Now-Secular Hungarians Reluctant To Return Schools to Church

LEGACY OF COMMUNISM

After four decades of stagnation spurred by the Communist ban on organized religion, the Roman Catholic church is in a rebuilding phase in Central Europe. But the process, which centers on regaining property that once belonged to the church, is not an easy one.

By law, the Hungarian central and local governments must either return to various denominations some 7,000 buildings or provide cash as compensation. Budapest has so far settled claims on 3,000 properties. Of the remainder, worth roughly 200 billion forints ($1.35 billion), more than half will be repaid in cash.

In the Czech Republic, Catholic clergy say it will cost $1.5 billion just to restore churches, monasteries, and other buildings. The church also wants the return of 430,000 acres of forest to generate income from the sale of lumber. Many here are concerned that the restitution of properties, years after they were converted for other uses, will wreak havoc logistically and financially.

In particular, the expected burden to state coffers is spawning public resentment in both countries, especially in the Czech Republic, where there has been historical anticlericalism. Hungarian church leaders have compromised somewhat, agreeing to extend the restitution period from 10 to 20 years.

"It's like a tall man who always has to ask for pardon because he's too tall," says Bishop Laszlo Lukacs, spokesman for the Hungarian Bishops' Conference. "It is a fact that the Catholic Church was and is the biggest denomination in Hungary, that's why it had the most properties.... They were ours, and we have the right to have them back."

Until the end of World War II, the Catholic Church owned two-thirds of the property in Hungary, including 3,000 schools. More than half the country's schoolchildren attended religious schools.

But when Communists grabbed power in 1948, their first act was to confiscate and nationalize all land and buildings. Only eight church-run schools stayed open, reportedly as a show of tolerance to the outside world.

During the 1980s, as Hungarians sensed political reforms were imminent, there was strong support for the return of church property. But recent economic hardship has greatly reduced public enthusiasm for such a project.

The church has regained nearly 120 schools - attended by 3 percent of Hungarian schoolchildren - and a majority of Hungarians thinks that is enough, for now. "They're not antichurch, but realize that the reprivatization process is simply too expensive," says Peter Tibor Nagy, a sociologist with the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research.

But a stickier issue has surfaced. Hungary has become increasingly secularized this century.

Religious devotion is mainly the domain of the rural elderly. Only about 15 percent of the 10 million Hungarians identify themselves as ardent "followers" of any church. (Other prominent denominations in Hungary include various Protestant churches.) Simply put, a church-run education is not as appealing as it once was. Not surprisingly, the return of some schools to the Catholic church has sparked uproars in one-school towns.

Two years ago, a small village made headlines when teachers and parents complained that they were left without a choice when their town school turned parochial. Students were kept home in protest, and it became a political issue during the 1994 national elections between the incumbent Christian conservative government and their socialist-liberal opponents.

The situation was resolved when teachers left their jobs, and students were bused to schools out of town.

Catholic officials acknowledge they misread support for church activities. Rather than aim for its precommunist-era numbers of religious-school students, they say they hope to reach nine to 10 percent of the population.

Even then, they recognize that times have changed. "One thing is very clear to us," Bishop Lukacs says. "The church will never again be part of the political power or a rich church."

"We are living in a pluralistic society ... and you cannot turn back the wheel of history," he says.

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