Decision of the ECtHR of 15 June 2017 in the case of Metodiev and Others v. Bulgaria (application No. 58088/08).
In 2008, the applicants were assisted in preparing the application. Subsequently, the application was communicated in Bulgaria.
In the case, the applicants successfully complained about the refusal to register the religious association due to the lack of an accurate description of its beliefs and rituals in its charter. In the case there was a violation of the requirements of Article 9 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
In February 2007, 10 people, who were Ahmadi Muslims, including nine of the 31 applicants, decided to create a new religious association called the Muslim community of Ahmadiyya. The first applicant applied to the district court for registration of a new religious association in conjunction with the Religions Act. He attached the charter of the association with an outline of its goals and beliefs. However, the domestic courts rejected the application on the grounds that there was no specific statement of the beliefs and rites of the association.
ISSUES OF LAW
Article 9 of the Convention in the light of article 11 of the Convention. In connection with the evasion of the district court from its registration, the religious association could not acquire legal capacity and exercise the rights associated with its status, on its own behalf, such as the right to own or rent property, have bank accounts or initiate legal proceedings, rights that, less, were essential for the purpose of professing her religion. Thus, the refusal to register an association under the Religions Act constituted an interference with the rights guaranteed by Article 9 of the Convention, interpreted in the light of Article 11 of the Convention. The intervention was "prescribed by law" and pursued the legitimate aims of protecting public order and the rights and freedoms of others.
The only ground to which the Supreme Court of Cassation referred, rejecting the complaint, was the lack of a sufficiently precise and clear indication of the beliefs and rites of the Ahmadic faith in the association's charter. He concluded that the charter did not meet the requirements of the relevant provisions of the Religions Act, which sought to distinguish between confessions and avoid confrontation between religious communities.
The name of the religious association and its charter clearly indicated that it belongs to the community of Ahmadiyya, operating throughout the world, and its charter set out the beliefs and fundamental values of its followers. The Law on Religions does not establish specific provisions regarding the degree of accuracy of such a description or what kind of information should be indicated in the statement of beliefs and rites. At the same time, there were no other rules or guidelines available to applicants who could help them in this regard. Thus, the applicants could not ensure that their charter complied with the legislation with the accuracy required by the courts of Bulgaria. In addition, the applicants had no opportunity to correct the deficiencies by providing additional information to the competent courts.
The religious association as a condition of registration had to prove that its beliefs differed from already registered religions and, in particular, from the mainstream Muslim faith. Such an approach, with strict application, as in the present case, in practice, resulted in refusal to register any new religious association with the same doctrine as the existing confession. Given the impossibility of acquiring legal personality in accordance with the legislation of Bulgaria by the association carrying out religious activities, in other ways this approach of the supreme court could entail the existence of only one religious association for each religious movement and the imposition on all followers of the obligation to adhere to it. In addition, the assessment of the nature of beliefs was a matter for the courts, and not for the religious communities themselves.
Such an approach is difficult to reconcile with the freedom of religion provided for in article 9 of the Convention, interpreted in the light of article 11 of the Convention. The right to freedom of religion in principle excludes any assessment by the state of the legitimacy of religious beliefs or expressions of these beliefs, even if the goal is to preserve unity in the religious community. The alleged lack of precision in the beliefs of the religious association and rituals in its charter could not justify the denial of its registration, which, accordingly, was not necessary in a democratic society.
The violation of the requirements of Article 9 of the Convention (unanimously) was committed in the case.
In the application of Article 41 of the Convention. The Court awarded the first applicant EUR 4,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage, finding that the finding of a violation of the Convention was in itself sufficient compensation for any non-pecuniary damage sustained by other applicants.