Jehovah’s Witnesses have been present in Bulgaria since 1888. In 1938, they registered a national legal entity but lost that registration when the country came under Communist control in 1944. The Witnesses experienced severe restrictions until 1991, when their legal entity, Christian Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was officially registered. However, in 1994, after a public defamation campaign against “nontraditional” religions and the passage of a restrictive religion law, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious minorities lost their legal status. Subsequently, the police arrested Witnesses, disrupted their religious meetings, and confiscated their literature. Bulgarian courts did not provide the Witnesses with legal protection.
After exhausting all domestic legal remedies, the Witnesses applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In 1998, 2001, and 2004, the ECHR accepted friendly settlements between the Witnesses and the Bulgarian government. After these settlements, the government reregistered Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religion. It also upheld their right to religious freedom, including the right to conscientious objection to military service, the right to perform alternative civilian service, and the right to express their beliefs without interference.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bulgaria are grateful for the measure of religious freedom they enjoy and generally carry out their religious activities without disturbance. However, some local municipalities restrict the Witnesses’ religious activity by misapplying local ordinances to their public ministry or by refusing to issue zoning permits for their Kingdom Halls. In addition, some members of the public have physically assaulted and harassed Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although law-enforcement officials provide some assistance, they typically do not prosecute the attackers or protect the victims. The Witnesses continue to meet with Bulgarian officials to resolve these issues, and a case involving a Kingdom Hall permit is currently pending before the ECHR.