EXCLUSIVE. European Court for Human Rights: Priests in Romania cannot form trade unions

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The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that priests in Romania and, by extension, in all of the other European states, cannot form trade unions.


This has been one of the most controversial rulings of the ECHR ever, 6 out of its 17 judges opposing the position of the majority and another one of them agreeing with it, but in a different formulation.


The judicial process in the ECHR began in 2009 and hearings before the Grand Chamber took place on 7 Nov 2012, after which deliberations and formulation of conclusions took over eight months.


Recognizing the importance of the cause, another four European countries – Poland, Greece (EU member states), Georgia and Moldova – joined the case making interventions along with the Archdiocese of Craiova and the Russian Patriarchate.  They were all in consensus with the Romanian Government, opposing the request of the priests to establish a trade union. Moreover, the opposition to unionizing rights of priests was also joined by the European Center for Law and Justice. In favor of unionization were Becket Fund and the Center for Law and Religion Studies, basing their position on the pro-unionization of priests ruled by courts in the United States.


Apart from the process itself, but in connection with it, the 32 priests – in their vast majority from the Archdiocese of Craiova – who established the “Pastorul cel Bun” („The Good Shepherd”) union on 4 April 2008, have faced great pressure from their superiors in the Orthodox Church. Pressure has begun in 2008, but the ECHR decided that Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection for Human Rights would not apply in this case as the pressure, that was otherwise well substantiated during trial, only came after the proceedings in the ECHR had started.


Due to the persisting pressure, some of the priests withdrew from the union whereas others dropped the legal case. The identity protection request of those who continued was accepted by the ECHR judges, who consequently denied the Government of Romania’s demand for the names of the priests involved in the case to be disclosed.


As the identity of the priests remained unknown, it is difficult to find out what their reasons to form a union in the first place have been. We can only speculate that, given the provisions of the trade union status and the disagreement of IPS Irineu, Archbishop of Craiova and Metropolitan of Oltenia, priests may have considered their rights oppressed by the Archbishopric.


On 22 May 2008, Craiova Tribunal ruled in favor of the establishment of the “Pastorul cel Bun” Union, against the Archbishopric of Craiova that claimed the absence of IPS Irineu’s blessing.


The Court of Appeal Craiova (as last instance) rejected the Tribunal’s decision on 11 July 2008.


In the initial trial, the prosecutor representing the State of Romania favored the request of the priests to form a union.


After 22 May, priests from all over the country began to associate in unions. In June 2008, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church announced that priests forming unions were breaching the law and the Orthodox Church canons.

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