European Court of Human Rights - Case of Sâmbata Bihor Greek Catholic Parish v. Romania (12 January 2010)

Press release issued by the Registrar

Chamber judgment

Sâmbata Bihor Greek Catholic Parish v. Romania  (application no. 48107/99)

HINDRANCE OF A UNIATE CHURCH’S ACCESS TO COURT IN A DISPUTE WITH THE ORTHODOX CHURCH FOUND TO BE DISCRIMINATORY

Unanimously:

Violation of Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing)
Violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) in conjunction with Article 6 § 1
of the European Convention on Human Rights


Principal facts

The applicant, the Sâmbata Bihor Greek Catholic Parish, is an Eastern-rite Catholic church (Greek Catholic or Uniate) of the Sâmbata parish (Romania).

In 1948, following the dissolution of the Uniate Church, the church building in which the Sâmbata Uniate priest officiated was transferred to the Orthodox Church. After the Uniate Church was granted recognition in 1990, a law (Legislative Decree no. 126/1990) provided that joint committees of Uniate and Orthodox representatives were to settle the status of any disputed property, such as the church building in Sâmbata.

An attempt to set up a joint committee in Sâmbata failed and the Orthodox representatives opposed the proposal for the two denominations to hold alternate religious services in the church in question. They asserted that that religious building had been their property for years and that the Greek Catholic Church would build a church if they needed one.

In 1996 the applicant parish applied to a court for an order requiring the Sâmbata Orthodox parish to allow it to hold services in the parish church. The court, observing that, according to the 1991 census, almost 28% of the population of Sâmbăta belonged to the Uniate Church, held that in the absence of a place of worship for Uniate adherents, the Orthodox parish’s refusal was unreasonable and ordered it to arrange alternate services in an equitable manner.

On an appeal by the Orthodox parish, the applicant parish’s application was declared inadmissible on the ground that, pursuant to Legislative Decree no. 126/1990, disputes concerning the ownership and use of religious buildings came within the exclusive jurisdiction of the joint committees and not of the courts.

The Uniate adherents had a new church built from their own resources.

Complaints, procedure and composition of the Court

Relying on Article 6 § 1, the applicant parish alleged in particular that its right of access to a court had been infringed as a result of the national courts’ refusal to determine its right to use a place of worship. Under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property) and Articles 9 (right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination), it also alleged a breach of its right to peaceful enjoyment of its possessions, its freedom of religion and the principle of prohibition of discrimination.

The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 11 June 1998.

Judgment was given by a Chamber of seven judges, composed as follows:

Josep Casadevall (Andorra), President,
Elisabet Fura (Sweden),
Corneliu Bîrsan (Romania),
Alvina Gyulumyan (Armenia),
Egbert Myjer (the Netherlands),
Luis López Guerra (Spain),
Ann Power (Ireland), judges,

and also Santiago Quesada, Section Registrar.


Decision of the Court

Article 6 § 1

The restriction of the applicant parish’s access to a court – in that it had to bring its case before a joint committee – had pursued the legitimate aim of preserving social harmony. However, the law had not laid down any rules on either the procedure for convening the joint committee or its decision-making process. Those legislative shortcomings had helped to create a drawn-out preliminary procedure capable of hindering the applicant parish’s right of access to a court.

Conferring the power to determine certain civil rights on a non-judicial body – in this instance, the joint committees adjudicating on property matters – did not in itself infringe the Convention if that body was subject to subsequent control by a judicial body with full jurisdiction.

Judicial control of the committee had been limited to ensuring that its decisions reflected the majority view. However, for the determination of civil rights by a “tribunal” to satisfy Article 6 § 1, the “tribunal” in question must have jurisdiction to examine all questions of fact and law.

Although recent legislative changes – making it possible to bring an ordinary legal action in the competent domestic courts in relation to places of worship – were to be welcomed, the applicant parish had not benefited from them as they had been made at a later stage. It had therefore not enjoyed effective access to a court, in breach of Article 6 § 1.

Having regard to that conclusion, and to the above-mentioned legislative changes, the Court did not carry out a separate examination of the applicant parish’s complaint under Article 13 concerning the lack of an effective remedy.

Article 14 in conjunction with Article 6 § 1

The difference in treatment affecting the applicant parish’s enjoyment of its right of access to court had been based on its adherence to the Greek Catholic Church.

Even assuming that the difference in treatment could have been justified by the socially sensitive nature of the issue of restitution of the former property of the Uniate Church, the courts had nevertheless been inconsistent in their approach, sometimes accepting and sometimes declining jurisdiction to deal with cases brought before them by that church.

Accordingly, the applicant parish had been treated differently from other parishes involved in similar disputes, without any objective and reasonable justification. There had therefore been a violation of Article 14 in conjunction with Article 6 § 1.

Article 9 and Article 1 of Protocol No.1

These complaints by the applicant parish were linked to the main issue raised under Article 6 § 1. There was therefore no need for a separate examination of the complaints under Article 9 and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, taken separately or in conjunction with Article 14.

Article 41

Under Article 41 of the Convention (just satisfaction), the Court awarded 15,000 euros (EUR) to cover all heads of damage and EUR 7,798 for costs and expenses.

***

(The judgment is available only in French.) This press release is a document produced by the Registry. It does not bind the Court. The judgments are available on its website (http://www.echr.coe.int).

Press contacts
Céline Menu-Lange (tel: + 33 (0)3 90 21 58 77) or
Stefano Piedimonte (tel: + 33 (0)3 90 21 42 04)
Kristina Pencheva-Malinowski (tel: + 33 (0)3 88 41 35 70)
Tracey Turner-Tretz (tel: + 33 (0)3 88 41 35 30)
Frédéric Dolt (tel: + 33 (0)3 90 21 53 39)
Nina Salomon (tel: + 33 (0)3 90 21 49 79)

The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe Member States in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.