[JURIST] The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] ruled Thursday that Russia intefered with the freedom of religion [judgment text] by refusing to register two Scientology groups as "religious organizations." Russian authorities had rejected attempts by Scientologist branches in Surgut and Nizhnekamsk to register because they did not meet the Article 8 requirement of Russia's Religious Act [text] that religious organizations exist for 15 years before they are recognized. The ECHR found that Russian authorities had previously dissolved the groups when they were registered in an non-religious capacity and rejected a subsequent non-religious registration on the grounds that their activities were "religious in nature." Although noting that "[it] is clearly not the Court's task to decide in abstracto whether or not a body of beliefs and related practices may be considered a 'religion'" within the meaning of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights [text], the court concluded that Russia's prior acts showed that it considered Scientology to be "religious in nature," and therefore protected under the Convention. The court rejected Russia's argument that allowing the groups to proceed as "religious groups" without legal identity was an acceptable substitute for recognition:
[A] religious group without legal personality cannot possess or exercise the rights associated with legal-entity status, such as the rights to own or rent property, to maintain bank accounts, to hire employees, and to ensure judicial protection of the community, its members and its assets. The Court, however, has consistently maintained the view that these rights are essential for exercising the right to manifest one's religion.
The ECHR found that Russia's interference did not "serve a legitimate aim" and was not "necessary in a democratic society" because the applicants did not intend to engage in any illegal activities, or pursue "any aims other than worship, teaching, practice and observance of their beliefs."
Scientology, founded by American science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, has come under increasing scrutiny in Europe in recent years. Last year, German authorities dropped an investigation [JURIST report] into Scientology aimed at determining if it was "incompatible with the Constitution." In September 2008, a Scientology center in France faced criminal charges [JURIST report] in connection with allegations of fraud and the illegal practice of pharmacy. In September 2007, Belgian prosecutor Jean-Claude Van Espen said Scientology should be classified as a criminal organization [JURIST report] after completing a 10-year investigation into the church's activities.