Refusal to register Unification Church congregation: Ilyin

In Ilyin and Others v Ukraine [2022] ECHR 1005, the authorities had refused to register a community of the Unification Church based in Kyiv.

Background

The “‘Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity’ Religious Community in the Kyiv Obolonsky District”, adherents of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, applied unsuccessfully to be registered [6]. The Committee for Religious Affairs decided that an in-depth study of the community’s “socio-religious activities and actual worship practice” should be undertaken before taking a decision on registration [7] and in 2007, the Administration said that it had received complaints about a destructive influence being exercised on participants in seminars organised by the community in the Kyiv region [9].

In June 2007, the community reapplied for registration [11], but in August 2007 the Department of Religious Affairs and Protection of Freedom of Conscience of the State Committee for Nationalities and Religion produced a report which was critical of the Unification Church (‘UC’) [12] and, following that report, the Administration refused to register the community [13]. The applicants were unsuccessful in a challenge to the decision in the domestic courts [14].

When the applicants reapplied in 2009, they were initially told that the legislation did not provide for the possibility of examining applications for registration of the same community twice, but that decision was set aside by the Circuit Court [15]; however, in 2010 the Administration again refused registration [16].

 The arguments

The applicants claimed that their rights had been violated by the continuing reluctance of government bodies to register their community, and by the vagueness and unpredictability of the relevant national legislation and law enforcement practice [49], contrary to Article 9 read in the light of Article 11. (They also alleged that the length of the proceedings had violated Article 6, but the Court declined to examine that issue [38].)

They alleged that neither the domestic courts nor the Government had provided a clear answer to the question of how the refusal to register would serve the alleged legitimate aims of protecting public order and safety and the rights of others. Nor had it been explained how the continued existence of the community in the form of an unregistered group did not pose a threat to the interests supposedly protected but, by contrast, the group’s registration would pose such a threat [50]. There was no evidence to support the allegations that the community’s constitution or its activities were contrary to national law, nor had any specific unlawful provision or article been identified in the community’s constitution [51]. The alleged breaches of the law had not been established via the appropriate procedures [52] and the domestic legal framework was deficient: in particular, there was no detailed list of grounds for denying registration of a religious community’s constitution [53].

The Government submitted that there had been no interference with the UC’s rights under Articles 9 or 11. The UC had a large number of members who were able to meet freely and perform their religious activities and rites, and they had not been hindered in any way been hindered in their exercise. It was also able to create legal entities in the form of foundations and associations, own its buildings, appoint religious leaders and hold meet religious meetings unhindered [54].

Article 9 could not be interpreted as imposing an obligation to register a religious community without any examination of its activities or its compliance with the relevant national legislation. The decisions of the authorities and courts had been aimed at the protection of the rights and freedoms of the UC’s followers and the reasons for their decisions had been repeatedly stated by the Administration and the national courts [55]. Further, even if there had been an interference with the UC’s Convention rights, it had not amounted to a violation of Articles 9 and 11.

The judgment

The domestic authorities’ refusal to grant the status of a legal entity to an association of believers was an interference with the right to freedom of religion under Article 9 of the Convention, and Article 9 had to be interpreted in the light of Article 11, which safeguards associative life against unjustified State interference [57 & 58]. However, the relevant provisions of the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations Act and the Family Code, when read in combination, had not lacked the requisite foreseeability [62] and, in any event, the key issue seemed to stem from the interpretation and application of the relevant provisions by the domestic authorities and whether or not the limitation was “necessary in a democratic society” [63].

The Court accepted that the “limitation” in question had been meant to protect public order [65]. As to whether it was “necessary in a democratic society”, a religious community’s refusal to allow the authorities to take appropriate measures to investigate any credible complaints of abusive practices occurring at its events could in principle be grounds for refusal of registration [66], assuming that the investigation was to be conducted with appropriate safeguards [67] – though in this case, the domestic courts had not given the applicant organisation’s complaints about the process any real scrutiny [68-70].

Once the community had changed its name and had adopted its more commonly used title of “Unification Church” without reference to the unification of world Christianity, however, the authorities’ objections to its registration had no longer been based on the grounds of its supposedly interfaith nature. That the domestic authorities required a religious organisation seeking registration to take a name that was not liable to mislead believers and the general public and which distinguished it from organisations already in existence could, in principle, be regarded as a justified limitation on that organisation’s right to choose its name freely [74-77]. In those circumstances, the Court was not convinced that the concerns expressed by the authorities about the community’s initial name had been in breach of Convention requirements [78]. The application was  therefore dismissed unanimously.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Refusal to register Unification Church congregation: Ilyin" in Law & Religion UK, 2 December 2022, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/12/02/refusal-to-register-unification-church-congregation-ilyin/

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