KESTON NEWS SERVICE, 11.00, 7 November 2000

BULGARIA: GOVERNMENT MEDDLED IN MUSLIM LEADERSHIP,
SAYS EUROPEAN COURT. The judgment - which rejected attempts by states
to intervene in the internal affairs of religious communities and to try to impose
a unified leadership on them - will have far-reaching implications for all states
that are party to the European Convention.

STRASBOURG'S BULGARIA RULING WILL HAVE `PARAMOUNT
IMPORTANCE'. `It found that State action favouring one leader of a divided
religious community or undertaken with the purpose of forcing the community
to come together under a single leadership against its own wishes would
constitute an interference with freedom of religion.� All members of the
Council of Europe are bound by decisions made in the European Court of
Human Rights, including Russia, Ukraine, Estonia and Moldova where there
are splits in the Orthodox church.

Tuesday 7 November 2000
BULGARIA: GOVERNMENT MEDDLED IN MUSLIM LEADERSHIP,
SAYS EUROPEAN COURT

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

In a judgment handed down on 26 October, the European Court of Human
Rights in Strasbourg found that the Bulgarian government violated the rights of
Bulgaria's Muslim community to choose their own leadership freely by
rejecting the validly-elected leader and accepting in his place a rival leader. In
its ruling on the case, known as Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria after two of the
four Muslims who brought the action back in January 1996, the court found
that the government violated Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and
religion) and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the 1950 European
Convention on Human Rights, to which Bulgaria is a party as a member of the
Council of Europe. However, the court cleared the government of accusations
it had violated the right to a fair trial (Article 6).

The judgment - which rejected attempts by states to intervene in the internal
affairs of religious communities and to try to impose a unified leadership on
them - will have far-reaching implications for all states that are party to the
European Convention (see separate KNS article).

The judgment has been barely reported by the Bulgarian press and the
government has failed to give any public response to it. A spokeswoman at the
prime minister's office referred Keston News Service to the Council of
Ministers. Mariana Vekilska, a chief expert at the Council of Ministers, told
Keston from Sofia on 7 November that neither the government nor the Justice
Ministry had issued any official statement on the case. Asked for her comment
she responded: `I am not authorised to give an answer.' No-one who was
authorised to comment was available. No-one was available for comment at the
Justice Ministry, nor at the government's department for religious affairs where
the director, Lubomir Mladenov, was on a visit to the United States.

`The government is not going to challenge the ruling, because it accepts the
decision of the Court,' Vekilska reported. `The Bulgarian government is going
to pay the damages within the three month term and accept further
requirements by the Court.'

The two applicants, Fikri Sali Hasan, who used to be Chief Mufti of Bulgaria's
Muslims, and Ismail Ahmed Chaush, an Islamic teacher, had argued that there
had been unlawful and arbitrary interference with their religious liberties and
the right of the believers and the religious community to govern their own
affairs and to choose their leadership.

The court awarded 10,000 Bulgarian levs for non-pecuniary damage to Hasan
as compensation for his removal from office and loss of the community's
headquarters, and a total of 10,000 levs to both applicants, for legal costs and
expenses.

On 19 September 1992 an Islamic national conference elected Hasan as Chief
Mufti along with a Supreme Holy Council, and adopted a new statute. The
government's Directorate of Religious Denominations registered the new
statute and leadership. However, Hasan's predecessor Nedim Gendzhev, and
his supporters, claimed that he remained Chief Mufti, giving rise to a
leadership dispute. Throughout 1993 and the first half of 1994 the Directorate
of Religious Denominations officially recognised Hasan and the Supreme Holy
Council elected in 1992.

However, in February 1995 the government registered a new leadership and
statute adopted by Gendzhev's rival faction. The court believes it gave no
explanation for this decision. On 27 February 1995 Hasan's staff were
forcefully evicted from their offices in Sofia by private security guards led by
the newly-registered leaders. His request for assistance to the prosecution
authorities was rejected, on the ground that the new occupants of the building
were the legitimate representatives of the Muslim community, and his appeal to
the Supreme Court against the February 1995 decisions was also dismissed.

In 1996 and 1997 the Supreme Court twice granted Hasan's appeals against the
refusal of the government to register changes in the statute and leadership of
the Muslim community led by him. The Council of Ministers refused to
comply, however, noting it had already registered the Muslim community's
leaders. The leadership dispute continued until a unification conference was
held in October 1997. (END)

Tuesday 7 November 2000
STRASBOURG'S BULGARIA RULING WILL HAVE `PARAMOUNT
IMPORTANCE'

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

The judgment against the Bulgarian government in the case brought by two
Muslims whose administration was denied recognition by the authorities (see
separate KNS article) will have wide implications for member countries of the
Council of Europe where the state has backed one or another faction of a
divided religious community. Many religious communities in the former
communist-ruled countries have split into competing factions, including not
only the Muslim community in Bulgaria but the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria,
Ukraine, Estonia and Moldova and the Jewish community in Russia.

In its judgment in the case of Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria, the European
Court of Human Rights stressed that `the autonomous existence of religious
communities was indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and was
thus an issue at the very heart of the protection afforded by Article 9 [of the
European Convention on Human Rights]'. It noted that the facts demonstrated
the `failure by the [Bulgarian] authorities to remain neutral in the exercise of
their powers in respect of administrative registration of religious communities',
thus violating Article 9. `It found that State action favouring one leader of a
divided religious community or undertaken with the purpose of forcing the
community to come together under a single leadership against its own wishes
would constitute an interference with freedom of religion. In democratic
societies the State did not need to take measures to ensure that religious
communities are brought under a unified leadership.'

Yonko Grozev, a lawyer at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee who represented
Hasan and Chaush throughout the Strasbourg proceedings, believed the
judgment was important in two respects. `First, it gave a positive answer to the
question whether registration of the leadership of a religious community falls
within the scope of freedom of religion,' he told Keston from Sofia on 6
November. `The Bulgarian government argued that administrative matters
related to the existence of a religious community are not "manifestation of
religion" and are therefore outside the scope of Article 9. It also argued that no
one prevented the two applicants from attending religious gatherings and
practising their religion alone or in community with others. What they were
denied was the administrative powers of managing the community, which is
not a matter of religious life. The Court rejected this claim, and although
underlying that under normal circumstances registration is not interference,
whenever there is a dispute, and governments take sides, registration will be
considered interference.

`Second, and to me the most important, the Court did not follow the
Commission in simply reviewing whether the authorities acted in a neutral
way. Instead, the Court took the standard approach of reviewing the legislation
that served as a basis for the challenged decision of the authorities,' Grozev
added. `The Court found that the legislation itself gives ample ground for abuse
of powers as it does not set specific standards and requirements, limiting the
discretion of authorities. This requirement for clear and foreseeable standards
on which the authorities should base their decisions related to a religious
community is extremely important as it will also be applied not only in cases of
registering leaderships, but also registering religious communities. This is a
very hot issue in many East European countries.' He believes laws governing
the official recognition of religious communities will have to provide clear
standards on which official decisions are to be based.

Professor John Warwick Montgomery, a London-based barrister specialising in
religious liberty cases before the European Court of Human Rights, argues that
the judgment is clear in rejecting state interference. `European State Parties to
the Convention must now realise that if a religious body claims autonomy, that
in itself decides the issue: in the absence of antisocial or illegal practices on the
part of the religion, the state cannot legally refuse to recognise its existence,' he
told Keston on 2 November.

`The just decided ECHR case, Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria, stands for the
proposition that the state must not interfere with a religion's own claim to
organisational existence by refusing to register it on the ground of non-
recognition. The case is of paramount importance in light of the practices of
more than one East European government vis-�-vis, for example, Orthodox
churches functioning under diverse patriarchates.'

Montgomery declared that one case in which he is involved through the
European Centre for Law and Justice - the challenge at the ECHR by the
Metropolitanate of Bessarabia against the Moldovan government's refusal to
grant it registration - `deals with precisely this issue: the refusal of the
Moldovan government to recognise what it regards as a "deviant" Orthodox
church body. We therefore have every confidence that the Court will not only
admit our case but also rule favourably upon it.' The case, the Metropolitanate
of Bessarabia v. Moldova, is now at the admissibility stage before the ECHR
(see KNS 7 February 2000). (END)


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