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Reform Jews land victory in lawsuit against Hungary

DRESDEN, Germany (JTA) — European Reform Jews landed what they said was an important victory in their legal fight for equal recognition and funding from the governments of Hungary and Poland.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, ruled earlier this month against the Hungarian government, the president of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, Leslie Bergman, said on Thursday, during his organization’s biennial conference in Dresden, Germany.

The EUPJ was among more than 10 religious organizations that sued the Hungarian government over its 2011 Churches Law, which stripped several denominations, including Hungary’s Szim Shalom and Bet Orim Reform communities, of government recognition and funding. The law recognized only those institutions in existence at least 100 years internationally and at least 20 years in Hungary, and that represented at least 0.1 percent of the population.

A panel of seven judges ruled on April 8 that Hungary had acted in a manner “inconsistent with the state’s duty of neutrality in religious matters” when it removed Szim Shalom, Bet Orim and several churches from its list of recognized institutions in 2012. The Churches Law, the court ruled, violates Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of assembly and association.

“This is important for Reform Judaism in Hungary, but it is extremely important European-wide,” Bergman told the approximately 300 delegates during his welcome speech at Dresden’s Kurlander Palais. The EUPJ, he said, is fighting to receive treatment equal to Orthodox-led communities in Poland.

“I believe the ruling will be referenced in the ongoing court case in Poland,” Bergman said.

The EUPJ’s affiliates have recognition issues in Spain, Italy and Austria, he told JTA.

In Hungary, recognized religious groups can benefit from restitution for real estate that communist governments confiscated. Additionally, Hungarian taxpayers may earmark 1 percent of their annual income tax for churches and charities recognized by the government.

Szim Shalom demanded $447,000 in compensation from the Hungarian government. The court urged the government to reach a compensation settlement with the claimants within six months. A separate lawsuit is being reviewed by Hungary’s constitutional court.

Held under the banner of “Faith in Action,” the EUPJ’s conference in Dresden featured workshops and lectures on engaging more Jews in Jewish life in general and in Reform Jewry in particular.

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