In Tonchev and Others v Bulgaria  ECHR 1072 [in French], the applicants were ministers of Evangelical Churches in Burgas and Evangelical religious associations based in Burgas. They complained that information about their religion circulated to schools in Burgas in 2008 by the city’s municipal authorities was hostile and defamatory.
Before the Bulgarian courts, they alleged, in particular, that a letter of 9 April 2008 about them which had been circulated by the municipal administration of Burgas contained defamatory claims and judgments about their beliefs and that its distribution among schools had infringed their freedom of religion and breached the principle of separation of Church and State, the State’s duty of neutrality and the principle of equal treatment of religions. They also maintained that the circulation of the letter had sparked a hostile media campaign, and had asked the Bulgarian courts to find that there had been illegal discrimination, to order the Burgas municipal administration and the regional internal affairs directorate to take restorative action. They also asked that those authorities be fined and ordered to pay compensation for the alleged non-pecuniary damage. Their claims were dismissed.
Before the ECtHR, they relied on Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the Convention.
The applicants argued that the distribution of the letter of 9 April 2008 had been an infringement of their right to freedom of religion. Far from being of no legal effect, it formulated specific instructions for the attention of the principals of educational establishments and asked them to account for the manner in which those instructions had been carried out.
They further claimed that the distribution of the letter had had real consequences for the free exercise of their religion by the members of their Churches . By qualifying their religion as a “dangerous sect” whose practices could cause “psychic disorders”, the public authorities had infringed their freedom of religion and – while proselytising was an essential part of the practice of their faith – had acted in a way likely to deter potential new followers from joining them. The authorities had therefore disregarded their duty of neutrality and had acted in a discriminatory manner .
The Government maintained that the applicants could not claim to be victims of any interference with the exercise of their right to freedom of religion. In particular, the letter of 9 April 2008 was of no legal effect: it emanated from a town hall and only reflected the opinions of its authors. Parliament and the Minister of the Interior had made a point of specifying that they did not share those opinions. The letter merely called on pupils and school administrators to prevent possible abuse and to reassure the parents. The letter did not target identifiable persons and had neither prescribed nor recommended any negative measure against those of the pupils who were followers of the religious movements concerned. Nor had the applicants reported any negative impact caused by the disputed letter. It was an isolated act, since when the authorities had refrained from remarks that could be perceived as defamatory and had repeatedly stated that the movements in question were not considered “dangerous” .
As to the use of the term “sect”, it did not necessarily have a pejorative connotation. As for the qualification of “dangerous”, the authors had not intended to apply it to all the religious associations mentioned, but only to those whose actions were likely to infringe the rights of other citizens .
By the applicants’ own admission, the alleged damage to the image of their religion had been due to the way in which the actions of the town hall had been presented by journalists, not by the Government. Religious communities could not claim to be immune from criticism, and the applicants could have sued the publications . And even assuming that the facts complained had interfered with the applicants’ freedom of religion, that interference was prescribed by law, pursued a legitimate aim and was within the authorities’ margin of appreciation .
The Court noted at the outset that the applicants’ complaints did not relate to the press articles, but only to the actions of authorities such as the Burgas municipal authorities and the Ministry of Interior .
They complained of attacks on the freedom of religion of their members and co-religionists and denounced the dissemination by the mayor of Burgas of a circular letter which, according to them, contained a pejorative and defamatory description of their beliefs and their practices. In its recent judgments, the Court had taken the view that using hostile or derogatory terms about a religious community in documents issued by public authorities was sufficient to constitute an infringement of Article 9, insofar as it was likely to have negative consequences on the exercise by its members of their freedom of religion. There was no reason to depart from that approach in the present case being similar .
The circular letter and the information note of 9 April 2008 had characterized certain religious tendencies, including the Evangelicalism of the applicant associations, as “dangerous religious sects which “contravene Bulgarian legislation, citizens’ rights and public order” and whose meetings expose their participants to “psychic disorders”. The documents were distributed to all the schools in Burgas, which were invited to bring them to the attention of students and to account for how the information would have been presented and how the children would have reacted. That may have had negative repercussions on the exercise of their freedom of religion by the faithful of the Churches in question .
An ecclesial or religious body could exercise Article 9 Rights on behalf of its members, while the applicants who were natural persons could claim to have been personally affected by the impugned measures. Nor was the locus standi of all the applicants disputed in the context of the domestic proceedings .
There had been an infringement of the applicants’ Article 9 rights . As to justification, it did not appear from the evidence in that the distribution of the impugned letter had prevented the applicant pastors or the followers of their churches from manifesting their religion .
Article 9 did not prohibit the public authorities from formulating critical assessments of representatives or members of religious communities. However, to be compatible with the Convention, such statements had on the one hand to be supported by evidence about concrete acts likely to constitute a risk to public order or to the interests of others and, on the other, avoid questioning the legitimacy of the beliefs in question. They also had to be proportionate to the circumstances of the case . The nature of the circular letter and the information note distributed to schools suggested that their authors had not borne in mind the duty of neutrality and impartiality of public authorities – aside from the fact that they contained negative and unqualified judgments about the Evangelical Churches, they compared them unfavourably to the dominant Orthodox religion . Though the intention to warn pupils against abuses likely to be committed by certain religious groups was justifiable, the Court was not convinced that some of the expressions used were necessary for that purpose . The authors of the circular had attempted to play down the importance of the incident and expressed their determination to respect the freedom of religion of the movements mentioned in it – but it was clear to the Court that the comments deemed offensive or defamatory by the applicants had not been formally withdrawn .
In summary, the authorities of the respondent State had exceeded the margin of appreciation available to them under Article 9 and had interfered disproportionately with the applicants’ right to freedom of religion . There had been a violation of Article 9 . It was unnecessary further to examine the case in light of Article 14 .