A group of Bulgarians from a civil society pressure group held a protest outside the Presidency in Sofia on March 12 in solidarity with Father Paolo Cortese, the Roman Catholic priest recalled from Bulgaria after receiving death threats for sheltering a family of Syrian refugees in the northern town of Belene.
The group called on head of state President Roumen Radev to support Cortese, to condemn manifestations of Nazism and xenophobia and to use “all the power given to him by the constitution” to counter illegal actions by mayors and municipal councillors across the country.
A municipal councillor was key in the campaign against Father Paolo in Belene, though he denies having threatened him.
The group that organised the Sunday noon protest said that the departure from Bulgaria of a worthy cleric was a bad sign and a hard slap in the face for the country.
“It turns out that after 45 years of communism and 27 years of transition, we have degenerated – we have lost our proverbial values such as tolerance, hospitality, compassion, empathy, neighbourliness and today we no longer distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’.”
“Bulgarian fake patriots, Russian nationalists, base fascists, communists and national socialists cast out of Bulgaria not only Father Paolo Cortese, but with him they cast out humanity and mercy from the hearts of Bulgarians. These lost souls continue to sow the seeds of hatred and division not only in Shiroka Luka, Elin Pelin and Belene, but across the whole country,” the statement said.
The Belene case was the latest in which a local community in a Bulgarian town protested against the presence of a Syrian refugee family or the acceptance of refugees.
The statement praised Cortese as a true spiritual leader of people, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
Ahead of Bulgaria’s March 26 2017 early parliamentary elections, the departure of Father Paolo caused political reactions from some quarters.
The New Republic coalition, which includes the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, said that it was withdrawing its confidence in Belene mayor Milen Dulev, who had declined the sheltering of the family of Syrian refugees and thus Father Paolo had been recalled from Bulgaria.
In 2015, Dulev was elected on a ticket supported by the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, a minority right-wing party.
The New Republic statement on March 11 said that the real reason that Cortese had been expelled from Bulgaria was his dedication to the cause of putting up a memorial to the victims of communism at the site of the former detention camp in Belene.
Father Paolo took part in commemorations at the Belene political detention camp site in 2016 with then-president Rossen Plevneliev. In December 2016, just more than a month before leaving office as head of state, Plevneliev conferred a high state honour on Cortese for his efforts towards commemorating the victims of the Belene camp.
The New Republic statement said that the coalition did not accept aggression and hatred being allowed to shift the dialogue among citizens. “We stand behind the causes that Father Cortese defended in Bulgaria – spreading Christian values, examination of the communist past and honouring the victims of the totalitarian regime.”
“We cannot bear political responsibility for a mayor who supports a group of self-styled, fake, patriots that impose aggression and hatred, draped with foreign flags,” the coalition said.
Hristo Ivanov’s Yes Bulgaria coalition issued a statement calling on President Radev, as the ultimate guarantor of the constitutional order and directly responsible for the activities of the caretaker government, to take the necessary steps to respect the protection of the fundamental rights stipulated in the constitution.
Yes Bulgaria expressed its concern at the lack of reaction from other major political parties – GERB, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms over the four Syrians and Father Paolo being threatened with murder.
Ivanov’s coalition expressed its concern about the increasingly overt intolerance and outright hostility towards foreign nationals who had sought asylum in the country.
“We are witnessing more and more acts of deliberate incitement of hatred, both by individuals and by public figures, political parties, even the ‘media’,” the Yes Bulgaria statement said.
The coalition expressed concern at the inactivity of the Bulgarian institutions and the lack of opposition to the incitement of hostility and hatred.
Yes Bulgaria called on the Prosecutor’s Office, Interior Ministry, Ombudsman and State Agency for Refugees “to fulfill their constitutional and statutory obligations and take effective action to enforce the constitution and the laws against those fomenting hatred, preventing the exercise of the constitutional rights of Bulgarian and foreign citizens, undermining the constitutional foundations of democracy in Bulgaria”.
At the December 2016 ceremony at which the state honour was conferred on him by Plevneliev, the then-president described the Roman Catholic priest as a man with an open heart, a leader and confidante and friend to all.
Accepting the award, Father Paolo said: “Now I am a Bulgarian”.