ECHR: Pastors, Evangelical associations win freedom of religion case against Bulgaria

A group of pastors and Evangelical Christian religious associations have won a case against Bulgaria in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after Bourgas municipality used what they called hostile and defamatory language in pamphlets about them circulated to schools.

The court ruled that there had been a violation of article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which says that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching practice and observance”.

The court action was lodged by three Evangelical ministers in Bourgas – though one later withdrew from the court action – and three Evangelical religious association – the Bulgarian Good News Christian Church, the First Evangelical Church and the Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Philadelphia.

They complained that in April 2008, Bourgas municipality had sent a circular to schools which described certain religious movements, including the Evangelical movement to which the applicant associations belonged, as “dangerous religious sects” which “contravene[d] Bulgarian legislation, citizens’ rights and public order” and whose meetings placed participants at risk of “mental disorders”.

The schools were asked to bring these documents to pupils’ attention and report back to the municipality on their reactions.

The applicants said that this infringed their freedom of religion, breached the principle of the separate of church and state, the state’s duty of neutrality and the principle of equal treatment of religions.

They alleged that the circulation of the letter had sparked a hostile media campaign.

They requested the Bulgarian courts to find that there had been illegal discrimination, to order the Bourgas municipal authority and the regional internal affairs directorate to take restorative action, and to impose a fine on those authorities and order them to pay compensation to the applicants for the alleged non-pecuniary damage. Their claims were dismissed by the Bulgarian courts.

The European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of article 9.

The court held that the Bulgarian state authorities had interfered disproportionately with the applicants’ right to freedom of religion, overstepping their margin of appreciation under Article 9 of the Convention.

The court held that Bulgaria was to pay 2500 euro each to the two pastors, and 3000 euro each to the Bulgarian Good News Christian Church and the First Evangelical Church.

Regarding costs and expenses, the court ruled that Bulgaria was to pay 4500 euro jointly to the two pastors, Bulgarian Good News Christian Church and the First Evangelical Church.

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