At its last meeting (Monday 19 October 2015), the Grand Chamber panel of five judges decided to refer the following case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights: Lupeni Greek Catholic Parish and Others v. Romania (application no. 76943/11), concerning the restitution of places of worship belonging to the Greek Catholic Church which were transferred to the Orthodox Church under the totalitarian regime, and more specifically the question of the application of a special law to determine the legal status of such property.
The applicants are the Lupeni Greek Catholic Parish, the Lugoj Greek Catholic Diocese and the Lupeni Greek Catholic Archpriesthood, all of which are situated in Romania. They belong to the Eastern-Rite Catholic (Greek Catholic or Uniate) Church.
After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, legislation was passed in Romania (Legislative Decree No. 126/1990 – hereafter “the special law”) specifying that the legal status of property which had belonged to the Greek Catholic Church would be determined by joint commissions made up of representatives of both denominations, who were to take account of the “wishes of the adherents of the communities in possession of these properties”. In the event of disagreement, the party with an interest entitling it to bring proceedings could do so under ordinary law.
Following the dissolution in 1948 of the Lupeni Greek Catholic Parish, the Lugoj Greek Catholic Diocese and the Lupeni Greek Catholic Archpriesthood, a church and an adjoining courtyard that had belonged to the Lupeni Greek Catholic Parish were transferred to the ownership of the Romanian Orthodox Church in 1967.
The applicant parish was legally re-established on 12 August 1996 and comes under the authority of the Lugoj Greek Catholic Diocese (the second applicant) and the Lupeni Greek Catholic Archpriesthood (the third applicant). In 2001 the applicants instituted judicial proceedings, seeking restitution of the church and adjoining courtyard.
In 2009 the County Court found in favour of the applicants, but their action was subsequently dismissed by the Court of Appeal in 2010. In a final judgment of 15 June 2011 the High Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s judgment, finding that it had correctly applied the special law and its criterion of respecting the wishes of the (mostly Orthodox) adherents of the community in possession of the property, while at the same time highlighting irregularities in the reasoning of the first-instance court, which had merely compared the title deeds and disregarded the special law.
Complaining of the refusal by the Romanian courts to adjudicate on what they consider to be their ownership rights over a religious building under ordinary law, the applicants complained in particular of the infringement of their right of access to a tribunal and of the principle of legal certainty as protected by Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair trial within a reasonable time). Under the same Article, they also complained of the length of the restitution procedure for the church in question. They further complained of the infringement of the right of respect for their property as protected by Article 1 (protection of property) of Protocol No. 1 and their freedom of religion (Article 9), as well as a violation of the prohibition of discrimination (Article 14).
In its Chamber judgment of 19 May 2015, the Court held, unanimously, that there had been no violation of Article 6 § 1 as regards the right of access to a court and the question of legal certainty, a violation of Article 6 § 1 concerning the length of proceedings and no violation of Article 14 in conjunction with Article 6 § 1.
On 19 October 2015 the Grand Chamber panel of five judges accepted the applicant’s request to refer the case to the Grand Chamber.
Press release ECHR 327 (2015) 20/10/2015