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Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (Metropolitan Inokentiy) and Others v. Bulgaria, Nos. 412/03, 35677/04, ECtHR (Fifth Section), 22 January 2009

Type Judgment
Case number 412/03, 35677/04


Unjustified State interference in the internal leadership dispute of a divided religious community. Recognition of a Church by means of an act forcing the religious community under one of the two rival leaderships and suppressing the other.

Normative references

Art. 9 ECHR


1. Participation in the organisational life of the community is a manifestation of one’s religion, protected by Article 9 of the Convention. Pursuant to this provision, interpreted in the light of Article 11 ECHR, the right of believers to freedom of religion encompasses the expectation that the community will be allowed to function free from arbitrary State intervention in its organisation.

2. The autonomous existence of religious communities is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and is thus an issue at the very heart of the protection which Article 9 of the Convention affords. Were the organisational life of the community not protected by Article 9 ECHR, all other aspects of the individual’s freedom of religion would become vulnerable.

3. In democratic societies it is not for the State to take measures to ensure that religious communities remain or are brought under a unified leadership. State measures favouring a particular leader of a divided religious community or seeking to compel the community, or part of it, to place itself under a single leadership against its will would constitute an infringement of the freedom of religion.

4. Pluralism, which is the basic fabric of democracy, is incompatible with State action forcing a religious community to unite under a single leadership. The role of the authorities in a situation of conflict between or within religious groups is not to remove the cause of tension by eliminating pluralism, but to ensure that the competing groups tolerate each other.

5. Neither the unity of a Church, even though it is a matter of the utmost importance for its adherents and for society in general, nor the purported aim of securing respect for the precepts of religious canon could justify State actions imposing such unity by force and disregarding the position of numerous believers who support a rival religious leadership.

6. A State action having the effect of terminating the autonomous existence of one of the two opposing groups and providing the other group with exclusive representative power and control over the affairs of the whole religious community cannot be accepted as a proportionate and necessary measure in a democratic society, despite the wide margin of appreciation the national authorities enjoy in the area of their relations with religious communities.
(In the present case, the Court unanimously found that the State interference in an ongoing dispute between two groups claiming leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church entails a violation of freedom of religion under Article 9, read in the light of Article 11 ECHR).