Education is meant to teach and inspire, not scaremonger and indoctrinate. And yet back in 2008, the local authorities in Burgas, Bulgaria—alongside the police—began a smear campaign against all non-Eastern Orthodox Christians by writing a letter of warning about certain churches. The recipients of this scaremongering campaign? School children.
In Burgas, I listened to the story of a mother whose children came home from school one day describing what they had been ‘taught.’ It wasn’t biology, maths, or Bulgarian; it was mandatory instruction from the local authorities warning them about certain churches. These children—sat among their classmates—were told by their teachers that the churches their families attended were “sects,” that they were guilty of “disuniting the Bulgarian nation,” and that anyone attending such a service was in danger of “mental disorders.”
When Evangelical pastors Zhivko Tonchev and Radoslav Kiryakov challenged these slanderous accusations, the government refused to apologise or retract the letter, and legally defended it at every level, prevailing at the Bulgarian Supreme Administrative Court.
The authorities sought to justify their decision on the basis of a few rogue actors, but there was never any suggestion (or evidence) that the targeted churches were involved in anything untoward.
It was a privilege to serve as co-counsel alongside Bulgarian lawyer Viktor Kostov to file this case at the European Court of Human Rights, which was finally accepted in May 2021.
Last month, fourteen years after the distribution of the original letter, those families, churches, and pastors were vindicated. The European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled in their favour and awarded damages due to the violation of Article 9 which protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
In this case, the government had not only decided that someone’s theology and beliefs were illegitimate but had gone even further by warning an entire city against them. And while the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights can be celebrated, we must remain on the lookout for state hostility towards minority religious groups which aims at shutting down their right to live and speak freely. The year ahead will see at least three crucial tests of respect for fundamental freedoms around the world.
In the UK, Westminster is currently considering censorship zones around abortion facilities which would ban even silent prayer within the vicinity. This kind of overreaching measure may not just end free speech but potentially free thought in the UK.
In Nigeria, the Nigerian Supreme Court is due to hear the case of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, a musician currently on death row for sending allegedly blasphemous WhatsApp messages. We are supporting this appeal, which will challenge the constitutionality of the death-penalty in connection with blasphemy law. If successful, this legal victory would not just save the life of Mr. Sharif-Aminu, but potentially protect many others living under the threat of life changing—or life ending—blasphemy allegations.
Meanwhile, Mexican Congressman Gabriel Quadri has been convicted of ‘gender-based political violence’ for tweets expressing his concern that men self-identifying as women have taken spaces in Congress reserved for women. Expressing his concern online has resulted in Mr Quadri being forced to apologise, being listed in a public registry of ‘gender based political violence’ offenders, and may cost him his eligibility to run in future elections. We are bringing his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to defend and uphold this foundational right to speak freely, which lies at the heart of every democracy.
Sadly, these are far from isolated examples. Whilst the recent European Court of Human Right’s ruling offers a pivotal opportunity for post-Communist Bulgaria to recommit to fundamental freedoms, our team starts 2023 with a full plate. We know that failing to defend the right to speak freely would affect more than the men and women directly involved in these cases. Such a failure would also help to foster a culture in which people must self-censor, seeing the emergence of a society that is radically changed for the worse.