ECHR condemns Bulgarian state for smear campaign against evangelicals


Seized by evangelical Protestant pastors and associations, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemned the Bulgarian state last December for having disproportionately undermined religious freedom. The authorities hampered the exercise of evangelical worship by denigrating it in the media and school recommendations.

The judgment of the European Court returned on December 13 comes 14 years after a smear campaign launched by Bulgarian authorities that claimed non-traditional Christians were endangering national unity, in particular because they did not venerate the country's saints.

In 2008, with the approach of Easter for the Orthodox, the municipality of Burgas in Bulgaria and the police wrote to the administrators of schools in the city asking teachers to warn children against various movements, including evangelicals. The circular was signed by the deputy mayor, the head of the local commission to combat antisocial behavior among minors, as well as by a police officer.

The letter stated that the municipality and the Ministry of the Interior had “drafted an information note on the renewed activity experienced, with the approach of the Easter holidays, by certain non-traditional Christian cults for [the] country. ". The signatories justified the circular by the growing number of complaints "from parents and children who are victims of faulty information on this subject, the absence of responsibility and control on the part of the school and the family".

The authorities therefore asked schools to explain to children “how to distinguish sects from the traditional Orthodox religion”.

Secular authorities accuse believers of sectarianism regarding the Orthodox faith

According to the letter, the Pentecostal, Mormon and Jehovah's Witness missionaries deceived the townspeople by first telling them that they were Orthodox, like them, before claiming that their Church was the "best" and the only "true one".

She said that these non-traditional Christians read the Bible in a different way, that their places of worship were stripped, that the faithful sang hymns to popular tunes or that they went into a trance and spoke incoherently. Shortly before Easter 2006, evangelicals allegedly broadcast a film about Christ and collected the personal data of people who came to see the screening to misuse it by going to their homes or calling them.

The municipality's press service had also alerted the media, leading to the publication of articles with titles such as "Cults attack on the eve of Easter" or "Sects lure children with ice cream". One of the most disturbing messages conveyed in these papers is that non-traditional practices can endanger mental health.

A week after the sending of this letter, the Minister of the Interior had declared his disapproval.

After Bulgarian justice rejected their complaint, pastors Zhivko Tonchev and Radoslav Kiryakov seized the European Court in December 2022, which confirmed its 2021 case law according to which "the use of disqualifying terms with regard to a religious community can be analyzed as an attack” on religious freedom protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In 2018, a bill provided that foreigners cannot conduct religious services without permission in Bulgaria. A text that had raised an outcry among religious leaders and had been amended to allow foreigners present in the country for a period of three to six months to preach. The document actually targeted Islamists but did not specifically name them.

Jean Sarpedon

Image credit: Shutterstock/Steve Allen

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