Two draft bills tabled in Bulgaria’s Parliament by opposition socialist MPs to amend the law on religious denominations – including provisions that would limit the activities of foreign clerics – are causing controversy, with critics condemning the bills as an assault on religious freedom.
One bill was tabled on March 1 by Georgi Kadiev, an MP formerly with the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and other amendments were tabled two weeks later by BSP MPs including Vassil Antonov, deputy head of the parliamentary committee on religious affairs.
The two bills have several similarities, giving the appearance of Kadiev’s former party trying to outdo him.
Kadiev’s bill provides for tighter state control over religious groups and expands the power of the religious affairs directorate at the Cabinet office. Employees of religious groups would have to monitor revenue from donations, including a requirement for declarations of the sources of the money.
If approved, the bill would outlaw employees of religious groups and teachers in religious schools being people who received religious education at institutions other than those approved by the religious affairs directorate.
Arguably most controversially, worship, rites and rituals in Bulgaria could be performed only by Bulgarian or European Union citizens. Citizens of non-EU countries could preside at worship in Bulgaria only with permission, and for no more than three months in a calendar year – a provision that would affect, among many others, citizens of the United States, Russia, Turkey and Middle Eastern countries.
In Kadiev’s bill, all donations equal to or greater than 420 leva (the current legal minimum wage in Bulgaria, equivalent to about 215 euro) would have to be declared in a register submitted to the religious affairs directorate. Failure to declare or update the list of donors within 14 days of the receipt of a donation would mean a fine of 3000 to 5000 leva, rising to 5000 to 20 000 leva in the case of a second or further offence.
In cases where breaches of the law were established, the amendments would allow the State Agency for National Security, the State Agency for Financial Inspection and the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the religious group.
In an explanatory memorandum appended to the bill, Kadiev said that the bill increased the level of transparency about funding religious activities.
The bill was based on the notion that no matter what the faith, religious activities in the country “should for the most part be carried out by Bulgarian citizens and aimed at Bulgarian citizens”.
Kadiev said that the bill increased the powers of the religious affairs directorate, transforming it from simply a body recording the activities of religious groups, to enable it “in case it notices worrying trends, to signal and provide the necessary information to the authorities responsible for financial transparency and security in the country”.
The bill, he said, provides for religious communities in Bulgaria to avoid being dependent on foreign funding, “which would place doubt on the independence of the actions of the clergy”.
The BSP’s bill, tabled on March 14, said that updates were necessary because the Religious Denominations Act of 2002 had “gaps and deficiencies”.
There were new circumstances including, according to the BSP sponsors of the amendments, an influx of “foreign religions” (considering that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all arose in the Middle East, it was not immediately obvious which religions the BSP might consider as indigenous to Bulgaria), the preaching of dubious religious teachings, the preaching of radical Islam and the entry of foreign religions not registered in the country “and their rituals, customs and specifics are not only alien to Bulgarians, but also are gross interference in the domestic peace in the country and are a threat to national security”.
Like Kadiev’s bill, the BSP bill boosts the powers of the religious affairs directorate, creating a legal obligation for the directorate to submit an opinion in the case of new applications from religious groups for registration as legal entities. The current law only provides for this as an option if a court deems it necessary.
Faith groups not registered by the court would be banned by law from holding meetings, setting up or maintaining charitable or humanitarian institutions and “writing, issuing or disseminating” religious publications. They also would be banned from setting up institutions to collect and receive donations.
The BSP amendments say that registered faiths could be represented only by Bulgarian nationals or EU citizens. An exception could be granted to non-EU nationals to temporarily preside over worship, but for no more than two months a year.
This provision, while the BSP is more openly attempting to direct its amendments against foreign preachers of “radical Islam”, would – of course – equally affect, for example, a Christian minister from the US or a Commonwealth country outside the UK, a Rabbi with Israeli (or any other non-EU) citizenship or a Roman Catholic cleric from outside the EU.
The BSP bill would require religious groups to submit financial statements compliant with the Accounting Act and subject to independent financial audit, to be made public by being published on the website of the Official Gazette. Failure to comply would mean a fine of 5000 to 10 000 leva, increasing to 10 000 to 20 000 leva for a repeat offence.
Religions also would be required to provide information on the grants they receive, property and other fundraising activities, in detail.
In an interview with Bulgarian-language media, the BSP’s Antonov said that, “we must recognise the realities, we live in times when faith turns into fanaticism that kills innocent people”.
He reiterated the BSP view that in recent years, “foreign religions” were entering the country, preaching religious teachings that were of “dubious, even aggressive” character. In certain places in Bulgaria, radical Islam was being preached, Antonov said.
The bill introduced additional safeguards to protect national security, including through the strict regulation that citizens of countries outside the EU could perform religious rites in the country only as an exception.
The problems with the current law was that it was “too liberal,” Antonov said. It failed, he said, to set an explicit requirement for the number of members of a religious community for it to acquire the status of a religion.
“Very often, an application for registration is filed by a new religious division of an already-registered religious community. Such examples exist in (the towns of) Sliven, Shoumen, Lovech and Stara Zagora. It has got to the paradox where there now exist seven Baptist denominations registered at one address,” Antonov said.
He denied that the amendments ran against Bulgaria’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. “Their goal is to create regulation regarding the terms and conditions of registration of emerging religions, and hence to ensure the state’s role in observing the human rights and fundamental freedoms of citizens.”
Antonov called on other parties represented in Parliament – where the BSP is the second-largest, by some distance, party – to support the amendments.
The Kadiev and BSP bills came under stinging attack on the svobodazavseki (freedom for all) website, with protest declarations saying that if approved, the bill would be the end of religious freedom in Bulgaria.
“If the bill becomes law, the Christian church will need to go underground in order to function as such,” the declaration said.
It said that the bill was the “worst of all previous attempts over the years” to restore a Marxist-Leninist attitude towards Christianity and freedom of religion. It added that the bill was unconstitutional.
The declaration said that the bill would prohibit faith in God and preaching without state registration, would limit donations to churches and ban funding from foreign sources, ban worship by citizens of non-EU countries (“including the US, Australia and other friendly countries) and, among other objections, “Christians would not be able to preach and criticse the ‘socio-economic order or social norms and relationships’ in the country, nor make any political comments”.
Coincidentally, the tabling of the bill by opposition socialist MPs came a few weeks after Bulgaria’s Parliament approved amendments to electoral law including a ban on employees of religious groups from canvassing in elections.
In Bulgaria, a large majority of the population declare themselves to be Bulgarian Orthodox Christians. Among Christians in the country, there is a small Protestant minority – about 64 400 out of a population of 7.1 million people – and an even smaller Roman Catholic minority, of just less than 49 000, if the 2011 census figures are correct.
Muslims in Bulgaria number about 577 000, about eight per cent of the population, according to the figures resulting from the 2011 census, the country’s most recent.
The spiritual leader of Bulgaria’s Muslims, Chief Mufti Mustafa Hadzhi, has repeatedly declared himself against radical Islam, specifically condemning Daesh, the terrorist group that calls itself the “Islamic State”.
In Bulgaria in March 2014, a lengthy trial of a group of Muslims charged with attempting to spread “an anti-democratic ideology” – a crime under Bulgaria’s Penal Code – ended in a jail sentence for one accused, suspended sentences for two others, while 10 others were fined.
In February 2016, the district court in the Bulgarian town of Pazardjik held the first hearing of a case in which 14 people are accused of promoting religious hatred and warmongering. One of the 14 people on trial was Ahmed Musa Ahmed, who was convicted in the earlier “radical Islam” trial and was handed a heavier sentence by the Plovdiv appellate court on July 1 2015.
Ahmed and his co-defendants in the current trial, which at the end of March 2016 was still continuing, were arrested in November 2014, following raids by the State Agency for National Security, police, gendamerie and prosecutors, which included searches at 40 different addresses. The accused deny wrongdoing.
(Photo: (c) Clive Leviev-Sawyer)