ADF-allied attorney secures damages judgment for Bulgarian church abused by government

Church compensated 50K euros after property, legal standing stripped by government for not conforming to ruling socialist ideology


STRASBOURG, France — The European Court of Human Rights has awarded six church leadership members of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church 50,000 euros (approximately $65,000 U.S.) in punitive damages plus the costs and fees assessed in the first judgment the court issued in the synod’s favor, both of which were secured with the help of an Alliance Defense Fund allied attorney. The dissenting synod, which had its legal personality stripped and its property seized by the socialist government of Bulgaria, won its original decisive victory at the ECHR in a judgment issued in January 2009.

Latcho Popov, one of nearly 1,900 attorneys in the ADF alliance, successfully argued that the Bulgarian government violated the church’s freedom of thought, conscience, and religion outlined in Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, and as a result, the court also ordered last week that the law on religions be changed to accommodate the synod and reestablish its legal status.

“The church should remain free of government coercion and control,” said European-based ADF Legal Counsel Roger Kiska, who performed most of his work on the case while serving at the European Centre for Law and Justice before joining ADF. “The Bulgarian government vastly overstepped its bounds in stripping the synod of its legal identity, seizing its property, and handing it over to a synod of which the government approves. We are pleased with the ECHR’s latest judgment, which respects the alternative synod’s freedom and independence while compensating it for the extreme financial hardships it was forced to endure.”

“This situation may be miles away from America, but American churches should take heart at this positive decision,” Kiska explained. “Precedents set at the ECHR often find their way across the Atlantic.”

Historically, many governments have sought to gain power by suppressing the free exercise of denominations that compete with a state-sanctioned church that provides very little, if any, criticism of the government.

More than 80 percent of Bulgarians identify themselves as Bulgarian Orthodox. Sixteen years ago, about 40 percent dissented from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, arguing that its leader was not validly elected under BOC canon law and that he was aligned too closely with the communist regime. They elected their own leadership and built a number of their own churches. Six years ago, the new socialist-dominated government passed a law on religions that effectively stripped the dissenting synod of its legal personality and access to the legal system. The Bulgarian chief prosecutor issued a warrant demanding that all the synod’s properties be confiscated. In one evening, more than 100 churches were confiscated. They were kept under police control and eventually given to the state-approved synod.

Popov, director of the Rule of Law Institute, then filed the application Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church v. Republic of Bulgaria to the ECHR on behalf of the dissenting synod, and the court ruled strongly in favor of the church’s religious freedom. Two more class action suits by clergy and laypeople remain pending.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family. |