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ECHR: Croatian Authorities Discriminated Against Reformist Churches

A complaint of religious discrimination by Reformist churches in Croatia has been upheld by judges at the European Court of Human Rights.

In today’s Chamber judgment in the case Savez Crkava Riječ Života and Others v. Croatia (application no. 7798/08), which is not final , the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:

A violation of Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) in conjunction with Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights

The case concerned the complaint of a number of Reformist churches that, unlike other religious communities in Croatia, they could not provide religious education in public schools and nurseries or obtain official recognition of their religious marriages as the domestic authorities refused to conclude an agreement with them regulating their legal status.

Principal facts

The applicants are Savez crkava “Riječ života” (Union of Churches “The Word of Life”), Crkva cjelovitog evanđelja (Church of the Full Gospel) and Protestantska reformirana kršćanska crkva u Republici Hrvatskoj (Protestant Reformed Christian Church in the Republic of Croatia). Based in Zagreb and Tenja, they are churches of a Reformist denomination and have been registered as religious communities under Croatian law since 2003.

In June 2004, they submitted a request to the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities in order to conclude an agreement with the Government which would regulate their relations with the State, stating that without it they were unable to provide religious education in public schools and nurseries, to perform religious marriages with the effects of a civil marriage, or to provide pastoral care to their members in medical and social-welfare institutions and in prisons.

In January 2005, the Commission informed the churches that they did not satisfy the criteria required from religious communities in order to conclude such an agreement, as set out in an instruction adopted by the Government in December 2004, in particular that that they had not been present in the territory of Croatia on 6 April 1941 and that the number of their adherents did not exceed 6,000. The Commission also pointed out that members of religious communities which had not concluded such an agreement with the Government had a right to receive pastoral care in medical and social-welfare institutions and prisons.

A second request by the churches was also rejected, and they lodged a request for the protection of a constitutionally-guaranteed right with the administrative court against the Commission’s decision. After the court had declared the action inadmissible, the churches lodged a constitutional complaint, alleging a violation of their constitutional right to equality of all religious communities before the law. The Constitutional Court dismissed the complaint. The churches also filed petition with the Constitutional Court, asking for a review of the constitutionality and legality of the instruction of December 2004. The petition was declared inadmissible in June 2007.

Decision of the Court

Article 14 in conjunction with Article 9

The Court first found that the applicant churches’ complaints concerning pastoral care in medical and social-welfare institutions and prisons were inadmissible. It noted that the relevant provisions of the Croatian Religious Communities Act guaranteed to all religious communities the right to provide pastoral care to their members in those institutions. According to the Government’s explanations, this right applied irrespective of whether the community in question had concluded an agreement with the Government regulating their legal status. The churches had not provided examples to prove that the right to provide pastoral care had been denied to them.

As regards the complaints concerning religious education in public schools and nurseries and the official recognition of religious marriages, the Court noted that it was not disputed between the parties that the applicant churches were treated differently from those religious communities which had concluded agreements with the Government. In another case concerning a religious community in a similar situation as the applicant churches , the Court had found that the imposition of criteria which a religious community had to satisfy in order to obtain a status entitling it to a number of privileges called for particular scrutiny, as the State had a duty to remain neutral in exercising its regulatory power in its relations with different religions and denominations.

The applicant churches, which already had a legal personality, were refused the agreement with the Government entitling it to provide the religious services at issue while other religious communities, whose number of adherents did not exceed 6,000 either and which thus did not fulfil the numerical criterion set out in the relevant instruction, were granted such agreements.

The Court did not see why the Government’s argument that those other religious communities satisfied the alternative criterion of being “historical religious communities of the European cultural circle” could not equally be applied to the applicant churches, being of a Reformist denomination. The Court concluded that the criteria were not applied on an equal basis to all religious communities, and that this difference in treatment did not have an objective and reasonable justification, in violation of Article 14 in conjunction with Article 9.

Other articles

The Court considered that in view of those findings it was not necessary to examine separately whether there had also been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 12. It further rejected the applicant churches’ complaints under Article 9 alone, under Article 6 § 1 and Article 13 as inadmissible.

Article 41

Under Article 41 (just satisfaction) of the Convention, the Court held that Croatia was to pay to each applicant church 9,000 euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary damage and EUR 4,570 in respect of costs and expenses.

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