Sofia Orthodox Theologian Guilty of Incitement to Discrimination Against Non-Christian Group

A court in the Bulgarian capital has ruled the head of a church's religious studies group is guilty of incitement to discrimination against a spiritual group that focuses on yoga and meditation.
The Sofia District Court's has decided in favor of two members of the Sri Chinmoy Center in their claim against Desislava Panayotova, head of the Center for Religious Studies and Consultations within the St. St. Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church, for incitement to discrimination against their group.

This is the first case in which a Bulgarian court has found incitement to discrimination under the Protection against Discrimination Act not due to general hate speech against minorities, but because of instructions to specific individuals to act in a specific discriminatory way against other specific individuals.

For the first time, a person was ordered to discontinue such conduct and to refrain from further repeating that conduct.

This is the first official of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to be found liable for discrimination because of her propaganda against non-Christian groups.

Facts

The Sri Chinmoy Center is an association promoting yoga, meditation and a lifestyle according to the philosophy of Sri Chinmoy, an American spiritual leader. The association organizes concerts, exhibitions and publishes literature.

In the period between December 2006 and February 2008, Desislava Panayotova, head of the Center for Religious Studies and Consultations (CRSC) at the St. St. Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church in Sofia, cancelled their concerts on multiple occasions, even though venue managers had already signed contracts with the Sri Chinmoy Center.

Panayotova published on CRSC’s website, which she manages, articles depicting the association as a threat, and sent personal letters to the managers of Bulgaria Hall, the House of Architects, the Russian Center and the Music School in Sofia – and in one instance, she even personally met a manager – in order to insist that they do not host concerts organized by the Sri Chinmoy Center, despite prior agreements to do so.

In order to prevent the events from happening, Panayotova convinced the managers to break their contracts with the association just a few days before the concerts, after the Sri Chinmoy Center had already announced the venues.

During these interventions, she presented herself as a doctor of theology and director of a church organization at the St. St. Cyril and Methodius temple, which "cooperates with the Council of Ministers, the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria and the media on the presence of religious communities."

Ruling

According to the court’s judgment, "the Court cannot and does not wish to deny the right of [Panayotova] to form and justify her opinion on the applicants' beliefs and practices [...]. It is unacceptable and unlawful, however, for her to […] influence third parties to disrupt the applicants' events, to restrict their indoor meetings, including by calling on those persons not to comply with agreements that are already agreed upon with the applicants. [These beliefs] cannot be a pretext for her intentions to restrict the claimants’ social activities through third party conduct."

The Sofia District Court found that Panayotova's intent was clear, and that she was in the position to influence persons by presenting herself as a respectable, state-recognized expert.

The court said that if Panayotova believed the claimants were involved in unlawful activities, she should have alerted the institutions about her suspicions, if not legal authorities as well, instead of organizing her campaign of persecution.

Referring to the Constitution, the court stressed that, taking into consideration the separation of religious institutions from the state, it is unacceptable for representatives of one religion to persecute members of another group, and that the applicants have the right to conduct religious activities indoors without being registered as a religious entity.

Panayotova admitted to the court that her intentions were to "protect" Orthodox believers from the "influence of non-traditional religious cults" and that she represented the "position of the Orthodox Church."

She stated that her use of "theological concepts" (sect, cult, etc.) "does not allow a secular court to judge to determine whether there is a violation of a secular law such as [the Protection From Discrimination Act] and even less so, to determine whether such speech can be qualified as 'hostile.'"

The decision is subject to appeal before the Sofia City Court.