EGMR: The Religious Denomination of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bulgaria v. Bulgaria (no. 5301/11)

The case concerned a complaint by a Bulgarian organisation, The Religious Denomination of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bulgaria, that the authorities had prevented it from constructing a house of worship on land it owns.

In 2001 three members of the applicant organisation purchased a plot of land situated in the city of Varna. The land was designated for construction by way of a mayoral order. Against a background of challenges to the mayoral order by neighbours living nearby, the organisation obtained title to the plot of land in 2006 and started to construct a house of worship on the plot in 2007.

However, the local authorities subsequently carried out an inspection of the construction site and found breaches of the relevant regulatory requirements, which led to the organisation being fined and the mayor ordering construction to be suspended in July 2007. The organisation unsuccessfully challenged the suspension order before the administrative courts.

In 2009 the organisation asked the mayor of Varna to allow construction to continue, emphasizing that it had complied with all previous orders issued by the mayor. In the absence of a reply, three sets of judicial proceedings followed. In one set of proceedings the court found, in December 2010, that the mayor’s silence had been unlawful, returned the case to the mayor and instructed him to issue a decision on the applicant’s request. In September 2011 the mayor explicitly refused to allow resumption of the construction and the courts rejected the applicant’s subsequent challenge to that refusal.

In parallel, the courts ruled on a further challenge to the mayoral order of 2001 brought by the neighbours. The courts found that the order was unlawful, a decision upheld in 2010 following an appeal by the applicant organisation, which had joined the proceedings as an interested party.

In all these proceedings, the courts dismissed the organisation’s allegation of discrimination and an ulterior motive being behind the refusal to allow construction work.

Meanwhile, in 2007, a well-known Bulgarian nationalist political party held a large-scale protest against the building project and the municipality issued a declaration in support of the protests, which was then published in a local newspaper. In 2009, the mayor declared on a local Internet television channel that the people of Varna had the right to protest against the construction of the applicant organisation’s house of worship and that he personally was not inclined to issue an order allowing them to build.

The organisation also unsuccessfully brought proceedings for damages against the municipality in connection with the suspension of construction, which lasted between October 2009 and November 2011.

Relying in particular on Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and Article 11 (freedom of association) of the European Convention, the applicant organisation complained that the authorities had prevented it from constructing its house of worship and from using it to hold religious meetings. The applicant argued in particular that the mayor, who had publicly voiced his support for protests against Jehovah’s Witnesses, had given in to public pressure and demonstrated religious intolerance when suspending the construction project.

Article 9

Violation of Article 9 interpreted in the light of Article 11.

Just satisfaction

€ 3,000 (pecuniary damage), € 1,000 (non-pecuniary damage), and € 5,600 (costs and expenses).

Press release ECHR 323 (2020) 10.11.2020

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