Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Undefined index: et_template in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1347

ECHR-BULGARIA: Mestan v. Bulgaria: A recognition of linguistic rights?

Mestan v. Bulgaria: A genuine recognition of linguistic rights?


By Eva Meyermans Spelmans

Strasbourg Observers (08.09.2023) – In the case of Mestan v. Bulgaria, the European Court of Human Rights (‘the Court’) found that a law imposing Bulgarian as the official language to be used in election campaigns violated the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 10. In 2013, Mr Mestan was fined for speaking Turkish during a public event while campaigning for the parliamentary elections. The judgment shows that language is much more than just a medium of communication. Once again the Court establishes a minimum level of protection for linguistic minorities during election campaigns.

In the analysis of the case, the blogpost will first briefly touch upon the rich linguistic, religious and cultural history of Bulgaria, as this is crucial to understand Bulgaria’s linguistic policy. Secondly, the blogpost will provide a brief overview of the complex framework of linguistic minority rights. The importance of the recognition of linguistic rights for a democratic society and for individuals will then be discussed.

Overview of the Facts

In this case, Mr Mestan, a Bulgarian national of Turkish origin, was the leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms Party. In 2013, he was a candidate for the Bulgarian parliamentary elections for this party, which is typically supported by ethnic minorities in Bulgaria. At a public event during his electoral campaign, he spoke in his mother tongue, Turkish, without an interpretation into Bulgarian for seven minutes to a mainly Turkish-speaking public. However, the Bulgarian Electoral Code contained an absolute prohibition on the use of any language in election campaigns other than the official language (Bulgarian). The violation of this prohibition entailed administrative sanctions. Therefore, on the 17th of May in 2013, Mestan was issued an administrative fine of 2.000 Bulgarian levs (approximately EUR 1.000) as according to the regional governor the offence constituted a significant danger to public order considering Mestan was the president of the political party.

On the 20th of May 2013, Mestan appealed the decision before the District Court in Kotal. He argued that the Turkish language he had used to address the people during this event was not only his mother tongue, but also that of his Turkish-minority electorate. According to him, a large number of the public were elderly people who were not fluent in Bulgarian, meaning that they could not assimilate the information at the same level if given in the official language. The applicant argued that the prohibition on language use constituted a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and asked to have the administrative fine set aside. The District Court decided to reduce the amount of the fine to 500 Bulgarian levs (approximately EUR 250) as it was the first offence of the politician, but upheld the decision itself. Subsequently, the Administrative Court in Silven ratified this decision.

Summary of the Judgment

Language as a medium of expression as protected by Article 10 of the Convention includes the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas in any language. This allows all persons to engage in the public exchange of diverse cultural, political, and social information and ideas. The Court had to examine whether the restriction of the use of a language other than the official language during election campaigns, and the scope and application of the restriction were compatible with Article 10.

The Court decided that the administrative fine imposed on the applicant on the ground that he had spoken Turkish at a public event as part of his election campaign, amounted to an interference with the exercise of his right to freedom of expression. The infringement of Article 10 was prescribed by law by Articles 133 and 299 of the 2011 Bulgarian Electoral Code. The Court briefly stated that the measure could pursue the legitimate aims of preventing disorder and protecting the rights of others. The focus of the Court was therefore on the question whether the measure was ‘necessary in a democratic society’.

According to the Court, States are in principle entitled to regulate the use of languages – in certain forms or with regard to circumstances relating to public communications – by candidates or other persons during election campaigns. Restrictions or conditions on language use can only be imposed if they correspond to a ‘pressing social need’. In examining the existence of a ‘pressing social need’ as part of the ‘necessary in a democratic society’ test, the margin of appreciation enjoyed by States plays an important role. The linguistic policies of the Contracting States are influenced by a multitude of historical, linguistic, religious and cultural factors. This makes it nearly impossible to identify commonly shared elements which may guide the Court in imposing a uniform standard, particularly in the context of linguistic policies in an electoral context.

Accordingly, the Court allowed the State authorities a particularly wide margin of appreciation in certain contexts in this area. However, in a democratic society, there is an interdependent relationship between the right to freedom of expression and the right to free elections as guaranteed by Article 3 of Protocol No. 1. Free speech is an essential condition for ‘the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature’. In the run-up to elections States have a narrow margin of appreciation, as it is important in a democratic society that opinions and information of all kinds can circulate freely. The Court continued its examination by outlining that the Convention does not per se guarantee the right to use a particular language in communications with public authorities or the right to receive information in a language of choice.

In this case, the Court stated that an absolute prohibition on the use of languages other than Bulgarian coupled with administrative fines is not compatible with the essential values of a democratic society, including the freedom of expression as protected by Article 10 of the Convention. In its judgment, the Court took into consideration that Turkish was the applicant’s mother tongue, as well as the demographic of the target audience, consisting primarily of elderly people who understand Turkish better than Bulgarian. The right of an individual to impart his political views and ideas, and the right of others to receive this information would be meaningless if the possibility to convey the message in a language understood by the addressees is threatened by the possibility of sanctions, even if these only have an administrative nature.

In its analysis, the Court pointed out that of thirty-seven Contracting States surveyed, only Ukraine had a similar absolute prohibition for political candidates to express themselves in a non-official language at public election events. Repeatedly, the Bulgarian provision had been criticised by the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, by the Venice Commission and by the OSCE/ODIHR. In their recommendations and opinions, these international boards found that this provision deprives minorities from their opportunity to effectively participate in public affairs through elections. Only when people part of a minority group can express themselves in their  mother tongue during an electoral campaign, they have equal access to elections as enjoyed by other citizens. This analysis aligns with the values of a ‘democratic society’ as promoted by the Court. In the context of this case, the Court stresses the importance of pluralism, tolerance and the protection of minorities in a democratic society. According to the Court, ‘respect for minorities, far from weakening democracies, can only strengthen them’. These considerations led the Court to find that despite the margin of appreciation of the national authorities, the absolute prohibition does not correspond to a ‘pressing social need’. Therefore, the prohibition was not ‘necessary in a democratic society’ and thus not proportionate.

Comment on the judgment

The European continent is characterised by its linguistic diversity. To individuals, languages are part of their personal identities. To groups, languages can be part of a shared inheritance and culture. Bulgaria is a great example of a divided society, as it is characterised by its multiple religions, languages, cultures and nationalities.

The Ottomans ruled Bulgaria for over five centuries until its independence in 1878. The Turks remained in Bulgaria after border changes and still constitute the largest national minority (8,8%). In the 1980s, Bulgaria’s Communist Party attempted to nationalise its minorities by force. The new language policy at the time only allowed Bulgarian in public places and Turkish names were to be Slavicized. In recent decades, the status of national minority languages is gradually improving. Although Bulgaria did not ratify the European Charter on Minority or Regional Languages (‘ECRML’), it did ratify the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (‘FCNM’).

The importance of recognising minority rights cannot be underestimated, as according to UNESCO’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights it fosters peace, stability and security. In this regard, it is crucial that all citizens, including those part of a linguistic minority, are able to participate in the political life in order to prevent conflicts and enhance integration in society. This ambitious rhetoric can be found in different international frameworks, such as the ECRML and the FCNM, which aim to protect linguistic rights, but cannot hide their ambiguous, non-binding character. It is unclear what a ‘right to use a minority language’, ‘minority’ or ‘right to language’ exactly entail. Without a clear definition, ‘use of a language’ can pertain to the public domain (e.g. in education), while it can also refer to the private domain. The ECMRL has a limited scope, as it explicitly excludes the languages of migrants. This ambiguity allows European States such as Bulgaria to guard their sovereign rights in the form of linguistic nationalism under the guise of an official multilingual policy. It is feared that such States might actually undermine their political-geographical cohesion by officially recognising a degree of linguistic diversity.

Repeatedly, the Court has emphasised that ‘linguistic freedom as such is not amongst the rights and freedoms governed by the Convention’. However, linguistic rights are part of countless areas of life and thus can be linked to other human rights, such as the right to education, or the prohibition of discrimination. Consequently, in the case law of the Court, including the present case, applicants increasingly revert to other rights provided for in the Convention to ensure a language right. Despite the non-binding character of these international agreements, it is interesting to see that the Court considers the recommendations and opinions of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR.

The values listed by the Court of pluralism, tolerance and protection of minorities in a democratic society require a balanced, reasonable linguistic framework.

Otherwise, linguistic rights issues can lead to sentiments of alienation or marginalisation and potentially to instability or conflict. Linguistic rights may address the causes of alienation, marginalisation and exclusion, which in turn can avoid ethnic tensions and conflicts. Democracies can be strengthened when more people are able to participate in the political life of a country. Indeed, the argument can easily be made that more recognition is needed for linguistic minority groups in order to seriously alleviate tensions. As stated before, the recognition of minority languages in a state remains a sensitive topic for various political and national reasons. Consequently, the right to use one’s language, without discrimination, is still underrepresented as a key human right. In this light, the Court’s words may look empty as there is no genuine recognition of multilingualism on the European continent.

Similarly to the case of Şükran Aydin and others v. Turkey, the Court emphasises that the minority language was the speakers’ mother tongue and that some of the persons addressed did not understand the official language. The reasoning in both cases shows the importance given by the Court to the mother tongue as a language in which one can best express themselves, but also the language which allows some part of the minority audience to better understand the speaker. The legitimate interest to use one’s mother tongue cannot be restricted by referencing another language available for communication. This reasoning is accepted by sociological analysis and refutes the argument that there is little reason for minority groups to protect their languages since the speakers will ‘inevitably’ and ‘voluntarily’ shift from their mother tongue to the language that seems to fit better in the situation. Furthermore, it shows that languages should not only be seen in the context of groups and politics. It is important to also see language as an individual freedom, since one’s mother tongue means much more to a person than simply a medium of conveying and receiving information. This implies that when the different interests need to be balanced, a distinction should be made between the right to use a language for an individual and the State or the minority group’s political aspirations. Furthermore, as linguistic rights are an integral part of already existing human rights, linguistic rights should not be framed as rights of minorities that form a distinct category of rights.


In the present judgment, the Court acknowledges the impact which cultural and linguistic exclusion can have on the ability of an individual to participate and contribute to the political life of a country. The case demonstrates the importance of exchanging opinions and information during election periods in a language one understands, with a focus on the mother tongue of the applicant and the addressed group. However, there is no genuine recognition of multilingualism in Europe as in most European countries a balanced, reasonable linguistic framework is still lacking. Balancing state interests and individual interests is not an easy task, but the importance of a balanced framework in safeguarding peace, stability and security on a multilingual continent like Europe cannot be underestimated. The case of Mestan v. Bulgaria establishes an important minimum level of recognition necessary in a democratic society. Nonetheless, it remains up to the European states to take linguistic diversity seriously in order to foster harmonious interaction between groups with dynamic cultural identities.

Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Undefined index: et_template in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1347

TURKEY/EU: Over 100 Ahmadi asylum-seekers beaten at the Turkish border

TURKEY/EU: Over 100 Ahmadi asylum-seekers beaten at the Turkish border with Bulgaria

Here is some footage of the violence at the border: https://youtu.be/ZkdkB_9HCFY – https://youtu.be/g49EqywMiko – https://youtu.be/EJEdgpST_Rc – https://youtu.be/M70SYmX4Q-khttps://youtu.be/hmxDq06SwFQ

By Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers

HRWF (25.05.2023) – Over 100 Ahmadis – women, children and elderly people – from seven countries presented themselves at the Turkish-Bulgarian border on 24 May to lodge a claim for asylum with the Bulgarian Border Police but they were denied access to it by the Turkish authorities.


On the Turkish side, they were stopped and faced extreme violence. Gunshots were fired, they were threatened and their belongings were thrown away. They were beaten and dragged away by bus to the police station of Edirne, a city situated 7 km from the Greek and 20 km from the Bulgarian borders. This all happened on TV live as the Ahmadis were broadcasting.

This morning, I talked with their spokesperson, a lady from Iran, who said “It is vital for us not to be sent back to our country because we would risk being executed. Getting asylum in the EU will be our passport to life.”

In February 2023, HRWF had published a news about the ongoing detention of 13 Ahmadis, eight weeks after their arrest in Iran.

Additionally, an open letter by the European Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) was sent on Tuesday 23 May to the General Directorate of Border Police (Bulgaria),
The Executive Director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and The Fundamental Rights Officer of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

The letter which was endorsed by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Without Frontiers, was urging the said authorities to protect the group of Ahmadis and their right to claim asylum at the border in accordance with international law.

Letter by the European Border Violence Monitoring Network

“We, the undersigned, are writing to urge you to fulfil the fundamental rights obligations Bulgaria are bound by under the Law on Asylum and Refugees, Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Directive 2013/32/EU, the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely the right to asylum and to a full and fair individualised assessment with the right to appeal for a group of 103 members of the Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light. We reiterate that all persons should be guaranteed access to EU territory to apply for international protection, regardless of their individual claim.

There is currently a group of 103 members of the faith who have gathered in Turkey after having fled persecution in their home countries – Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Thailand, and Palestine. Members of the Ahmadi religion have been labelled as ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’ in many countries due to their beliefs, a trend they report has worsened since the release of their gospel, ‘The Goal of the Wise’, in December 2022. Members of the faith report that a number of the claims written in the book are considered ‘heretical’ in that they are considered contrary to other religious beliefs. These views, the group state, have led to their persecution through accusations of ‘denigrating Islam’. In fact, in Algeria and Iran members have faced arrest and prison sentences for exactly this, being forbidden for exercising their rights to religious freedom, and in Iraq they have suffered gunned attacks on their homes by armed militias, and scholars have called for them to be killed.

For the above reasons, many members of the group decided to flee their home countries and pursue their right to seek protection and freedom to practise their religion. They do not feel safe to lodge an application for international protection in Turkey due to the consistently documented violations of religious freedoms, including the criminalisation of blasphemy or expressions deemed insulting to religious beliefs. Although Turkey is a secular country, President Erdoğan has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and, In fact, a 2022 report from the European Parliament warns that, in Turkey, religious minorities face “sustained legal and administrative pressure”. Furthermore, the criminalisation of blasphemy under Article 216(3) of the Turkish Penal Code shrinks any space for views that are different to the country’s mainly practised Sunni Islam. In fact, Turkish singer Sezen Aksu received massive backlash for lyrics that describe Adam and Eve, considered holy figures in Islam, as ‘ignorant’, with President Erdoğan promising to rip out the tonguesof those who insult religious figures. This event has been pointed out by the Ahmadi group as one reason for their fear that their beliefs would be persecuted and considered ‘heretical’ in Turkey.

In light of this, the group do not feel safe to lodge their applications for international protection in Turkey as they fear they will be faced with similar persecution to that which they have fled in their own countries. As a result, they have tried to seek legal pathways to Bulgaria and have contacted the UNHCR in Bulgaria, the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), and even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to request a visa on humanitarian grounds. All these efforts have been unsuccessful. As a result, they are planning to present themselves at the official Kapikule border crossing point between Turkey and Bulgaria next week, to request asylum in front of the Bulgarian Border Police. We, the undersigned, urge that this request be respected, in line with the Art, 58(4) of the Law on Asylum and Refugees (LAR) which states asylum can be applied for with a verbal statement submitted in front of the border police. We further urge the Bulgarian authorities to respect Article 279(5) of the Bulgarian Criminal Code which denotes that border crossing is not a criminal offence if you are crossing to seek asylum.

The above information has demonstrated that the group have a well-founded fear of religious persecution, and risk their right to freedom of expression, if they are forced to return to their home countries or to remain in Turkey. Therefore we, the undersigned, call for their applications for international protection to be registered/lodged and treated with full, individualised assessments in Bulgaria in line with national law, European Union law and international human rights law.”


Border Violence Monitoring Network

Mobile Info Team
Northern Lights Aid
Collective Aid

Mission Wings Foundation
Centre for Legal Aid, Voices in Bulgaria
Библиофем (Bibliofem)
Association on Refugees and Migrants in Bulgaria
Sea-Watch e.V.
Europe Cares
Hope and Humanity Poland
Project ELPIDA
Mobile Info Team
Africa Working Group IRF Roundtable Washington DC
Bitter Winter Magazine
Human Rights Without Frontiers
Samos Volunteers
Be Aware and Share
Network Anthropia
InterEuropean Humanitarian Aid Association
We Are Here
Set My People Free (Sweden)
Solidarity With Migrants
Voice For Justice
Legalise Apostasy
United Macedonian Diaspora
Aria Razfar, Professor of Linguistics & Education, University of Illinois Chicago Abdullah

Hashem, The Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light

Photo: Turkish-Bulgarian border (Credit: Sofia Globe)

Further reading about FORB in Turkey and EU on HRWF website

Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Undefined index: et_template in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1347

BULGARIA: 80th anniversary of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews

BULGARIA: 80th anniversary of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews

Patriarchal and Synodal message

By Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church

The European Times NewsThe European Times (13.03.2023) – On the tenth of March, the institutions of the Bulgarian state and our public commemorate the day when, in 1943, in the darkest hours of the Second World War, when its outcome was not at all clear, with its collective efforts, our people stopped the deportation of our compatriots of Jewish origin, the Bulgarian Jews, to the Nazi death camps.

The role of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in this work has never been forgotten and has always been emphasized, especially by the Jewish community, for which we are grateful. Therefore, there is no need, and it is not appropriate for the Church to point out its merits, even less for the fact that in a certain, difficult historical moment, it acted in the only way possible for it, namely – in harmony with the commandments of the Orthodox faith .

The truth is that when, on the night of March 9-10, 1943, Metropolitan Stefan sought an urgent meeting with the state leadership to express the Church’s disapproval of the impending deportation, and Metropolitan Kirill entered the imprisoned Jews at the school in Plovdiv and told the guards, that if they were taken he would go with them, these were not isolated acts of civil position, but the result of a systematic, firmly held line of the Holy Synod. In accordance with the Christian teaching and the thousand-year-old practice of tolerance, empathy and love, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has always rejected any form of anti-Semitism, racial or religious hatred towards the representatives of the Jewish community, as well as in principle towards every person. As early as the adoption of the anti-Semitic Law for the Protection of the Nation, in the minutes of the Holy Synod of 1940, the warning words of the Bulgarian bishops can be heard: “The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which carries out among our people the saving truth and commandment of our Savior that we are all sons of a heavenly Father, cannot fail to draw attention to the factors responsible that this bill, in some of its decrees against the Jewish-Israelites, contains provisions which cannot be considered just… Every man and every nation must protect from dangers, but in this justified pursuit, injustice and violence against others should not be allowed”.

And more: “The question of our attitude towards the Jews is clear. We are Christians, and as bishops of the Holy Bulgarian Church, we cannot but stand on the ground of the Holy Gospel and Christ’s teaching about the equality of all people before God, regardless of origin, race and culture. Therefore, we must stand up for the Jews.”

The Holy Synod declared this position as early as 1940, and it found its most vivid expression in the action of the ninth against the tenth of March 1943, as a result of which not a single Jew living on the territory of the canonical diocese of the Bulgarian Exarchy at that time time, was not sent to extermination to the death camps.

This action would not have been possible if the Bulgarian people had not been churched, if they had not been firmly united around their metropolitans, if the voice of the Church had not been so strong, because it was the voice of the faithful, Christ-loving and philanthropic Orthodox Bulgarian people of God. Not someone else, namely the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, has nurtured in its people the strength and determination to oppose evil – qualities that are a manifestation of their belonging to the Christian faith and its values. The power of faith was demonstrated by the people, led by the bishops of their Orthodox Church, in the frosty days of 1943, and with their faith they saved their compatriots – Jews. People’s power is impossible without the Orthodox faith, and this is a very important lesson that we must learn for ourselves today from the case of the tenth of March.

We cannot but mention with deep sadness that, despite this, more than 11 thousand Jews from neighboring territories, temporarily under Bulgarian secular administration, were still taken and many of them died in the flames of the Holocaust. We mourn for them. We regret that the Exarchate did not have the strength and opportunities to take care of the Jews in those dioceses that were forcibly separated from its body 30 years earlier, in the same way as for the Jews in Bulgaria. We are sincerely sorry!

Usually, on this day, the names of only some of the metropolitans, who especially manifested themselves in the holy and philanthropic work of saving the Bulgarian Jews in 1943, are mentioned. However, we are obliged to recall the names of all worthy bishops who were members of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Exarchy, who were gathered in the name of Christ and God was among them and blessed their work, and the Holy Life-giving Spirit dictated their decisions. These are: Metropolitan Neofit of Vidin – Deputy Chairman of the Holy Synod, Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia, Metropolitan Mihail of Dorostol and Cherven, Metropolitan Paisiy of Vrachan, Metropolitan Boris of Nevrokop, Metropolitan Sophronius of Turnovo, Metropolitan Yosif of Varna and Preslav, Metropolitan Kirill of Plovdiv, Metropolitan Philaret of Lovech, Metropolitan Evlogii of Sliven and Metropolitan Kliment of Stara Zagora.

Eternal and blessed be the memory of these ancestors of ours! Let their work be an inspiration and an example to us when we have to face contemporary manifestations of xenophobia, anti-Semitism or human hatred of any nature and against anyone. Their faith is our faith, their strength is our strength, their convictions are our convictions. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church will always educate its pious and Christ-loving people in love for neighbor, tolerance, solidarity and humanity. It has been so since Bulgaria became an Orthodox Christian state and, as far as it depends on us, it will be so here forever and ever.

May God forgive our archpastors who died blessedly, who helped save the Jews in the exarchian dioceses on the territory of Bulgaria and thus protected the dignity of the Orthodox Church and preserved the honor of our Motherland.

Short address of this publication: https://dveri.bg/da6qk

Further reading about FORB in Bulgaria on HRWF website

Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Undefined index: et_template in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1347

EUROPEAN COURT: Governments should not call minority religions “cults”

European Court of Human Rights: governments should not call minority religions “cults”

The Court ruled in favor of three Bulgarian Evangelical churches, and said its case law has “evolved” since it refused to censor two French report on “cults” in 2001.

By Massimo Introvigne


Bitter Winter (30.12.2022) – https://bit.ly/3ZuScJI – Can a government call a minority religion a “cult” in its official documents? Or “secte,” a French expression that should be translated in English as “cult” rather than as “sect,” just as parallel words in many other languages derived from the Latin “secta”? No, said the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on December 12 in the case of “Tonchev and Others v. Bulgaria.”

The question has a history at the ECHR, marked by two old decisions of 2001 and 2008, which seemed to have solved the question in favor of the governments that use such language. In 2001, the ECHR declared inadmissible an application by the French Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had complained about having been called a “cult” (secte) in two French parliamentary reports of 1995 and 1999. In fact, the ECHR examined only the 1999 report, not the one of 1995 and its notorious “list of cults,” since in respect to the latter it concluded that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had filed their complaint too late. Rather than examining substantially the question of the term “cult” (secte), the ECHR based its decision on the fact that “a parliamentary report has no legal effect and cannot serve as the basis for any criminal or administrative proceedings.” Should they feel discriminate in such proceedings, the French Jehovah’s Witnesses were invited to file separate actions—which they did, eventually winning a landmark case against France about their taxes in 2011.

In 2008, in “Leela Förderkreis e.V. and Others v. Germany” the ECHR ruled against groups based on the teachings of “Osho” Rajneesh that had been called “destructive” “cults” (sekten) in reports by different German authorities. Unlike the 2001 decision on France, “Förderkreis” did pass judgement on whether the terms used by the government put the religious liberty of the Osho devotees in danger. The ECHR stated that “the terms used to describe the applicant associations’ movement may have had negative consequences for them. Without ascertaining the exact extent and nature of such consequences, the Court proceeds on the assumption that the Government’s statements in issue constituted an interference with the applicant associations’ right to manifest their religion or belief, as guaranteed by Article 9 § 1 of the [European] Convention [on Human Rights.]”

However, the ECHR found that in the specific case the use of the terms “cult” (sekte) and similar, while inappropriate, was justified by provisions existing in the German law at that time that were not prima facie illegitimate. But the ECHR also said that the fact that “the [German] Government undisputedly refrained from further using the term ‘sekte’ in their information campaign following the recommendation contained in the expert report on ‘so-called sects and psycho-cults’ issued in 1998” carried a weight in its decision.

However, in 2021, in the case “Centre of Societies for Krishna Consciousness In Russia and Frolov v. Russia,” the ECHR ruled against a Russian brochure that had called the ISKCON, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement, a “totalitarian cult” and a “destructive cult,” and concluded that “by using derogatory language and unsubstantiated allegations for describing the applicant centre’s religious beliefs” the Russian government had violated ISKCON’s freedom of religion.

On December 13, 2022, the ECHR decided the case “Tonchev and Others v. Bulgaria,” resulting from the complaints of three Evangelical and Pentecostal churches from the Bulgarian city of Burgas, the Unified Bulgarian Good News Church, the First Congregational Evangelical Church, and the Evangelical Pentecostal Church Philadelphia. Together with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the “Mormon” Church, they had been targeted in 2008 by a letter sent to all public schools by the City of Burgas. The letter asked the schools to explain to all pupils that the groups mentioned in the text were “cults” (секти, sekti), should not be confused with the legitimate Bulgarian Orthodox Church, were “dangerous,” and exposed their members to “mental health problems.”

In its defense, the Bulgarian government insisted on the ECHR 2001 decision on the French reports, and claimed that no negative consequences had affected the three Evangelical churches because of the letter. It also pretended that “sekti” in Bulgarian had no negative connotations, an argument the ECHR failed to consider.

Quoting the 2021 decision about the Russian Hare Krishna, the ECHR answered that “its case law subsequent to the above-mentioned [2001] decision ‘Fédération chrétienne des témoins de Jéhovah de France’ decision marks an evolution on the question of whether the use of disqualifying terms with regard to a religious community can be analyzed as an infringement of the rights guaranteed by Article 9 of the Convention.” More recently, “the Court has considered that the use of hostile or derogatory terms in referring to a religious community in documents issued by public authorities, insofar as it is likely to have negative consequences on the exercise by its members of their freedom of religion, is sufficient to constitute an infringement of the rights guaranteed by Article 9 of the Convention.”

In the specific case of Burgas, “the Court considers that the terms used in the circular letter and the information note of 9 April 2008, which described certain religious currents, including Evangelicalism to which the applicant associations belonged, as ‘dangerous religious cults’ that ‘contravene Bulgarian legislation, citizens’ rights and public order’ and whose meetings expose their participants to ‘psychological disorders,’ may indeed be perceived as pejorative and hostile. It notes that the documents in question were distributed by the town hall of Burgas, the town in which the applicant associations and pastors were operating, to all the schools in the town, which were invited to bring them to the attention of the pupils and to report on the way in which the information was presented and the way in which the children reacted. In these circumstances, and even if the measures complained of did not directly restrict the right of the applicant pastors or their co-religionists to manifest their religion through worship and practice, the Court considers, in the light of its case law, that these measures may have had negative repercussions on the exercise of religious freedom by the members of the churches in question.”

After “Tonchev,” it would become more difficult for governments to rely on the old 2001 decision about the French reports. “Tonchev” has now established that calling a religious minority a “cult” exposes it to negative consequences, and such slanderous language should be avoided by public authorities.


Photo: The three pastors who started the “Tonchev” case at the ECHR: from the left, Zhivko Tonchev, of the Unified Bulgarian Good News Church; Stefan Krastev, of the Evangelical Pentecostal Church Philadelphia; and Radoslav Kiryakov, of the First Congregational Evangelical Church. From Facebook.


Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press’ Nova Religio.  From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the “Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.


Notice: Undefined index: et_footer_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1395

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1395

Notice: Undefined index: et_footer_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1396

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1396

Notice: Undefined index: et_template in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1397