong, and which we and other communities try to use in the interest of society for the greater glory of God.


Finally, a few words on what the journalist of the same paper saw fit three years ago (“The tax gatherers of the poor” András Stumpf, 25 September 2009: to bring up with you as a last subject of discussion: your convictions on “Gypsy crime”. Your opinion aroused indignation in me then and I categorically contradict you now as well. Your remarks gain extra weight from your position as a responsible government member in a high position. You try to defend and justify this impossible, false conception by saying, “Of course there is ‘Christian hypocrisy’ and ‘Jewish capital’, and there are ‘mafias’ with various national affiliations in the world as well.” According to you, not only poverty but certain crimes “have a Roma face.” We could have an interesting theological dispute on the nationality of the sin that our forefathers Adam and Eve committed and whether doctrine on sin has a national dimension. In my view it does not. Sin, crime of all the types listed in the Bible, are quite universal and fundamentally human.

Minister, in the all the pairs of terms, we are dealing in the case of “Christian” basically with a connection that can be interpreted sociologically and has no racial dimension (for people of any human “race” can be Christian), while with “Jewish” and still more with “Gypsy” pairs of words, we are touching on very serious overtones feeding on racism. (Such ill-considered comments have particular significance at a time when such clear anti-Semites as Horthy, Nyírő, Prohászka, Wass, Szabó and others, and their period, are up for rehabilitation.) There is no such category as “Gypsy crime”, but there exists criminalization of the poor, persecution of the homeless, threats of high fines and imprisonment if they dare eat something from a dustbin or sleep in the street. For shame! And there is clear terror stemming from authority in some secluded districts of the country, where police and semi-military organizations to which a blind eye is turned are seriously mistreating and intimidating the Roma, slowly but surely developing a kind of reservation system, in which the spectre of a curfew system looms. You state optimistically that “not every provincial Gypsy woman” yet senses the positive change that in your view has begun. The real position is that Hungary’s Gypsy community senses exclusively negative effects.

Minister, your party has obtained political influence based on an unprecedented two-thirds majority. You yourself have taken on a huge responsibility in agreeing to head a vast, combined ministry with huge powers. I would like to reinforce in you the obvious fact that you did not receive a mandate from the people to do as you like, to confiscate rights retroactively, to persecute your political opponents, and to silence other kinds of opinion. Furthermore, you act as a minister twice over: firstly as a minister of religion serving the word of God, known in ecclesiastic parlance as a minister verbi divini, and secondly as a servant of public affairs. Consequently, the huge challenge before you in exercising that service applies also to whether you use the power vested in you to beat your fellow servants or to ensure them the service they are supposed to receive (Matthew 24:45–49).

So I call on you to consider your position and protest like a true man against this unjust church law. Do all you can to restore to their rights (restitutio ad integrum) your brethren brought into an unworthy situation by a government represented also by you personally. Strive to prevent us being obstructed in maintaining our institutions. And let there be no misunderstanding: I am not thinking simply of our church, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.

Indeed I call on you to raise your voice for the “little ones” being harassed and shamed day by day: our Gypsy/Roma and homeless fellow countrymen, our Jewish brethren likewise living in an atmosphere of fear, also for the “small churches” and for our fellow citizens living in deprivation. Instead of orders, messages and insults, use means of negotiation and agreement, “ For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Budapest, 20 July 2012.

With greetings

Gábor Iványi

Pastor and President of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, a church operating institutions for the service and education of the poor

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