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Protection for religious freedom after church banned from existence

Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia v. Republic of Moldova  | 2001

Protection for religious freedom after church banned from existence

The court refers to its settled case-law to the effect that, as enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the convention.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, December 2001

Background

The Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia (MCB) is an Orthodox Christian Church, which split from the Metropolitan Church of Moldova in 1992.  

The Moldovan authorities refused to recognise or register the MCB. The country’s Supreme Court of Justice backed this decision, on the grounds that only the Metropolitan Church of Moldova could decide upon recognition of the MCB.

The refusal to recognise the MCB meant that its priests could not give services and its members could not meet to practice their religion. The MCB was not protected, as it did not legally exist.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The Strasbourg court ruled that, whilst the government had shown some tolerance to the MCB, this could not substitute for full recognition. For example, on a number of occasions, members of the MCB had been subjected to intimidation. The authorities did not protect MCB members, because they had ruled that the MCB’s activities were unlawful.

In the circumstances, the refusal to recognise the MCB was disproportionate and violated the applicants’ right to freedom of religion.

Follow-up

In July 2002, the Law on Religious Denominations was changed. This allowed the Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia to be legally registered two weeks later. By 2006, the church had registered 86 parishes, 9 monasteries, 2 social missions with 73 sub-divisions, 2 seminaries and a school of ecclesiastical arts.

In May 2007 a new Law on Religious Denominations was passed, which included further protections for religious freedom. In October 2007 the government authority responsible for registering religious denominations was dissolved, and full responsibility for the issue was passed to the Ministry of Justice.

Further legal reforms to protect religious freedom followed in 2008 and 2009.