The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) has expressed concerns over the current draft law put forward by Bulgaria’s Parliament aiming at amending the Religious Denominations Act.
“If approved in its current form, it threatens to force evangelical churches and institutions to close or face unbearable and discriminatory administrative burdens,” the WEA said.
The draft law, the first reading of which was approved by Bulgaria’ Parliament on October 11 2018, has implications on the funding and financial management of religious communities as well as on the training and appointing of clergy, the alliance said.
“Should the law pass, existing theological seminaries are at risk of shutting down, evangelical church pastors may no longer be able to conduct worship services, and the acceptance and use of donations will be subject to government approval and limitations.”
The WEA said that it echoes the concerns of the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance (BEA), its national member body, and those of other religious communities in Bulgaria that this draft legislation is discriminatory. It puts unjustified and disproportionate restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief and is in direct violations of the democratic principles enshrined in Bulgaria’s constitution and in the legislation of the European Union, of which Bulgaria is a member since 2007.
Efraim Tendero, WEA Secretary General & CEO, said: “The proposed law legalizes state interference in the affairs of religious communities, which invariably comes at the expense of religious freedom.
“At a time when governments worldwide face the challenge of strengthening freedoms while maintaining security, we call on Bulgaria and other democratic countries to lead by example and to strengthen the right to religious freedom rather than to weaken it.”
In a recent statement commenting on the draft law, the BEA quoted the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), saying: “Pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness are hallmarks of a democratic society. Although individual interests must on occasion be subordinated to those of a group, democracy does not simply mean that the views of a majority must always prevail: a balance must be achieved which ensures the fair and proper treatment of people from minorities and avoids any abuse of a dominant position.”
The BEA questioned the legality of the aims of the draft laws, as well as the proportionality of the suggested measures and their balance in light of the ECHR’s decision.
“Together with BEA, we call on the Bulgarian authorities to reconsider its draft legislation aimed at amending the Religious Denominations Act,” Tendero said. “And we call on evangelicals worldwide to accompany our brothers and sisters in Bulgaria in prayer as they dialogue with their political leaders to identify the best path forward.”
In October, the Chief Mufti of Bulgaria – the spiritual leader of the country’s Muslim minority – held a special meeting with Prime Minister Boiko Borissov. Dr Mustafa Hadji spelt out to Borissov the Muslim community’s objections to provisions in the law barring foreign clergy from conducting services in Bulgaria, and also called for scrapping the provision that would block faith communities of which less than one per cent of the country’s population are members from receiving state subsidies.
The one per cent threshold would see only the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Muslim community eligible for state subsidies.
In October, Bulgarian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Neofit held talks with Borissov, who said that the controversial texts in the draft law could be amended before the second reading in Parliament.