Yet another registration case: Metodiev & Ors v Bulgaria

Background

In February 2007 some of the applicants, Ahmadi Muslims, decided to set up a new religious association, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, to be based in Sandanski: the others joined them subsequently. The first applicant, Mr Metodiev, applied to the district court of Sofia to register the new association under the Religions Act and the court sought the opinion of the Department for Religious Affairs – and denied the application.

The district court based its decision on the Department’s report. The grounds for refusal were that the Ahmadis (who are aligned with Sunni Islam) were to be distinguished from Muslims, were known for their religious intolerance, refusal of modernity and polygamy, and were regarded as a sect by other Muslims. The court noted that the association’s constitution did not specify its beliefs but merely copied aims and activities referred to in the Law on Non-profit Legal Entities. It concluded that registering the association could provoke a schism within the Muslim community in Bulgaria.

Mr Metodiev appealed unsuccessfully on behalf of the association to the Sofia Court of Appeal, complaining about a breach of its right to freedom of religion. The Supreme Court of Cassation dismissed a further appeal, pointing out that the Religions Act required a precise statement of the beliefs and rites of religious associations and sought to distinguish clearly between the different religions and avoid confrontations between religious communities.

In Metodiev and Ors v Bulgaria [2017] ECHR 568  [French only], the applicants alleged that the courts’ refusal to register their association breached Articles 9 (thought, conscience and religion) and 14 (discrimination). They also claimed that they had not been given a fair hearing, contrary to Article 6.

The judgment

The Court found that the complaints were to be examined under Article 9 interpreted in the light of Article 11 (assembly and association).

As regards the lawfulness of the interference, the domestic courts had based their decisions on the relevant provisions of the Religions Act and that their interpretation of it was consistent with the previous case-law – and therefore “prescribed by law” [39]. The interference also pursued a legitimate aim: that of protecting public order and the rights and freedoms of others [40].

However, the Supreme Court of Cassation’s sole ground for upholding the lower courts was that the association’s constitution did not include a sufficiently precise and clear indication of the beliefs and rites of the Ahmadi faith and, therefore, that it did not meet the requirements of the relevant provisions of the Religions Act, which sought to distinguish between the different denominations and avoid confrontations between religious communities [41].

The name of the association clearly indicated that it belonged to the Ahmadiyya community. The domestic courts had not, at any time, observed that the name could be a source of confusion. The association’s constitution clearly showed that it belonged to the Ahmadi branch of Islam and set out the beliefs and fundamental values of its followers – but the domestic courts had taken the view that this description was insufficient [44].

The Religions Act did not contain any specific indication about the requisite degree of precision for that description or the specific information that should be given in the “statement of beliefs and rites” accompanying the registration request. Nor did there appear to be any other regulations or guidelines which would have been accessible to the applicants and could have guided them on the issue. Nor were they given the chance to rectifying the shortcoming in their application by providing further information to the relevant courts [44].

The approach adopted by the Court of Cassation required the religious association, as a prerequisite for registration, to show how it was different from denominations already registered and, in particular, from the mainstream Muslim faith. Strictly applied, that an approach would lead, in practice, to the refusal of registration of any new religious association with the same doctrine as an existing religion – which could mean that only one religious association was allowed for each religious movement and all followers would have to adhere to it [45]:

“Such an approach seems difficult to reconcile with the freedom of religion guaranteed by Article 9 of the Convention, interpreted in the light of the freedom of association guaranteed by Article 11” [46].

Further, the assessment of the nature of beliefs was a matter for the courts and not for the religious communities themselves – but the ECtHR pointed out that the right to freedom of religion excluded, in principle, any assessment by states parties of the legitimacy of religious beliefs or the forms of expression of those beliefs. In a democratic society, the state did not need to take measures to guarantee that religious communities were placed or remained under a single administration – and where a community was divided, the state had a duty to remain neutral. It was not for the authorities to privilege one denomination over another or to remove the cause of tension by eliminating pluralism, but to ensure that opposing groups tolerated each other [46].

The Court held unanimously that refusal of registration had not, therefore, been “necessary in a democratic society” [47] and that there had been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention interpreted in the light of Article 11. It was unnecessary further to examine the complaint in the light of Article 14.

Comment

The clue, perhaps, was in the name…

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Yet another registration case: Metodiev & Ors v Bulgaria" in Law & Religion UK, 15 June 2017, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/06/15/yet-another-registration-case-metodiev-ors-v-bulgaria/

Leave a Reply