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Bulgaria: Law against religious freedom. Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims speak out

Despite the unfavourable opinion of all religious confessions in the Country, Parliament adopted in first reading a package of controversial amendments to the draft law on religions. The State is interfering with popular faith. The protests of the Catholic Church, of the Orthodox Synod and of the Islamic community. “We hope the draft law will be repealed”, Fr Petko Valov told SIR

All religious confessions in Bulgaria protested the amendments to the law on religious denominations already approved in Parliament on October 11 in first reading. The faith communities unanimously defined it a violation of the Constitution, amounting to the State’s undue interference  in the internal affairs of religious confessions despite the unfavourable opinion of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (to which the majority of Bulgarians belong), of the Muslim community representing 10% of the population, of the Catholic Church and of Protestant Communities. “We voiced our concerns in May, immediately after the presentation of the Law”, said Fr Petko Valov, Catholic Church representative at the Advisory board on amendments to the law on religions, “but MPs have decided to move on all the same.”

What are Catholics worried about? “The law is evidently flawed since all religious confessions oppose it. In practical terms, with the excuse of the fight against all forms of religious extremism, the State is limiting the freedom of religion”, said Fr Valov. In his view, “there are other laws and other ways to defend national security, while the law on religion should not defend society from religion,  its philosophy is the definition of freedom of worship.” “The law”, said Msgr. Christo Proykov, President of the Bulgarian Bishops’ Conference, signatory of the Catholics’ position presented in Parliament,  “stipulates the restoration of the practice of authorizations requested under Communist rule and the unfair treatment of registered religious confessions. It violates the principles of the Rule of Law, it denies religious freedom which constitutes a breach of the Constitution and of International Treaties which Bulgaria adheres to.” The most worrying regulations for Catholics are the mandatory authorizations for foreign priests, the total control of all proceeds on the part of the Directorate for Religious Confessions including including a mandatory requirement for declarations of the sources of donations from abroad, which are also regulated by the Directorate for Religious Confessions. Fr Valov voiced his perplexities: “the provision expands the power of the Directorate that doesn’t even have the administrative capacities to manage such a huge burden of work.”

State subsidies for Orthodox and Muslims. Bulgarian bishops equally protested against the proposal to limit state subsidies to the Orthodox Church and to the Islamic community, the only two confessions representing more than 1% of the population. “This discriminates against traditional confessions in Bulgaria, such as the Catholic Church”, pointed out Msgr. Proykov. State aids should be based on the number of Community members, regardless of the population percentage they represent.” “It’s an injustice against minority religious communities  – added Fr Valov –. In fact, the proposed amendments envisage State aid to the Orthodox community amounting to 5 Euro/faithful while Catholics would receive 0.50 Euro per faithful, a sum that for Catholics would only serve to cover restoration expenses” of places of worship. For those reasons Bulgarian bishops consider the bill “discriminating, a threat to the freedom of religious confessions marked by unacceptable State interference in the autonomy of the Churches and of the religions in Bulgaria.”

The position of the Orthodox Church. The position of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church, expressed in a release, states that “Churches and religious confessions are not guided by the principles regulating citizenship and national States. Without the financial support of their central headquarters some of the confessions would already be extinct.” “The message voices support to Catholics and Protestants, and we are grateful for this”, remarked Father Valov. The Orthodox Church strongly opposes also the regulation envisaging the declaration on the sources of donations since “donation forms part of the private religious life of the faith community and it cannot become the object of State regulations.” “The proposed amendments – wrote the Orthodox Metropolitan bishops – are ambiguous and will fail to deliver the expected results. They must be seriously reconsidered to shun any doubt on the consolidated, positive cooperation between the State and the Church.”

A law against radical Islam. According to the proponents of the amendments to the law the purpose of the provision is to counter radical Islam, terrorism, and fundamentalist groups arriving from abroad. “No religiously-motivated murder has occurred in Bulgaria, no Muslim has ever been charged for such crimes”, said Deputy Grand Mufti Birali Birali. His claim is supported by the expert in religious issues Mihail Ivanov: “the major obstacle to extremism in the Country – he pointed out – is the same Muslim Community, which rejects it in full.” He added: “the best approach is to sustain a strong Muslim community that is a guarantor of peace among its faithful. That’s why there is need for good, effective education programs, a fully functioning Islamic Institute of Higher Studies.” The Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadzi is worried about the fact that the Islamic Institute of Higher Studies has not yet been granted State recognition and voiced his perplexities on the proposed amendments to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. “We don’t have enough teachers and we have no other option that inviting them from abroad.”

The letter of intellectuals. A group of intellectuals, comprising many personalities in Bulgaria, have joined the protest against the provision. “The proposed changes are extremely controversial –  they declared – and they undermine the foundations of democracy, thereby endangering the freedom of religious faiths with unacceptable interference of State control bodies in the life of the Churches and of religious communities.” Religious confessions have thus taken a clear stand against the draft law. Their hopes are placed in the working group that includes members of faith communities, tasked with drawing up the texts prior to Parliament’s vote in second reading. The proposed amendments constitute “a large part of the bill” – said Fr Petko Valov -. But a consistent change is needed. If not, the law will no longer be for religious confessions but against them.”

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