Faith Church and the Secret Services
How the communist regime tried to silence the underground churches and why these covert actions have continued against Faith Church after the fall of communism? In-depth study about an unknown chapter of the struggle for freedom and religious liberty in Central-Europe.
Translation, original article published in Uj Exodus 2016/1
Intelligence services in Hungary were supervised by the Bureau of National Security during the 70s. Leading an alternative lifestyle or joining a spiritual community was deemed dangerous by the political leadership. At the same time, the administration was not nervous about traditional churches. On the contrary, it counted on their cooperation. According to an unnamed source, approximately 80 percent of the higher Roman Catholic clergy were involved in state security, that is to say 8 out of 10 bishops served as informants. The administration realized that the stiff structure of the Roman Catholic Church guarantees order and discipline on lower levels as well. The Calvinist Church was also involved, but to a far lesser extent.
Intelligence services recruited informants from the Jewish community as well, but the emphasis of their involvement was on Hungarian-Israeli relations, rather than religious life. The reason is that Moscow dreaded the possibility of Israel acquiring information of any nature, especially about the military. They rightfully did so, because some US spying operations were conducted via Israeli and Hungarian channels. After such a network was unveiled in the 60s, the Communist regime came to the conclusion that Israel, and its Hungarian relations should not be neglected. This discovery led to the increased surveillance of religious organizations.
Smaller, self-organized religious groups, where believers followed a charismatic spiritual leader were regarded as a greater menace than their traditional counterparts. They posed two major threats to the political elite: they continuously tried to increase in size, and they proclaimed spiritual truths that confronted the core of the mainstream political ideology - the claim that God does not exist. Meanwhile, the cohesion and unity of these groups was incredible, especially in times of danger and persecution.
The leaders of intelligence services were aware of the fact that these newly founded groups have historically endured persecution. The groups’ reaction to hostility and attacks proved effective, giving a hard time to the authorities. Their awareness of government surveillance manifested itself in producing the technical background for duplicating and distributing written and audio materials presenting their views and creeds. Thus they could successfully defy national security protocols.
The official preconception about these groups was that they serve not the Christian faith but international entities like NATO or the USA, both of them deemed dangerous to the state. But the real reason American Christian organizations supported these communities lay in their religious beliefs, not in their affiliation with the CIA. State security officers failed to grasp this concept simply as a result of their training.
One of these groups, that kept intelligence officers up at night, was Faith Church, which was created in the 70s and 80s. The founder himself was stigmatized for making an ultimately failed attempt to escape the Communist regime to the United States. Anyone who contemplated leaving the Communist Block immediately became an “enemy of the people.” Henceforth, from a national security point of view, Sándor Németh was unreliable and as such, became subject to monitoring from the second half of the 1970s. Reports from this era described him as someone who may well cross paths with the intelligence services in the future, because he was able to communicate well and convince people of his beliefs.
Sándor Németh and his family were invited to the US for several weeks by American Christians. Surprisingly, both he and his family received passports. As it turned out later, the reason for this unexpected decision by the authorities was that security officials hoped to get rid of him for good by letting him out of the country: they regarded his activity as a threat. Although Sándor Németh got a job offer from Christians in Florida, he declined it and decided to come home, remaining faithful to his calling. This resulted in a prolonged fight between his church and the state security services, something he surely did not expect.
Sándor Németh articulated his opinion about the Communist regime and traditional churches from the beginning. He attended a community at that time where some members automatically reported to the authorities. Security services would have preferred the idea of him going on to become a Catholic priest instead of leaving the Roman Catholic Church altogether. When they realised that not only was he not going to become a priest, but that a new religious organization had come into existence and was now blossoming, they decided to take steps towards a bolder intervention.
The secret service also saw danger in the fact that the church had turned to politics. Opposition groups sympathized with Christian communities, mainly because they looked nice in their portfolio. What is more, the members of the church were experts in reaching out to people, not to mention organizing and financing certain events. Faith Church already had ties with Israeli and American organizations, and this fact in itself was a good enough reason to keep them under surveillance and send in undercover agents.
Agent types in Faith Church
They employed two main methods. First, surveillance became perpetual, including but not limited to bugging the apartment of Németh and eavesdropping on church services. The other method was to plant certain people into the community in order to monitor and influence the leading pastor.
Two main types of agents were deployed in this pursuit. The first one was the “informant,” who gathered intel on different levels. Filing reports about meetings and services was a basic task. Joining the church deceitfully meant a higher level of involvement: they participated in church life without any significant influence whatsoever, and informed the authorities regularly. The second type, however, represented the highest form of intelligence: the “influencer.” These agents aimed to penetrate the church leadership and become opinion leaders. The state security created cover stories for them that could be further developed in the process. The reason for building up a fake background was to gain trust and be accepted into the community. These stories usually involved persecution, defamation or imprisonment in order to boost the believer’s feelings of solidarity and trust. After getting involved, they actively contributed to the community, for example by participating and speaking in a confrontational way at demonstrations to dismiss any doubts about their “fighting for the good cause”. When the undercover agents reached an adequate level, they were activated and started trying to manipulate the community and the leadership.
According to our unnamed source, all three levels of agents have been present in Faith Church since the 1980s. János Kádár, then leader of the Communist regime, pursued a policy of conservatism, resorting to an all-out fight against anyone who disagreed with the authorities. Media campaigns described the church as a destructive cult that poses a danger to society. They were accused of conducting orgies, forcefully undressing people, taking their money, alienating young people from their families, relying on American financial support, etc. The main purpose of this smear campaign was to raise fears about the congregation and by doing so to isolate it completely. The Department of Religious Groups of the State Security Agency received significant financial and educational support for this project, so they were able to build more agents into the congregation.
The efficiency of the embedded agent
The activity of first level agents did not provide adequate results, in fact they could not deliver any kind of usable information to the Security Services. As for second level agents, the church was very much united and did not allow for provocations and manipulations. Internal recruitments were not successful either, when the services tried to persuade members of the community to become agents. After these attempts the third level of infiltration started - in the 80s, as part of a new operative action, a person was trained to be fully integrated into the community. During his thorough preparation for the task he received Sándor Németh's personal profile, so he could study about him and the leadership of the church in detail. The agent was convinced that the activity of the church is improper, therefore he was led by personal motivation to achieve his goal.
As time passed, the agent became more and more frustrated. He waited in vain for the defining moment he can publicly expose Sándor Németh’s immorality, but he simply could not find any incriminating evidence against him. So he turned to a well-known intelligence method – he started spreading false information about the target person and the community to create an atmosphere of tension, otherwise he would fail in his assignment. His supervisors ordered him to dig deeper – to find something – and he received all forms of support from the Security Services.
According to our informant, the agent applied for the operation himself, because he was a “good comrade.” These types of agents often have to be recalled, because after a while they lose their balance. As they get to know the target person better, they cannot hate him any longer (as they are supposed to), because they have no real reason to. At the same time, their superiors expect them to continue writing incriminating documentation about the target person. In the process, they are afraid of getting caught and their superiors can also think that the church has lured them in and they became traitors. So he is torn between the two sides, which results in unbearable stress, every day.
The Great Rival
The agent began to develop his “legend” in the eighties within the congregation. By the beginning of the nineties, the requirements of the state security agencies changed. It was at this time when the political party SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats) appeared in connection with the church. This had a peculiar effect at both the political and the religious levels. According to the professional opinion of our source, the church was in less danger back in the 80s than in the early 90s.
The Roman Catholic Church viewed Faith Church as its rival from the beginning; as good strategists they created a risk analysis about groups that may pose a threat to them in the near future. Faith Church was included in this group, which was due to the success and growth of the community. The Roman Catholic Church had their eyes on Sándor Németh already in the 70s, until he formally left the organization. At this point, state security assured the Catholic Church that they will keep an eye on him. Sándor Németh and Faith Church appeared on the radar of the Catholic Church again towards the end of the eighties. In 1991-2 the Roman Catholic Church made strong attempts at dismantling the community, in an indirect manner, rather than a direct one. Alliances were established with political forces, who voiced strong rhetoric against Faith Church.
For certain political parties and organizations, Faith Church appeared to be dangerous. They were convinced that the community had such an influence in politics, that this influence could be decisive in a parliamentary election. (This fear is still alive in particular circles.)
For this reason, they wanted to know more about the community, including its financial background and size. They attempted obtaining this information, intending to influence the mechanism of the community as well as unmask whatever they could. The tactics and principles in the operations of the secret service did not change, only the ideology, which was no longer Communism, but rather the ideology of power-play. The intelligence operation intended to dismantle the community, by any means necessary. This was their primary goal. A mission of disruption began. Undercover agents started carrying out a whisper propaganda in the inner circles and the leadership of the church. This process began in the early 90s when undercover agents gained influential positions in Faith Church. They already had a history within the group, so they were trusted. Another main goal of the secret service was to separate Faith Church from SZDSZ.
According to our anonymous source, 3-4 individuals worked undercover at a high level, their leader being the individual who later wrote a discrediting book about the community. It was this group that initiated the split within the community, which occurred at the end of the nineties. Those events were not accidents – claims our source, who is well informed on the work of the secret service.
The decision of Sándor Németh to go even more public in these difficult times - aside from being a self-defense against slander - was a logical strategic decision. The purpose was to actively stand before the public, so the Hungarian society can get to know the community from the inside – what really happens during church services. The only way to do this was - and still is -, for the Church to have media assets, such as a newspaper and the possibility to regularly appear on television. When the live televised broadcasts of Faith Church services began to appear on channel ATV, as a “church reality-show,” this meant a huge quality leap for the community. It also destroyed the preconceptions that the secret service instilled in society. It is much more difficult to spread false information about communities, whose activities are completely transparent and public. The term used for this process within secret service circles is “coming out to the light.” When a community comes out to the light, its true nature is revealed, without the lies of services and agents behind it. This can become increasingly uncomfortable for the services, making it pointless to continue their former discrediting campaign.
The End of the Spy Game
The original purpose of the activities of the secret service was to unmask the church, intending to prove that certain Jewish circles are funding it. Furthermore, the plan was to make the church collapse along with SZDSZ. The relationship of the church with SZDSZ did indeed deteriorate, and the party was later dissolved. However, the community managed to create an independent and good relationship with other political parties. The services regarded this as a success, that they “managed to separate” the church from political parties and it can no longer be directly linked to any party. (It is another question, whether this separation was due to the work of the services, or to the conscious decision of the church to distance itself from particular political circles and views.)
The undercover group ultimately failed, since they could not produce meaningful results, they could not unmask anything. The church kept on growing and developing. Although the superiors of the agents gave new tasks to them, it became increasingly difficult for the agents to complete these. Our expert - who knows the difficulties undercover agents face in these circumstances - claims that in such situations, the risk of being detected increases, and usually occurs sooner or later; the agent no longer wants to play his part, he has had enough. This can create serious tension between the undercover agent and his superiors. According to our informant, this is what happened in the case of the agent built in to the higher ranks of Faith Church. This is why a decision was made to remove the agent. But first, he had to publish a book or obtain a voice recording that might potentially be harmful and revealing about the church and Sándor Németh. The published book is actually the final word of the undercover agent, the result and ending of an over-a-decade-long spy game.
Public opinion on Faith Church today
The secret service circles treat Faith Church in its place, considering it a very strong community. However, in these circles, hatred and negative attitudes towards the community did not decrease. It is important to consider the views of the Catholic Church also. How do they see and evaluate the existence of Faith Church over the past forty years - as Catholicism continues to have a strong influence in the circles of government, to this day. If all they look at is a Christian community of such strength and size which developed in the past decades, that in itself is a miracle in their eyes. At the same time they see Faith Church as a potentially powerful and influential factor, which poses a threat to them.
Politicians take the largest traditional church for granted. Over the last one thousand years, the church has always attempted to gain power and control, and politicians feel this has not changed. Intelligence agencies cannot account for the power of God working in a community. Policy strategists do not understand the concept of faith. For them, faith equals manipulation - people can be influenced and led through faith. This basic assumption is actually true in a way, since the transforming power of faith exists, however not how they think, but through the real conviction and belief of the individual. Intelligence agencies, however, cannot deal with this. From their perspective, God and faith are not conceivable.
The Church is under surveillance to this day, but not on the same level as it was in the past. The agent that was undercover in the higher layers of the church and wrote a book about it, can still continue his work, because he knows the secret, that he was sent there. The worst case scenario for the superior officer of the agent would be if he appeared in the church, and honestly told the whole story in public. This would prove the complete failure of the intelligence services and the superior officer. In order to avoid this, the agent is gradually “moved out of the system”, and is allowed to carry on his campaign of hatred. The authorities began to move the agent out in 1996-7, which was the reason why they made him write that particular book. Since then, they allow him to freely operate and slander.
We have covered how the secret services continuously investigated Faith Church and Sándor Németh since the early eighties, with great attention and significant wire-tapping capacity. They did not want a well-functioning community, that may effectively conspire against the state, that could potentially even overthrow or influence the systems of power. In the history of the church, in terms of attacks against it, the 90s brought the deepest and most difficult crisis, when undercover agents began their disruptive operations. The fact that the church could survive this era, according to our informant is due to the fact that intelligence techniques and logic fails without a solid foundation, without something factual to hang onto. Therefore, it was God’s true power and the living faith of believers that was victorious over the tools of the secret service. However, the game is not over yet…
Our expert says that in the near future Faith Church may well become the largest church in Hungary, as long as it continues on its straight path forward.