Local authorities accused the Christian leaders of “tricking new members and disuniting the Bulgarian nation”. The religious freedom of the pastors was violated with “pejorative and hostile language”, says the European Union Human Rights court.
In 2008, the City Council of Burgas, Bulgaria, warned all school administrators in the city that evangelicals were “carrying out a massive campaign of agitation, tricking new members, and disuniting the Bulgarian nation”.
They also said that attending Protestant church services could bring “mental aberrations and disorders”, and asked students to report if they had ever met someone from an evangelical group.
Pastors Zhivko Tonchev and Radoslav Kiryakov brought judicial proceedings against the municipal authority and the Interior Ministry before the Administrative Court, but the case was rejected and the government never retracted.
The next step they took, with the support of Christian human rights organisation ADF International, was to appeal to the European Court.
The ECHR stated that “the authorities had interfered disproportionately with the applicants’ right to freedom of religion, overstepping their margin of appreciation”, with “a pejorative and hostile language”.
Tonchev said after the ruling that they were “thrilled that the ECHR has recognised our fundamental right to religious freedom just in time for Christmas. Government officials had no right to malign our Christian faith, just because we are distinct from the majority religious practice in Bulgaria”.
“As pastors dedicated to the teachings of Jesus Christ, we rejoice that our rights, and the rights of all who believe, have been recognised”, added the pastor.
Robert Clarke, ADF International director of advocacy and co-counsel in the case, added that “the fundamental right to religious freedom belongs to every person. The ECHR has affirmed that the government of Bulgaria was wrong to target those Christians with an alarmist campaign designed to suppress the freedom to live out their beliefs (...) This sends a clear message that government efforts to stamp out religious freedom are unacceptable and fundamentally incompatible with democracy”.
Allied lawyer Viktor Kostov stressed that “with this ruling, justice has been served for all people of faith in Bulgaria”, after 14 years since Bulgarian authorities “sought to scare families from encountering Jesus Christ through these ministries by way of a scaremongering campaign targeting children”.