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Hungary's Faith Communities Mark Week of World Religions - 2003-11-19

Temples, churches, synagogues and prayer halls in the Hungarian capital of Budapest are participating in what is being called the Week of World Religions, opening to visitors and sending their members out to explain their beliefs. The goal is to promote tolerance at a time that some believers are coming under renewed pressure.

Near one of Budapest's most stylish and busy shopping areas, Armenian Christians are trying to remind shoppers that there is more to life than materialism.

At a presentation in their downtown cultural center decorated with ornaments and pictures of old churches, visitors are treated to traditional Armenian church songs and, if they stay long enough, Armenian sweets.

The event is part of what organizers have dubbed the Week of World Religions.

Curious visitors are also being admitted to other churches and facilities of thriving Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Hare Krishna communities.

The week's chief organizer and president of the Religious Information and Education Center, Tamas Barabas, says the week promotes tolerance and aims to help people rediscover their identity after decades of religious repression under Communism.

"They couldn't take up so openly their connection to a religion," said Mr. Barabas. "That was seriously closed into their private life. And now is the time for the opportunity to practice publicly in a community and no one should hide his identity, his religious identity.

Mr. Barabas, who comes from a Protestant and Jewish background, says an increasing number of young people are investigating their religious heritage.

Armenian-Hungarian Szona Avanesian, 28, who recently started a career as a journalist for Hungarian television, says she is visiting the church of the Armenian community because it keeps her close to her ancestors. "This is important for us too," she explained, "because we are Armenian and our identity is with religion and this is very important. I always say I am Armenian, but I am growing up in Hungary."

Hungary's Jewish community is also expanding its activities, including the re-launch of an orthodox Jewish women's group, 50 years after its activities were suspended under communism.

But not everyone is pleased with Hungary's religious revival. As religion has flowered, so has hatred toward some religious groups.

Representatives of the Jewish community have expressed concern about anti-Semitism in Hungary, which was a close ally of Nazi Germany during World War II when 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed.

This month a court in Budapest overturned the conviction of a Protestant pastor and former member of parliament, Lorant Hegedus, who was earlier sentenced to an 18 months suspended prison term for urging Hungarians to expel Jews from society.

Other groups have also expressed concern about persecution. Hungary is mainly Catholic, and has a long-established Protestant movement. But other groups, including some smaller church movements, have been the targets of attacks by right wing groups.

The vice president of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Budapest, Alex Avanesian, says his congregation was attacked by an angry right wing mob.

Mr. Avanesian recalled how an angry mob interrupted the service at his church and severely beat up several elderly believers, shouting insults and threatening the priest.

The World Religions Week's chief organizer, Tamas Barabas, has urged political groups not to sabotage Hungary's newfound religious freedom. "I think it must be separated the private life and private culture and religious practices," he said. "It must be put outside the scope of politics."

Mr. Barabas adds that the incidents of anti-religious violence show that Hungary's post-Communist society still has some things to learn about tolerance. He says he hopes that events like the World Religions Week, and the fact that Hungary will join the European Union next year, will increase pressure for more respect for the rights of all citizens, particularly their right to worship as they see fit.