EGMR: Forthcoming judgment on Tuesday 19 February 2019 – Tothpal and Szabo v. Romania (nos. 28617/13 and 50919/13)

The applicants, Mr Bela Tothpal and Mr Csongor Szabo, are Romanian nationals who were born end 1966 and 1971 and live in Arad Gherla, respectively. The case concerns their conviction for unlawfully exercising the duties of a priest.

Mr Tothpal was the pastor of the Lutheran evangelical community of the town of Arad. Following disciplinary proceedings, the Lutheran Church dismissed him and appointed a new pastor. Mr Tothpal continued to conduct services in the presence of some of the members of the community.

On 3 March 2010 the Lutheran Church and the parish, represented by the new pastor, lodged a criminal complaint against Mr Tothpal for the unlawful exercise of the duties of a priest. The public prosecutor’s office gave a discontinuance decision, but nonetheless noted that priestly duties could only be performed with the agreement of the relevant religious organisations, and that in the instant case that agreement had been withdrawn from Mr Tothpal. It consequently gave him an administrative fine of 1,000 Romanian lei (RON – some € 235).

The complainants challenged that order, whereupon the Arad Court of First Instance imposed a criminal fine of 4,000 RON (some € 900) on Mr Tothpal. The court of appeal upheld that judgment on the grounds that Mr Tothpal had conducted specific Lutheran religious ceremonies despite the legal obstacle erected by his dismissal to his continued work as a minister in the Arad Lutheran parish.

In 1995 Mr Szabo was appointed as a priest in the village of Băiţa. In 2008, following a dispute, the Reformed Church terminated his contract of employment, dismissed him from the priesthood and banned him from conducting religious services. A new minister was appointed to the parish.

In February 2009 the Reformed Church lodged a criminal complaint against Mr Szabo for unlawful exercise of the duties of the priesthood. The public prosecutor’s office dismissed the complaint, noting that the Băiţa Reformed community had been split since 2008, and that some of the congregation had deliberately followed Mr Szabo and attended his religious meetings, which were unlike the usual Reformed Church service. The Reformed Church appealed.

The Gherla court of first instance convicted Mr Szabo of unlawfully exercising the duties of the priesthood. It found that he had acted in a manner incompatible with Christian teachings and had fomented controversy within the Băiţa Reformed community. The courtsentenced him to an immediate two-month custodial sentence on the grounds that only imprisonment could induce him to think about his conduct and mend his ways by fasting and praying for at least 40 days, after which he could be released on licence. Mr Szabo appealed, and the Cluj Court of Appeal ruled that having regard to the rifts in the Băiţa Reformed community, imprisoning Mr Szabo would be liable to exacerbate the conflict.

The applicants allege that their criminal conviction for the unlawful exercise of the duties of a minister of religion amounted to a violation of their right to freedom of religion as secured under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Press release ECHR 061 (2019) 14.02.2019

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