In Bulgaria, pastors are challenging the government's disinformation campaign against Christians
As Christmas approaches, the Burgas streets are filled with decorative lights, Christmas trees and festive music. It's a time when Christians celebrate and share the good news about the coming of their Saviour, yet in the past the authorities in Burgas have made this more difficult for some denominations than for others.
This year, the coastal city's government has been called to explain its discriminatory actions against non-Eastern Orthodox Christians before Europe's highest court.
The case goes back to 2008, when 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", of "tricking new members", and "disuniting the Bulgarian nation". The government also alleged that there was a danger of suffering "mental aberrations and disorders" when attending Protestant church services.
It even went as far as providing material to the press to generate coverage on what was referred to as its "War on the Sects". Newspapers consequently accused Protestants of being dangerous cults and sectarians, and warned people to be weary of them.
The letter is littered with lies, exaggerations, and disinformation, yet shockingly, school faculty were instructed to inform children about its contents in special sessions at school. Students in the class were even asked to report if they have ever met someone from one of the named groups. This type of government interference with the free exercise of religion certainly raised spectres of times gone by.
"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," says Radoslav Kiryakov, one of the Pastors who is seeking justice before the European Court of Human Rights.
But instead of allowing all religious denominations to flourish, the government fabricated accusations to sow fear amongst the youth.
Take the accusation of the "massive campaign of agitation" for example. It simply came from a free Easter showing of the movie "Jesus" that the authorities disliked. The government's actions were reckless, and they caused significant damage to the ability of Protestant Christians like Pastor Tonchev and Pastor Kiryakov, to exercise their religious freedoms. Students from Christian homes also suffered, because they were pointed out at school as someone who is dangerous to society.
The government has never apologized nor retracted the letter, meaning there is nothing to stop something like this from happening again. So even though justice has been delayed for many years, it is crucial to seek redress for wrongs as government must ultimately be accountable to the people and the fundamental rights we enjoy.
Pastor Zhivko Tonchev explained that he believes with the years, they are again gaining the trust of those in power. The relationship with those in local government has been somewhat restored. His congregation continues to want to contribute to the prospering of their city by teaching God's Word. They hope to grow in love for their neighbours, to be good husbands, wives, students, teachers, workers, citizens, and friends. But such letters can very easily pull down everything they try to build. That is why justice must be sought even after all these years.
"Religious beliefs are part of the dignity of human beings and have to be respected," said Viktor Kostov, an allied lawyer of ADF International, the human rights organisation supporting this case.
All Christians, no matter their denomination, should be free to exercise their religious freedom without government interference. Particularly in this season, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Evangelical Christians should all stand in unity to declare that the good news may be shared by all.
Pastor Tochev and Pastor Kiryakov went to court to challenge the government's disinformation campaign many years ago. Now, the time has come for this wrong to be made right. As the European Court of Human Rights hears this case, it will hopefully result in a victory for freedom which is something everyone who cares about democracy and an accountable government should be able to celebrate.
Sofia Hörder is Communications Officer at ADF International.