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Challenging a governmental disinformation campaign against Christians


Topic | Freedom of Religion

Two Bulgarian pastors stood up against a scaremongering attempt by the local government in Burgas to label all non-Eastern Orthodox Christians as sects and warn children off against them at school. In 2008 the City Council of Bourgas, 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 The government never rescinded the letter or apologised.

Pastor Tochev and Kiryakov’s case was heard by the European Court of Human Rights which condemned the government of Bulgaria for violating the right to religious freedom of Evangelical Christians in the country in December 2022. The Court held that the 2008 campaign by government officials to warn children and families away from Protestant churches constituted a violation of human rights.

In reference to the “pejorative and hostile expressions” used by authorities to discredit the church, the Court ruled that the government had “disproportionately infringed” on the religious freedom of the Pastors and their churches.

Pastor Zhivko Tonchev and Pastor Radoslav Kiryakov

European Court of Human Rights

Advocacy Team:
Robert Clarke, Viktor Kostov


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"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. That’s why we are supporting the case of Pastor Tonchev and Pastor Kiryakov at the European Court of Human Rights."

Case Summary

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 all 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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