Unauthorised church buildings, title and planning permission: Pantelidou

In Pantelidou v Greece [2019] ECHR (no. 36267/19) [in French], a group belonging to the “true Orthodox Christians” (who follow of the Julian calendar for religious holidays) had appropriated a disused building in part of a public green space belonging to the Greek Navy and turned it into a place of worship to celebrate the Liturgy [4]. The area had been earmarked for construction of the Athens Mosque and work had already begun so, in November 2016, the police evacuated the area and subsequently refused entry to the “true Orthodox Christians”. The church was demolished in August 2018 [5]. Repeated requests to the police for access were refused [6-8] and legal action in Athens Administrative Court and the Council of State was unsuccessful [10 & 11].

The Council of State pointed out that the space that the applicants had been built for the Navy and that the part intended for the mosque had been acquired by the state through expropriation. Act No. 4014/2011 had authorised the construction of the mosque and other ancillary buildings in this section and Law 4414/2016 provided for the creation of children’s play areas and playgrounds in the same area and parking for the needs of the mosque [12]. Further, the case was not about the legal functioning of a place of worship because the church had been built on public land – arbitrarily by unknown persons – in facilities that had been built for the Navy and whose demolition was planned for the construction of the mosque [13 & 14].

Ms Pantelidou complained of violations of Articles 5, 6, 9 and 17 ECHR.

The Court reiterated that Article 9 of the Convention protects the right to create, open and manage places or buildings dedicated to religious worship [21]; and the decisions of the domestic authorities not to allow Ms Pantelidou access to her church had interfered with her Article 9 rights [22]. That said, however, the interference was “prescribed by law” [23] and could pursue a “legitimate aim”: the protection of public order and the rights and freedoms of others [24]. The Court could not, however, waive its power of review and was obliged to ensure that a proper balance had been struck between the conflicting interests [25].

As to whether the impugned interference was “necessary in a democratic society”, Article 9 did not guarantee a religious community a right to obtain a place of worship from the public authorities. The fact that the national authorities had tolerated the use for religious purposes of a state-owned building by persons without any legal title to it did not put them under any positive obligation [26]. The church had been erected arbitrarily on public land already been earmarked for the Athens Mosque and work had already begun when the building belonging to the Navy had been converted into a church – in disregard of the provisions which governed the urban statute of the neighbourhood [27]. The public interest in rational planning could not be defeated by the worship needs of a religious community that had arbitrarily encroached on the public domain to establish and operate a place of worship that did not conform to the urban plan [28].

The measures taken by the domestic authorities had therefore been proportionate to the aim pursued [29]; and the Court held, unanimously, that the application was inadmissible as being manifestly ill-founded. The judgment is final.

In short, you can’t merely take over someone else’s building, turn it into a church, then plead Article 9 when you’re turfed out.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Unauthorised church buildings, title and planning permission: Pantelidou" in Law & Religion UK, 10 October 2019, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2019/10/10/unauthorised-church-buildings-title-and-planning-permission-pantelidou/

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