THE extraordinary social and political changes sweeping Hungary over the past two years have had a direct effect in opening the country to religious freedom. The explosion of freedom and reform has spawned a religious revival among some faiths and has opened the way to likely establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican in the near future. Pope John Paul II plans to visit Hungary next year.
The old State Office for Church Affairs, which once kept a tight watch on religious practice, has been abolished and new legislation is in the works granting total freedom of conscience and religion and stipulating complete separation of church and state.
Before it voted itself out of existence this month, the reform-minded Communist Party had even declared that party members did not have to be atheist.
``The state does not want to interfere in the life of the church,'' says Deputy Prime Minister Barna Sarkadi-Nagy.
Hungary has long been the most liberal Soviet-bloc country in regard to freedom of faith. But today virtually all vestiges of state interference in religious practice have been or are being removed.
Roman Catholic orders, some banned since the early 1950s, may now form and operate freely.
Religious services are broadcast on state-run radio and leading denominations can run several television shows a year, pegged to major religious holidays like Christmas, Easter, and the Jewish New Year.
Bibles and religious literature may be imported freely. Not only are they also published in Hungary, they are also exported to other countries.
The Soviet Union, for example, says Mr. Sarkadi-Nagy, allows Hungary to send in Bibles. Romania, where up to 2 million ethnic Hungarians live, prohibits Bibles.
In addition, church organizations and clergy are highly active in charity and social-service operations, including care of East German and Romanian refugees.
``If we are speaking of democratizing of Hungarian society, the most important thing is human rights,'' Sarkadi-Nagy says. ``There cannot be human rights without religious freedom and the equality of religious denominations.'' Catholicism is the largest Hungarian religious denomination, with an estimated 50 to 60 percent of known believers belonging to that faith.
The Reformed Protestant Church (also known as Calvinist or Presbyterian) make up 20 percent. Lutherans make up 10 percent. In small towns and villages throughout the country, beautifully maintained churches of various Christian faiths stand side by side or just down the street.
There are also about 80,000 or more Jews, along with small denominations including Baptists, Pentecostalists, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas, and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Sarkadi-Nagy says in all, nearly 30 religious denominations were registered by the state. Under new legislation, he says, it was a ``basic right of any community to form a new church.''
Religious revival in the Jewish community is perhaps the most dramatic in Hungary. ``We have all opportunities to live our Jewish life in the best way,'' says Geza Seifert, general secretary of the Central Board of Hungarian Jews. ``It is a historic time.... In the last few months the whole system has changed here.''