Thursday 22 January 2009

United by Force

States should be extremely careful to intervene in religious matters and if they do so at all, they should do it in a neutral way. That is the outcome in the case of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and other v. Bulgaria, in which the Court issued its judgment today. The Holy Synod is one of the two rivalling churches claiming to be the true Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The split occurred soon after the demise of communism in Bulgaria in 1989, when a large group of clergy and believers tried in vain to replace the patriarch who had been nominated in the early 1970s by the Communist party. Ever since, the entire country has been divided among the two alternative churches. In 2002 a new act of religious denominations de facto favored the original church. The 'alternative synod', as it was popularly known, was refused registration. In 2004 clergy of the alternative synod were evicted from over 50 church buildings and monasteries by the authorities as illegal occupants. The buildings were transferred to the rivalling church.

The European Court once again emphasized that the state should remain neutral in religious matters. It considered the actions of the Bulgarian authorities to be contrary to Article 9 ECHR (freedom of religion). Taking sides in a controversy in a religious community by such actions went againt the organizational autonomy of such a community. Although the Court accepted that the state had had good reasons to consider action, they should have done so by using truly neutral measures of dispute settlement. According to the Court, the 2002 Act had a false appearance of neutrality. Unity of a religious community cannot be imposed by the state. In this case the interference had been both unlawful and unnecessary.

For an overview of church-state relations in Bulgaria in the context of the ECHR, see the article of Jenia Peteva, 'Church and State in Bulgaria', in Ferrari a.o. (eds.), Law and religion in Post-Communist Europe (2003), accessible through google scholar.

The press release can be found here.