A petition has been started in order to protect the rights of Buddhist Gypsies, or Roma, in Hungary.
This year a nationalist government was elected in Hungary. The new government rewrote the constitution and passed a law that deregisters all but a few mainstream Christian and Jewish religious organisations. These steps were taken with the aim of curbing tax abuses, but the blunderbuss policy “de-registers” all faith groups that count fewer than 1,000 members, or that have been in existence for less than 20 years.
Groups that manage to get established — and stay established for 20 years — and accumulate over 1000 members, cannot get official recognition without a parliamentary vote with a two-thirds majority. This amounts to an impossibly high hurdle, meaning that essentially no new groups can get government recognition and enjoy the tax benefits that established traditions have.
This affects many organizations, since under the new law, only 14 of 358 registered churches and religious associations will be granted legal recognition according to Christian Century. Groups such as Methodists, Pentecostal churches, reformed Jewish churches, and all the Islamic, Buddhist, and Hinduist congregations, are being de-registered.
Prominent pro-democracy dissidents from the Soviet era have written a letter condemning the new law. “Never before has a Member State of the EU so blatantly dared to go against the principles of freedom of beliefs, equality before the law, and separation of church from state. These are all established fundamental rights in our common Europe,” they said.
Some established churches have welcomed the law. Zoltan Tarr, general secretary of the Hungarian Reformed Church, commented, “We wanted a new law to make it more difficult to establish churches here – and we’re happy the present government has now done something.”
Buddhism, as a religion that is relatively new to Europe, is badly affected by the new system; no Buddhist organizations will be allowed to have tax-exempt status. Among those affected are the marginalized Roma, or Gypsies, who have recently embraced Buddhism.
Historically, the Roma people originated in India, leaving, for unknown reasons, about 1000 years ago. One theory is that the name Roma is derived from the Sanskrit Ã¡Â¸ÂÃ…Âmba, meaning “a man of low caste living by singing and music.” If the Roma left India in order to escape caste discrimination, they fared little better in Europe, where they have often been a despised population. Recently, however, Hungarian Roma, inspired by the conversions of Indian Dalits (former so-called “Untouchables”) to Buddhism, have formed the Jai Bhim network, under the umbrella of the Triratna Buddhist Community.
The name Jai Bhim is an explicit reference to the leader of the conversion movement in India, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Sensing a deep affinity with the Dalits of India, Roma converts to Buddhism refer to themselves as “the Dalits of Europe. The Jai Bhim Network “educates, agitates and organises on the footsteps of Bodhisattva Dr. Ambedkar in schools and congregations in rural Roma communities.” The organization was formally established in 2007 in order to promote the social integration of Romas, and has received support from Buddhists in Europe, India, and Taiwan.
When the Jai Bhim Network’s registration lapses at the end of this year, they will lose government funding for the schools that they run, and will find it very difficult to continue to provide education to the 1,000 students who study with them.
Subhuti, an English-born Buddhist who is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, has a long-standing involvement with the Dalit Buddhists in India, and for six years has gone to Hungary twice a year in order to support Roma Buddhists.
According to Subhuti, the work that the Roma Buddhists he supports is beginning to flourish. “Besides the very effective education they offer to Gypsy students who have no other realistic opportunities for education, they are beginning to have a deeper impact on Hungarian Gypsy society. At the recent census, some 500 or more Gypsies declared themselves to be Buddhists.” He sees this as a very significant development, similar to the mass conversions that took place in India in 1956, when Ambedkar let tens of thousands of Dalits to Buddhism.
Those concerned about the situation of these marginalized Buddhists in Hungary can show their support by signing this online petition. A second online petition can be found here. (On the petition Név means Name and FoglalkozÃƒÂ¡s means Occupation.)