Bulgarian pastors to European court over smear campaign


Eastern Europe


Minister Tonchev (r.) and minister Kiryakov. Photo AFD International

Two ministers from the Bulgarian town of Burgas have gone to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) over a scaremongering campaign by the local authorities to label all non-Eastern Orthodox Christians as dangerous sects. The court in Strasbourg, France, has decided to hear the case.

In 2008 the City Council of Burgas and the police sent a letter to all school administrators in the city on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. In the letter, they accused Protestants of "carrying out a massive campaign of agitation", "tricking new members", and "disuniting the Bulgarian nation", Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International writes in a press release. ADF International is an American Christian advocacy group that has filed a response to the Bulgarian government at the ECHR.

In the letter, the authorities also alleged that there was a danger of suffering "mental aberrations and disorders" when attending Protestant church services. The students in the class were asked to report if they had ever met someone from one of the named groups. The government also provided material to the press in order to generate attention for what it described as a "war against the sects".


For Pastor Zhivko Tonchev and Pastor Radoslav Kiryakov the letter was a painful experience. "When we read the letter, we were shocked because, after the fall of communism, we thought that we would be able to share the Gospel freely. At the same time, the media also started to say that we are dangerous cults and sectarians, and that people should be cautious," Pastor Kiryakov.

The government has never rescinded the letter or apologised, and national courts refused to step in. That is why both pastors went to court to challenge these accusations.

"Religious beliefs are part of the dignity of human beings and have to be respected. The government's actions, in this case, were reckless and caused significant damage to the ability of the pastors that I represent, Tonchev and Kiryakov, to exercise their religious rights. They also caused damage to all other congregations and, in a larger context, to all believers in the city and the country," said Viktor Kostov, ADF International's allied lawyer, who is representing the Pastors before the ECHR.


Pastor Zhivko Tonchev stated: "With the years, I believe that we are again gaining trust. But with these letters, they very easily pull down everything we try to build. With the help of Viktor Kostov and ADF International, we believe that this case could be good for our society, for Christians, and our nation."

We are not just taking the case to the European Court for faith leaders like Tonchev and Kiryakov, but also "for religious minorities in Bulgaria and beyond", says Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International and co-counsel at the European Court of Human Rights. "Everyone has the right to live by what they believe and should be able to share their faith with their friends and neighbours without facing government hostility."



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