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Challenging a governmental ruling that forces a church to meet outside

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Topic | Freedom of Religion, Church Autonomy

A Christian church is challenging the Russian authorities’ prohibition to use its own building. The congregation that was left to gather outside in a tent recently filed an application against Russia before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Throughout a 20-year-long legal battle, the municipality has sought to seize the Word of Life Church’s property in Kaluga near Moscow. ADF International has filed two applications on behalf of the church at the Court in Strasbourg. The Court’s decision could impact the lives of more than 800 million Europeans in 47 countries, including Russia.

Who:
Word of Life Church in Kaluga, Russia

Where:
European Court of Human Rights

Advocacy Team:
Lidia Rieder; Felix Böllmann

“Religious worship in community is a fundamental right and part of the very essence of a church’s existence and mission. The current prohibition on the use of the church building violates the right to freely practice one’s faith. We hope the European Court of Human Rights will hear this case and uphold religious freedom and church autonomy in Russia.”

- Lidia Rieder, Legal Officer for ADF International Tweet quote

Case Summary

ADF International filed a first application on behalf of the church in October 2020 based on the authorities’ refusal to recognize the church’s ownership of the remodeled building. In April, a second application challenged the absolute ban on the use of the building, which a Russian court imposed in March 2020, and which was recently upheld by the Russian Supreme Court. Both cases join several similar cases before the European Court of Human Rights in which Russia employs bureaucratic technicalities as a pretext to stifle religious minorities.

The evangelical Word of Life Church bought the property in 2000, looking to convert it into a meeting place for their religious community. Despite fulfilling the legal requirements, Russian authorities allege that modifications to the building were conducted without a permit. They refused to recognize the church’s ownership of the property and prohibited any use of the building whatsoever in March 2020.

Currently, the congregation has resorted to meeting in a tent outside of the property. In both applications to the European Court of Human Rights, ADF International argues that the church’s rights to freedom of religion and assembly were violated as they are denied the ability to meet and worship together on their property.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom in Russia

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom designated Russia as a ‘country of particular concern’ in its 2020 annual report. According to the document, police conduct raids on private homes and places of worship. Religious minority groups report that local authorities have used anti-extremism laws to add religious texts to the government’s list of banned books. Officials also prevent religious minority organizations from obtaining land and deny them construction permits for houses of worship.

“Everyone has the fundamental right to choose their religion and practice it alone and with others, in public and in private. By ratifying the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia has agreed to be held to account on its human rights commitments. Respecting the religious freedom of its citizens is not just a right protected by the Convention, but a litmus test for democracy. We are hopeful that the Court will agree to hear the cases of the church in Kaluga,” said Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International.

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