Ilyin and Others v. Ukraine (European Court of Human Rights)

Information Note on the Court’s case-law
November 2022

Ilyin and Others v. Ukraine – 74852/14

Judgment 17.11.2022 [Section V]

Article 9
Article 9-1
Manifest religion or belief

Justified refusal to register a Unification Church religious community as a legal entity due to name being liable to mislead believers and the general public: no violation

Facts – The applicants, followers of the Unification Church (“the UC”), a religious community, in 2009 unsuccessfully applied to the Kyiv City State Administration (“the Administration”) to be registered as a legal entity under the name “Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity’ Religious Community in the Kyiv Obolonsky District”. Their appeals thereto were dismissed. A subsequent application under the new name “Religious Community “Unification Church” in the Kyiv Obolonsky District” was also refused, but the first instance proceedings in this respect are still pending.

Law – Article 9 read in the light of Article 11: The refusal to register the community had amounted to a “limitation” on the applicants’ right to manifest their religion. It had been based on sections 3-5, 7, 8, 12 and 15 of the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations Act (“the Act”) and provisions of the Family Code. In the circumstances of the case, those provisions had been foreseeable and had referred to substantive concerns with the community’s name and activities rather than an abstract non-compliance of its constitution with the law. In any event, the key issue in the case rather stemmed from the interpretation and application of the relevant provisions by the domestic authorities which in the present case were more appropriately examined in the context of whether the “limitation”, which was meant to protect public order and the rights of others, had been necessary in a democratic society. This had been the approach taken in Svyato-Mykhaylivska Parafiya v. Ukraine, in which section 15 – allowing refusal of the registration of a religious organisation if the constitution of the organisation or its activities contravened the law – had been assessed by the Court.

(a) Complaints alleging the community’s destructive influence and alleged failure to cooperate in investigating them – A religious community’s refusal to allow the authorities to take appropriate measures to investigate any credible complaints of abusive practices occurring at the community’s events, in this case seminars organised by the community, could in principle have been grounds for refusal of registration. However, compliance with the procedural requirements of Articles 9 and 11 required that a proposal to conduct such an investigation be accompanied by the appropriate safeguards, specifically that it be duly documented and appropriate records of relevant exchanges be held. This would, have enabled an effective review of the relevant decisions and actions of the registration authorities at the domestic level. In the present case, there was no indication of the existence of records as to when the relevant exchanges occurred or under what circumstances. Nor was there any indication in the domestic decisions of evidence rebutting the community’s submissions that checks had in fact been conducted by the police and Administration officials and that they had not revealed any illegality.

(b) The UC’s alleged efforts to establish influence within business circles, NGOs and political parties –the Department of Religious Studies and Analytical Work of the State Committee for Religious Affairs (“the Committee”) in a report it had prepared in 2007 regarding an earlier application by the applicants and which had also been relied on by the authorities in refusing the application at issue, had described such alleged efforts by in rather general terms. It had implied that a risk of a breach of rules prohibiting religious organisations from influencing the activities of political parties and public education institutions. The Administration appeared to have agreed with that assessment. While the Court had no reason to question that those allegations had merited the authorities’ attention, as with the investigations aimed at addressing citizens’ complaints, there had been a lack of specificity in the argumentation presented in support of these findings and the domestic courts had not subjected them to any real scrutiny.

(c) The UC’s practices related to marriage – In the absence of evidence of any actual coercion which might have been exercised on individuals to choose their spouses or to marry, a mere requirement of a blessing or religious ceremony could not be grounds for denial of registration.

(d) Community’s initial name and supposedly interfaith nature – As explained in the 2007 report, the UC’s teachings had been a mixture of features from eastern religions with elements of Christianity and had contrasted the UC with Christian denominations. This appeared to have been in some contradiction with the community’s original name, which could be interpreted as describing a Christian interfaith entity. Based on this as well as certain provisions in the community’s constitution, the domestic courts had found that the community had declared itself to be an interfaith association and pointed out that the registration of such interfaith entities as religious communities were not allowed under domestic law. Section 7 of the Act provided for a limited number of types of religious organisations which could be registered under the Act but did not exclude the possibility of establishing different types of organisations based on religion (including self-described interfaith entities), outside of the Act’s legal framework, for example in the form of public associations or Non-Governmental Organisations.

The applicants, however, had wished to establish a religious community on the basis of a clear religious association: the UC. Nonetheless, as had been pointed out by the domestic courts, given the way the aims of the community and its name had been initially formulated, they could have created the impression that it was an oecumenical Christian association. Once the community had changed its name and had adopted its more commonly used title of “UC” without references to unification of world Christianity, the objections of the authorities to its registration had no longer been based on the grounds of its supposedly interfaith nature. The mere fact of a State requiring a religious organisation which had been seeking registration to take on a name which was not liable to mislead believers and the general public and which enabled it to be distinguished from already existing organisations could in principle be seen as a justified limitation on its right to choose its name freely.

(e) Conclusion – Under domestic law any contravention of the law in a religious organisation’s proposed constitution, including its name, could be grounds for refusal of registration. Therefore, the concerns about the community’s initial name had been apparently sufficient to refuse registration and the authorities had been able to refuse registration even in the absence of other concerns over the community’s practices. Accordingly, despite its criticism of the other reasons to refuse registration set out above, the Court was unable to find that the refusal had been as a whole in breach of the Convention requirements.

Conclusion: no violation of Article 9 read in the light of Article 11 (unanimously).

(See also Svyato-Mykhaylivska Parafiya v. Ukraine, 77703/01, 14 June 2007, Legal Summary)

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