The Recent Developments of Church–State Relations in Central Europe

Chapter 10
The Recent Developments of Church–State Relations in Central Europe

Balázs schanda

Religious Freedom in Central-Eastern Europe


Different regions of Europe – and even local communities – carry their special historic legacy with regard to religious issues. Comparative studies in a region fragmented into nation-states, often comprising historic ethnic minorities and denominational diversity, are also difficult for the reason that beyond the same legal principles the social reality may be very different.

The countries of Eastern-Central Europe share much common history. The Slavonic nations – both north and south to the Hungarians and the Romanians, the two non-Slavonic ethnic communities in the region – trace back their Christianity to Saint Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavic people, who acted before the great schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. The Czech Kingdom, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are also referred to as the countries of Holy Adalbert: a great majority of these people have been Catholic for the last millennium and the Catholic Church remains one of the largest denominations in all of the countries covered, but, even so, Protestantism too has deeply influenced the history of the countries of Central Europe. The Czech lands and Hungary are an example (particularly Transylvania, which enjoyed independence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries): in these areas denominational pluralism was a fact that had to be dealt with for many centuries. In some regions, unlike some Western Europe areas, for over 400 years a variety of confessions could have been found practising in the same city. At the other end of the spectrum the Balkan countries (South-Eastern Europe) have a predominantly Orthodox heritage, but also share the legacy of centuries of Ottoman rule. Denomination and ethnicity often correspond, but ethnicity and state borders not always do: the events of Bosnia-Herzegovina, our recent history, are an example of this phenomenon. Orthodoxy in Hungary is linked to ethnic minorities too (Serbs, Greeks, Romanians, etc. – none of them recent immigrants). Western Christianity (Latin Catholicism and Protestantism) – not exclusively but dominantly – is linked to both Hungarians and Germans in Transylvania, Romania; Islam – not exclusively but still strongly – is linked to the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. New religious minorities are establishing themselves in the region (e.g., Eastern religious movements), whilst the old minorities are still present (such as the Jewish presence in Eastern Europe).

Central European countries also share the legacy of Habsburg Austria: the legal and bureaucratic traditions may still have influence, in some cases, on the approach of the State to certain issues. Communist rule constitutes a common element of the recent history of the region as well. This legacy, however, is certainly not the only element that influences the approach to religious issues. The notion of the rule of law, that of religious tolerance and of freedom of religion are certainly not completely new phenomena in Central Europe, even if these concepts were met again in 1989, after the Communist regime. Can one still speak of new democracies two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Notwithstanding, what ensures interest in the region is in fact its experience with the Communist system and the new arrangements which have been made since the collapse of that experiment. New arrangements and tendencies are of interest in a wider perspective. Countries and people, having experienced the lack of freedom, have now special appreciation of and sensitivity for it.

The Arrival of Freedom

The collapse of the Communist system was a rapid process. Reconstructing society, and finding a role for religious communities, was clearly a challenge from the beginning. Religious communities were not prepared to meet the new challenges. In some countries the main denomination has gained substantial respect (Poland), or the traditional religiosity did not change much (Romania) during the prior regime, whereas in others secularization has gone relatively far (Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia and especially the German Democratic Republic). Both the State and the Churches had to give new answers to these new challenges. In many cases it was impossible to bypass the four decades, or more, of Communist regime, and step back to the prior system of relations. Restitution of confiscated Church property, finding an adequate compromise for the place of religious education and theology, coping with new religious phenomena and the whole set of Church–State issues required a new approach, either through laws or agreements.

Legislation Relating to Institutional Aspects

Emergence of New Legislation

Transitions to constitutional democracy, i.e., respectful of human rights, brought new laws and regulations on religious communities; this happened sooner in some countries (Poland in 1989, Hungary in 1990, Czechoslovakia in 1991) but later in others (Bulgaria in 2002, Czech Republic in 2002). A third wave of legislation started in 2006 (Romania, Serbia, Slovenia). Besides national-denominational traditions, the experiences of earlier laws in the region have contributed to shape the modern legislation: each subsequent wave of legislation learnt and was influenced by the ones before. Experiences have been exchanged between competent government agencies during a number of meetings and conferences.1

Basic Features of New Legislation

Most Central European countries provide a special status for religious entities. In these countries religious entities can enjoy legal personality as such, and not just as associations or trusts. At least a base-level legal personality is provided for religious communities, and is easily available in all countries, except Slovakia. In certain countries – like in Romania – the base-level entity status is that of a special form of association.

No country links the free exercise of religion in community with others to the special legal form provided for religious communities. Communities which do not wish to register as religious communities, or do not meet the formal criteria to register, usually have access to alternative legal forms. An exception to this general rule are the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where religious communities cannot act as associations. In Slovakia, for example, religious communities can act as foundations or registered non-profit organizations, and civic associations, if of a religious nature, could in theory be dissolved but are, in fact, tolerated.2

The nature of juridical personality tends to be a sui generis one. It contains all elements of private law entity status (the possibility to acquire property, enter into contractual relations, including labour contracts), with some special elements taking religious practice into account. The German notion of public law corporation only appears in an explicit way in Croatia.3

Several countries apply a two-tier system. This two-tier system is explicitly adopted in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Serbia and Romania, where acquiring base level entity status is not especially burdensome. Even so requirements for access to ‘special rights’ in the Czech Republic seem to be quite demanding.4 In Romania a religious association has to be registered for at least 12 years before being granted the status of registered cult; it must have a nationwide organizational structure with at least 0.1 per cent of the population as its members and has to submit a fairly detailed description of its structure and creed.5 The two-tier system shows much similarity to the Austrian legislation.6

In Poland there are differences between merely registered religious communities (registration seems to be relatively easy), and those religious communities which have a special statute that regulates their relations with the State. No community has the subjective right to obtain this special statute, authorities have discretion on who can access this special status and usually decide on the basis of historic traditions.7

In Hungary, besides the demanding formal requirements for registration, all registered communities (over 160) enjoy the same rights, but the four largest religious communities are granted some special rights (army and prison chaplains, public media). The situation is similar in Slovenia, where all religious communities enjoy equal rights. Factual differences, however, have to be taken into consideration. Registration in Slovakia is rather difficult, but the 16 registered entities have equal rights – although not all of them have made use of the possibility of signing a contract with the government.8

As mentioned before, the enthusiasm for liberty that followed the collapse of Communism is over. Recent legislation is more restrictive than the 1990 Hungarian law or the Polish law. It would be of interest, even if not exactly within the legal discipline, to study the social consequences of an open system in comparison with a more restrictive or realistic system. Does the easy institutionalization of a new religious movement have an impact on movements’ strategy and on the religious composition of a country?