Former govt minister elected head of the Reformed Church in Hungary

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Zoltan Balog

A former member of Hungarian president Viktor Orbán’s government has been elected the president of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in Hungary (Magyarországi Református Egyház) (MRE).

The Rt. Rev. Zoltán Balog, Bishop of the Danubian district (Dunamelléki) was elected by a vote of 64 to 33 today over his rival the Rt. Rev. Károly Fekete of the Transtibiscan district (Tiszántúli) to lead the MRE, Hungary’s second largest Christian denomination after the Roman Catholic Church.  While bishops have served in government posts in the past, it is the first time in Hungarian history that a government minister has gone on to serve as a bishop.

Bishop Balog’s rapid rise through the church hierarchy, and the change of rules that eliminated the requirement that candidates for the episcopacy have ten years uninterrupted parish service, has prompted comments in the Hungarian opposition press that the election was influenced by politics.

The MRE is a church in the Reformed tradition that accepts the Heidelberg and Second Helvitic Confession. It was organized in 1567 in Debrecen during the period of Ottoman control over eastern Hungary. The Protestant Reformation was brought to Hungary from Switzerland and the church thrived in areas controlled by the Turks. However, in the Habpsburg territories in western Hungary the growth of the church was halted by the counter-Reformation.  Upon the formation of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1867 the reformed churches were granted civil recognition by the state and the current MRE was formed in 1881, and numbered approximately 20 percent of the nation’s Hungarians as members.

During the Communist era the church’s lands, schools and hospitals were confiscated by the state and its ministers became government employees. With the fall of Communism in 1991 the church regained its independence and under the current constitution is independent of state control or oversight.  The church presenty has 1,249 congregations in 27 Presbyteries led by a General Synod with four dioceses or districts led by a bishop. 

During the Communist era Bishop Balog worked as a lathe operator in a factory, and after the fall of the Communist regime studied theology and became a parish priest in Maglód. He became an advisor to the leaders of what became the Fidesz party in the early 1990s and was a confidant and religious advisor to the current prime minister Viktor Orbán beginning in 1998. Fidesz — Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz – Magyar Polgári Szövetség) is a conservative Christian-Democratic eurosceptic party that has held power since the 2010 general elections for parliament, and holds majorities in all 19 of Hungary’s county legislatures.

He left the ministry in 2012 to take up the post of Minister of Human Capacities responsible for education, health care and social services in the government of Prime Minister Orbán in 2012, but left the government to return to parish ministry in 2018. On 5 November 2020 he was elected Bishop of the Danubian district. 

A spokesman for the MRE told the Hungarian press the change to the church’s canons requiring ten years parish service before someone could be elected bishop was not changed to allow Bishop Baglog to stand for election. The church has also denied that his election was due to political pressure from the state.