Hungary by atlatszo.hu
Wealthy pro-Orbán pastor secretly took over ownership in opposition-leaning TV channel ATV
Despite the flourishing business empire developed by the legally accredited Pentecostal church in the past decades, the amount of funds which Faith Church receives from the 1% tax donations is well behind the average of other religious organizations’ in Hungary. A new book by László Bartus, a former community member who became the pastor’s main critic, describes how did founder-reverend Sándor Németh manage to multiple his personal shares in church-founded businesses. Atlatszo and conservative weekly Magyar Hang Magazin found that Németh indeed secretly took over majority ownership in opposition-leaning TV channel ATV, assisted by an offshore company registered in Liechtenstein.
The monetary administration of churches is an exceptionally blurry and intangible part of the Hungarian legal system. Although, if one takes time to observe the publicly available sum of the 1% tax donations offered, some deductions can be made, at least on the general financial standing of the community members. In 2019 the Federation of Jewish Communities had the most wealthy followers with an average of 7057 forints per donation, while the Reformed Church with 5093 forints and the Catholic Church with 5051 forints are also among the more fortunate institutions. Supporters of Faith Church are further down the list: the average of the offered 1 percents was 2848 forints. The standings were similar, or slightly poorer in 2018, with an average of 2545 forints.
Average amount of income tax 1 percents offered to churches in 2018-2019
The question is: if the flock is fiscally disadvantaged as it seems to be, how did reverend Sándor Németh become a multimillionaire?
Some speeches of the founder-reverend, as he preaches through the weekly broadcasted “Happy Sunday” sermons, are openly praising wealth and money: according to Németh, anyone who lacks financial prosperity in life has failed in some sense, because the Almighty shines upon those who are good Christians and true believers. It seems, that the “blessing of God” in the reverends’ understanding, equates with extraordinary wealth, which becomes quite awkward if we observe the general financial standing of his flock. Deducting from the 1% tax donations collected from 43 thousand supporters, an average of 105 000 forints (USD 330) is the monthly sum, which a common Faith Church believer can take home after paying in the compulsory taxes. This means that the monthly income of the average person at Faith Church is declared on the level of the national minimum wage.
If one takes the effort to visit a sermon in ‘Faith Park’, the newly built church complex of Faith Church, will certainly find some prosperity there: an 11 thousand square meter big arena, which resembles of the home of a second league basketball team, equipped with the latest sound and light technology, not mentioning the parking lot outside, filled with expensive cars. This infrastructure resonates well with the media empire of Faith Church, which has gradually expanded in the previous years: ATV, the third biggest commercial television channel in Hungary, was also a proud possession of Faith Church. The ambition to expand the TV’s influence further, resulted in the establishment of a second television channel under the name ATV Spirit, while the faith-based organisation is also the proud owner of a weekly magazine, a book publishing company and a radio station.
The church-ownership of ATV, however, is only past tense now: since last year’s March, it is the private property of the pious reverend, Sándor Németh.
The miraculous privatisation of church property became known from a recently published book of journalist László Bartus, a former community member turned into the pastor’s main critic. In the book titled “Fesz lesz” an entire chapter is dedicated to business gimmick of how did Németh secretly took over the ownership in the television. The process was difficult and hidden: „X & A Marketing and Holding Limited”, a Liechtenstein-based offshore company acquired a stake in 2009 in one of the Faith Church owned Hungarian businesses, that has ownership in ATV. The offshore business gradually increased its shares through ten years, until it managed to gain majority ownership. In 2019 the offshore company exited the company network and Németh took over its shares, making him the majority shareholder in companies which own ATV Zrt.
One could ask, why did the previous owner of ATV let a foreign offshore business to overtake the decisive majority in a network of companies worth billions of forints?
A possible explanation for the unusual generosity is the fact, that in every single company in the network of the business empire developed by Faith Church, there is a family member of reverend Németh in the leadership: the company administrating church property (Új Spirit Kft), is led by the reverend’s daughter, while the TV is managed by his son and another of his daughters. Besides the major influence over the television, Németh also has a majority ownership in the main building of ATV, which is a valuable estate considering it has had a 1.5 billion forint worth mortgage on it. Next to the TV building, the 4 storage tall church college, is also the pastor’s property.
It is remarkably smooth, how the reverend managed to privatise the television: observing the chart on the television’s shares, one could think that he does not even have a majority in ATV. Yet, as he managed to take the majority in both of the shareholder companies, the pastor became the de facto owner of the TV.
As the church wealth is now privatised, one relevant question is: Where did Sándor Németh have hundreds of millions, possibly billions from, to buy out his offshore partner? The reverend himself was trying to answer this in a lengthy Facebook video in May. He also had a surprisingly honest answer for the hazy business connections:
„We made it complex for a reason, to make it not easy to understand”
Pieces of information suggest that the publication of the 22 minutes long apology was necessary, to give peace of mind for a few suspicious believers. On the video, which was shared on the social media platform of the church, the pastor is visibly confused, jabbers and stutters while not finishing sentences properly. Nothing compared to his decent and coherent speeches, while he preaches. The reverend stated that the Church did not suffer any monetary harms, although, a “few hundred” millions of church funds were invested to support the development of ATV.
Due to the churches unique legal status, any information on the faith based organization’s financial policy is classified for the public. Correspondingly, the funds raised by the followers’ private donations and other monetary transactions are entirely untrackable and taxless. Due to this special legal status, Faith Church is not obliged to publicly submit its financial and tax-related annual reports.
As every legally accredited church, Faith Church was also granted with billions of forints of governmental support in the past ten years. As the granted funds are sustained from publicly collected tax, the privatisation of church money is a case of public affairs. It is also known that Sándor Németh carefully maintains his newly found friendship with prime minister Viktor Orbán, thus the current right-wing government is further appreciative with him: the television broadcast of ATV is filled with government purchased advertisements, despite the opposition-leaning image of the channel inherited from the past, when reverend Németh and his church supported left-liberal governments.
We submitted our questions to the Faith Church and reverend Sándor Németh, concerning the amount of money taken by the pastor as payment for his services in the past ten years. Questions were also raised, regarding the whereabouts of the legal source of his incomes, that the reverend used to purchase the various company shares from. The following written answer was received from 3 members of the Faith Church directory:
„In Faith Church the allowance of every reverend and priest – including reverend Sándor Németh – and those, who are fulfilling other religious services are covered by incomes which are gained through private donations and other religious activities, our community has never accepted, neither applied for public or government funds for this purpose, therefore information regarding these matters are not public.”
Moreover, we have been assured, that “there wasn’t any decrease in the whole of financial assets owned by Faith Church, oppositely, there has been a major increase in the past 10 years on every field of our assets, including the mainstream media”. This is true indeed, likewise the fact that the sum of the church wealth could have been bigger if Sándor Németh had not privatised a major part of it. The letter continues with:
„Your questionnaire is not just arrogant and provocative, but also strongly resembles a criminal investigation, therefore we can not see it as anything else, but an action of perturbation. (…) Interfering into someone’s private sphere and questioning church autonomy, echoes the era of communist anticlericalism, which our community has suffered enough from. We can only hope, that taking up the role of an alternative taxation office while putting yourself above our church, its leader and the law itself is only a sign of temporary confusion on your side.”
The founder-reverend, who does not have any publicly visible income besides his salary from his church, owns a newly built, luxurious multi-storage villa in an expensive neighborhood of the third district of Budapest. The pastor often encourages his flock to donate generously, with the following verse from the Bible: “He who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully”. He echoes the same quote while finishing his lengthy but awkward social media apology with the following statement: “I don’t want to focus on this anymore, I truly hope that every single one of us will happily ‘reap big’ in the end.”
It seems likely, that he has already managed.
Written by Csaba Lukács and Tamás Bodoky. You can read the more detailed Hungarian version of this article here.
Cover Photo: Alexandra (Kauzál) Németh interviews Sándor Németh in 2015. Photo source: Facebook of ‘Faith Radio’ (Hit Rádió.) Small Picture: The villa of the Németh family in Budapest. Drone Video: Dániel Németh. Infographic: Attila Bátorfy.