June 28, 2012

Two years ago, I was asked to speak at the opening of the first Baltic Pride Parade in Vilnius, Lithuania. It was a chilling experience. When I arrived in that European Union member state, the organisers greeted me with disappointment. A court had issued an order banning the parade, which was to be a proud celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Members of parliament had also written an open letter claiming that a Pride Parade would be harmful to children and an affront to Lithuania's moral standards. Fortunately, the Vilnius appeals court decided otherwise - upholding the supremacy of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression over prejudice.

The march was allowed to go ahead the next day. However, as I joined the peaceful demonstrators, singing songs and waving rainbow flags - I was astonished to witness hundreds of aggressive opponents screaming and shouting, throwing Molotov cocktails and stones at us. Among them were three members of parliament. One of them broke through the police cordon and physically attacked the organiser of the parade.

Unfortunately, pride parades have not yet become dull, it seems. Take, for instance, the LGBT Pride Parade planned for June 30 in Sofia, Bulgaria. On June 6, Father Evgeni Yanakiev of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was quoted in the newspaper Standart as saying: "Our whole society must, in every possible way, oppose the gay parade that is being planned. For this reason, today I appeal to all those who consider themselves Christians and Bulgarians. Throwing stones at gays is an appropriate way." On June 12, Father Yanakiev confirmed his statement in an interview on Bulgarian national radio.

The call to stone gay people is not only incitement to commit a crime and disrupt public order, but also a heinous threat to the security of peaceful EU citizens who want nothing more than to enjoy their freedom of assembly and expression. It is all the more chilling given that two previous pride parades, in Sofia, have been marred by violent attacks on participants. In 2008, the year of Bulgaria's first pride parade, right-wing extremist groups and football hooligans violently attacked participants. And last year, thugs attacked and beat three volunteers from the parade. One year on, the police have yet to say whether they have made any progress with an investigation of those attacks; much less prosecution of the attackers.

After Father Yanakiev made his statements about this year's parade, the Holy Synod - the highest authority in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church - was urged to denounce his call for violence. But in a statement on June 13, the Holy Synod did not even address the incitement to hatred and violence. Instead, it said that homosexuality is "an unnatural lust that unconditionally harms both the personality of those who commit it and the society as a whole" and confirmed the church's firm opposition to such "immoral manifestations" as the pride parade.

So much for looking out for people's lives and safety. On the contrary, the statement indicates that the church is planning to look the other way if violence is used against people participating in the LGBT parade in Sofia. This makes it all the more imperative for state authorities to support unequivocally the right of the LGBT community to freely and safely exercise their rights to assembly and expression. This could start with the Bulgarian Justice Minister Diana Kovacheva publicly and firmly denouncing the cleric's calls to stone gay people.

Bulgaria should also act upon the recommendation of the committee of ministers of the Council of Europe to its member states, including Bulgaria, to combat discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. The recommendation instructs member states to "take appropriate measures to combat all forms of expression, including in the media and on the internet, which may be reasonably understood as likely to produce the effect of inciting, spreading or promoting hatred or other forms of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons; such 'hate speech' should be prohibited and publicly disavowed whenever it occurs". There is no doubt that Father Yanakiev's call to stone LGBT people falls under the category of hate speech.

The Bulgarian Protection against Discrimination Act prohibits all direct or indirect discrimination on many grounds, explicitly including sexual orientation. And the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, by which Bulgaria is bound, also prohibits any discrimination based on sexual orientation. In the final days before the parade, I look forward to hearing Minister Kovacheva publicly condemning this call for violence. Indeed it would be appropriate to see her go further and investigate whether Father Yanakiev's statements can be prosecuted under Bulgaria's Penal Code. Perhaps, she would like to join the march.