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Bulgarian pastors challenge government’s disinformation campaign against Christians

  • Bulgarian government labeled non-Eastern Orthodox Christians as sects and warned children off against them in school lessons

  • ADF International files response to Bulgarian government at Europe’s top court

STRASBOURG/ BURGAS (9 December 2021) – Two Bulgarian pastors are standing up against a scaremongering campaign by their local government to label all non-Eastern Orthodox Christians as sects and warn children off against them. In 2008 the City Council of Burgas, together with the police, sent a letter to all school administrators in the city. In the letter they made slanderous accusations against evangelical Christians and instructed faculty to “inform” children of the danger they pose and provide written feedback. The government has never rescinded the letter or apologised. This year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decided to hear the case. Today, ADF International filed a brief at the ECHR, responding to the Bulgarian government’s arguments in defence of its actions.

“When it comes to religious freedom, the government’s job is to respect it. Yet in Bulgaria you have the very opposite. The government decided that the theology and beliefs of non-orthodox Christians are illegitimate and then proceeded to warn an entire city off against them. The government has never retracted the letter, and national courts refused to step in, so there is nothing to stop something like this from happening again. That is why we are taking the case of Pastor Tonchev and Pastor Kiryakov to the European Court of Human Rights, not just for faith leaders like them in Burgas, but for religious minorities in Bulgaria and beyond. Everyone has the right to live in accordance with what they believe and should be able to share their faith with their friends and neighbours without facing government hostility,” said Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International and co-counsel at the European Court of Human Rights.

Slanderous accusations

In 2008 the City Council of Burgas, together with the police, sent a letter to all school administrators in the city. In it they accused Protestants of “carrying out a massive campaign of agitation”, “tricking new members”, and “disuniting the Bulgarian nation”. They 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 have ever met someone from one of the named groups. The government also provided material to the press to generate coverage on what was referred to as its “War on the Sects”.

“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 very careful,” recalls Pastor Radoslav Kiryakov.

Seeking justice at Europe’s highest court

Pastor Tochev and Pastor Kiryakov went to court to challenge these accusations. Their case is now being heard by the European Court of Human Rights.

“Religious beliefs are part of the dignity of human beings and have to be respected. The actions of the government in this case were reckless and they 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 in 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 for our nation.”

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