Turkey violated religious freedoms of Jehovah Witnesses: ECHR
STRASBOURGThe European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Turkey violated the right to freedom of religion of a group of Jehovah Witnesses in İzmir and Mersin through “direct interference” by refusing to grant them appropriate places of worship.
The Association for Solidarity with Jehovah Witnesses and others appealed against the ECHR against Turkey in June 2010 and complained that national authorities refused to grant a place of worship status to their houses of worship while also rejecting their requests to provide access to places of worship.
In the appeal, the association claimed Turkey violated the group’s right to freedom of religion (Article 9), right to a fair trial (Article 6) and freedom of assembly and association (Article 11). The group added that they did not benefit from the right to an effective remedy (Article 13) and were discriminated against over their membership to a minority religious community – a violation of prohibition of discrimination (Article 14).
The aforementioned difficulties arose from a Turkish Law No. 3194 on Urban Planning which prohibits the opening of places of worship on sites which were designated for other purposes in local development plans.
The same law also established a number of conditions to build places of worship. Accordingly, even a small place of worship must have a surface area of at least 2,550 square meters.
The private premises which were used by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the southern province of Mersin and the Aegean province of İzmir were closed down by authorities for being “unlawful.” Appeals by the believers for the allocation or use of alternative premises as places of worship were also turned down by courts.
In its decision, the ECHR ruled that “the impugned rejections by the authorities amounted to such a direct interference with their freedom of religion that it was neither proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued nor necessary in a democratic society.”
Noting that states are largely free to implement urban planning policies, the court nevertheless underlined that the needs of minority communities were not taken into consideration by state authorities.
“Domestic courts had taken no account of the specific needs of a small community of believers,” the ECHR said, adding that Turkey’s practices were in violation of Article 9 of the convention.
Violations of the remaining articles on which the Jehovah Witnesses complained should also be declared admissible, the court said, but found no need to examine their merits because they were already sufficiently covered.
Turkey was ordered to pay 1,000 euros to the applicants in non-pecuniary damages in addition to 4,000 euros to cover their costs and expenses.