Freedom of religion and belief

  • The European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to hold religious or other beliefs.
  • People with a wide range of different faiths have brought cases to the European Court of Human Rights.
  • Judgments from the Strasbourg court have protected people’s right to practice their religion, and the right of organisations to operate without government interference.




Legal code changed after a woman was excluded from a courtroom for wearing a hijab

Hagar Lachiri was excluded from a Belgian court hearing because she refused to take off the headscarf she chooses to wear as a practising Muslim. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that this violated Hagar’s religious freedom. Belgium responded to the judgment by changing the law on which the violation was based.

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Justice and reforms after airmen were given criminal convictions for their religious activities

Three Greek air force officers were members of the Pentecostal Church. They were all convicted for promoting their religion and given suspended prison sentences of over a year. The European court ruled that convicting the men for these conversations with civilians had violated their right to religious freedom. The Greek government took steps to ensure that no such prosecutions happened again.

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Reforms made after mother lost custody of her children simply because of her religion

Ingrid Hoffmann was a Jehovah’s Witness. When she got divorced, a child psychologist advised that she should be given custody of her children, because of their close bond. However, an Austrian court ruled that the father should get custody, because of Ingrid’s religion. The European court ruled that this had been discriminatory – leading to changes to prevent the same thing happening again.

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Airline worker wins fight for religious freedom

Nadia Eweida worked for British Airways (BA). She wore a small cross around her neck, as a sign of her religious faith. BA suspended Nadia from work without pay because her cross violated its uniform policy. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that this was an unreasonable interference with Nadia’s right to freedom of religion - leading to a change in relevant standards in the UK.

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Protection for religious freedom after church banned from existence

The Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia is an Orthodox Christian Church. The Moldovan authorities refused to register it as a religious organisation, meaning that it could not own property and its members could not meet to practice their religion. The Strasbourg court ruled that the authorities’ refusal to recognise the church had been disproportionate. Substantial reforms were made to protect...

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Reforms made after unreasonable punishment given to conscientious objector

Iakovos Thlimmenos was a Jehovah’s Witness. He refused to do military service on religious grounds and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Upon his release, he was also prevented from working as an accountant. The European court ruled that this had been unreasonable and unjustified - amounting to discrimination based on religion. Laws were changed as a result.

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Reforms to prevent government interference with religious organisations

In 1995 the Bulgarian government removed the elected Chief Mufti of Bulgarian Muslims and appointed a different leader. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had been arbitrary government interference with a religious organisation, which breached the right to religious freedom. A new law was passed to end government control over the registration of religious groups.

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Justice for man convicted because of his religious beliefs

Vahan Bayatyan is a Jehovah’s Witness. Aged 18 he asked to do civilian rather than military service, due to his religious beliefs. He was convicted of draft evasion, and sentenced to over two years’ imprisonment. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had violated Mr Bayatyan’s right to religious freedom. Subsequent changes were made to the system of national service.

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Factsheets on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights:

 Article 9 – Freedom of thought, conscience and religion PDF (1,200 Mo)

 Conscientious objection PDF (250 Ko)

 Freedom of religion PDF (315 Ko)

 Religious symbols and clothing PDF (225 Ko)

 Freedom of religion: Measures adopted and reported by States (Execution of judgments) PDF (692 Ko)