The applicants are Hüseyin Sami Gül and Levent Sarkut, preachers and leaders of the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses of the city of Mersin (Turkey), born in 1953 and 1952 respectively, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses Solidarity Association, established on 31 July 2007 to represent the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Turkey. The case concerns the inability of Jehovah’s Witnesses in İzmir and Mersin to meet in an appropriate place in order to worship.
For many years the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in İzmir and Mersin were allowed to worship on private premises. The administrative authorities in both cities subsequently decided to close down their prayer rooms on the basis of the Urban Planning Act (Law no. 3194) which prohibited the opening of places of worship on premises not designated for that purpose and imposed certain conditions on the building of places of worship.
In the present case an apartment in the district of Akdeniz where the Mersin congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been meeting since 1988 was searched on 17 December 2000 and was closed down on the ground that it was in breach of the law to hold gatherings there. The members of the congregation were also informed that they could not practise their religious ceremonies in another apartment in the district of Gazi, which was subsequently closed down by the governor’s office on 16 August 2003. Finally, on 19 August 2003 the municipal authority’s urban planning department informed the congregation that there was no provision in the local urban development plan for any premises that could be used as a place of worship. Mr Gül and Mr Sarkut applied to the Mersin Administrative Court to have that decision set aside, but their claims were dismissed in a final decision of 27 October 2008. They lodged an appeal on points of law which was dismissed on 6 February 2009.
The İzmir congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which had been carrying out its ceremonies on the ground floor of a building located in Karşıyaka, was informed that it would have to apply for planning permission to build a place of worship and request an amendment to the local urban development plan, following the entry into force of a Law which replaced the word “mosque” with the words “place of worship”. Consequently, on 23 February 2004 the congregation applied to the municipal authority for the allocation of a plot of land with a view to building a place of worship. On 3 March and 17 September 2004 it also requested an amendment to the local urban development plan to allow it to use the apartment in Karşıyaka as a place of worship. Its applications were refused. The congregation applied to have that decision set aside, but its application was dismissed by the İzmir Administrative Court in a final decision of 12 May 2010. The Supreme Administrative Court upheld the first-instance judgment on 9 November 2010.
Relying on Articles 9 (right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion), 6 (right to a fair hearing) and 11 (freedom of assembly and association), the applicants complain of the refusal of the domestic authorities to confer the status of places of worship on the premises in which they worship, and of the authorities’ rejection of their requests to be provided with a place of worship. Under Article 13 (right to an effective remedy), they allege that they did not have the benefit of an effective remedy. Lastly, relying on Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination), taken together with Articles 9 and 11 of the Convention, they allege that they were the victims of discrimination on the grounds of their membership of a minority religious community, namely the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Press release ECHR 158 (2016) 20/05/2016