The discriminatory system of recognition of religion raised at the OSCE

HRWF’s statement at the OSCE/ ODIHR Annual Conference on human rights in Warsaw on 29 September

HRWF (29.09.2022) – “On 5 April last, in the case Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Anderlecht and Others v. Belgium (application no. 20165/20) about a discriminatory taxation issue towards Jehovah’s Witnesses, the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:

a violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) read in conjunction with Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

It also held, unanimously, that Belgium was to pay the applicant association 5,000 euros (EUR) in respect of costs and expenses.

What are the facts?

The Court noted that neither the criteria for recognition nor the procedure leading to recognition of a faith by the federal authority were laid down in an instrument satisfying the requirements of accessibility and foreseeability, which were inherent in the notion of the rule of law governing all the provisions of the Convention.


It observed, firstly, that recognition of a faith was based on criteria that had been identified by the Belgian Minister of Justice only in reply to a parliamentary question dating back to last century. Moreover, as they were couched in particularly vague terms they could not, in the Court’s view, be said to provide a sufficient degree of legal certainty.


Secondly, the Court noted that the procedure for the recognition of faiths was likewise not laid down in any legislative or even regulatory instrument. This meant, in particular, that the examination of applications for recognition was not attended by any safeguards. No time-limits were laid down for the recognition procedure, and no decision had yet been taken on the applications for recognition lodged by the Belgian Buddhist Union and the Belgian Hindu Forum in 2006 and 2013 respectively.


Lastly, recognition was only possible on the initiative of the Minister of Justice and depended thereafter on the purely discretionary decision of the legislature.


A system of this kind entailed an inherent risk of arbitrariness, and religious communities could not reasonably be expected, in order to claim entitlement to the tax exemption in issue, to submit to a process that was not based on minimum guarantees of fairness and did not guarantee an objective assessment of their claims.

Human Rights Without Frontiers therefore urges the Belgian state to revise its discriminatory system of recognition of religions and belief communities and asks its delegation at the OSCE how far this process has been engaged.”


Photo: European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg

Further reading about FORB in Belgium on HRWF website