In Dimitrova v Bulgaria  ECHR 152 the applicant, Ms Dimitrova, was a member of Word of Life, an international Evangelical organisation based in Uppsala. Three non-profit organisations affiliated with Word of Life were registered by the Sofia City Court as non-profit organisations under the Persons and Family Act and one of them opened a Bible study centre in Sofia; but in April 1994 the Supreme Court reversed the Sofia City Court’s decision to register them and they were removed from the register. Nor had they been registered in accordance with the Religious Denominations Act: so Word of Life had no legal status in Bulgaria at the time of the events in question .
After a complaint by the Directorate of Religious Denominations raising concerns about Word of Life’s activities, the Sofia City Public Prosecutor’s Office concluded that the “sect” had a harmful influence on its followers and decided to restrict the right of members of the three organisations linked to Word of Life to assemble in order to promote their beliefs and to operate their Bible study centre. Relying on Article 185 of the 1974 Code of Criminal Procedure the prosecutor ordered the police to take measures to restrict the organisation’s access to places where it could hold meetings and preach about its beliefs  – following which, Word of Life members met in one another’s homes, including Ms Dimitrova’s.
In September 1995 Ms Dimitrova was summoned by the police and interviewed about her religious beliefs and the Word of Life meetings, her flat was searched and various items were seized. She sued successfully for damages and return of the items but, on appeal by the authorities, her claim for damages was dismissed and only the order for restitution was upheld.
Before the Fourth Section ECtHR she complained, inter alia, of violation of Article 9 (thought, conscience and religion) ECHR and that she had not been given access to an effective remedy contrary to Article 13 in conjunction with Article 9. Specifically :
- the way she had been treated had interfered with her right to worship collectively with like-minded adherents of the Evangelical faith in a home environment;
- denying registration to Word of Life had lacked any semblance of state neutrality and had been made on the basis of discriminatory value judgments rather than evidence;
- the authorities’ actions had been arbitrary and based on legal provisions that gave the Executive an unfettered discretion and had not, therefore been “prescribed by law”; and
- the measures taken against Word of Life were not “necessary in a democratic society” because there was no evidence for the allegations about the harmful effects of its teachings on its members.
The Court upheld her complaint. There had been a violation of Article 9 and of Article 13 taken together with Article 9: it was unnecessary further to examine her complaints under Articles 8 (private and family life) and 11 (assembly).
Disputes of this nature seem to be a fairly common occurrence in jurisdictions that have registration systems for religious groups. Says the recent OSCE Guidelines on the Legal Personality of Religious or Belief Communities:
“State permission may not be made a condition for the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief. The freedom of religion or belief, whether manifested alone or in community with others, in public or in private, cannot be made subject to prior registration or other similar procedures, since it belongs to human beings and communities as rights holders and does not depend on official authorization. This also means that … the legal prohibition and sanctioning of unregistered activities is incompatible with international standards” [10: emphasis added].
Further comment is superfluous…