Evangelical Protestant churches approach Council of Europe over Bulgaria’s Religions Act amendments
Human rights organisation ADF International and a coalition of Bulgarian Evangelical Protestant churches have filed a formal request with the Secretary General of the Council of Europe that he initiates a review of proposed amendments to Bulgaria’s Religious Denominations currently in the legislative process in the country’s Parliament.
The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, is to carry out the review, ADF International said.
The proposed law requires newly registered denominations to have at least 3000 members before they can gain legal rights, discriminating against smaller minority groups, the statement said.
Additionally, preachers, clergymen, and any foreigners wishing to participate in worship would have to register with the state or else risk penalties.
“Nobody should be persecuted or experience harassment because of their faith. The new law on religion in Bulgaria restricts religious minorities from assembling freely for worship, engaging in theological education, and receiving funds from outside Bulgaria. If adopted, it would stifle the missionary and spiritual activity of foreign citizens,” said Viktor Kostov, a Sofia based allied lawyer of ADF International representing the Bulgarian churches.
“We have repeatedly requested that the MPs behind the bill amend or remove the worst aspects of the law without success. The proposed law represents a fundamental attack on freedom of religion in our country. As the Parliament has not acted to protect the rights of minority religions, we were left with no option but to seek a review of this law’s compatibility with international law. We have directly called on the National Assembly to adjourn further votes on this legislation until this has taken place,” Kostov said.
With the assistance of ADF International, the coalition of Bulgarian churches represented by Kostov made an appeal to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to refer the proposed law to the Venice Commission. The Commission is an advisory body on constitutional matters which is tasked with helping member states bring their legal structures in line with European standards.
“The European Convention on Human Rights secures the right of the people of Bulgaria to worship freely without unjustified interference. This request calls for urgent attention to the proposed Bulgarian law,” said Lorcán Price, Legal Counsel for ADF International.
“This latest proposed law will interfere with the right of Bulgarian churches to conduct their business without burdensome regulation and restrictions. Nobody should be deprived of their fundamental right to religious freedom. As the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in the past, the government should not engage in ‘picking favourites’ when it comes to churches,” Price said.
Protestants have held a series of public protests in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia and other cities against the amendments.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, as well as the Muslim denomination, have also spoken against the bill.
For the time being, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church will not address international legal institutions about the changes in the Religious Law, but negotiations with those who tabled it are continuing, Bulgarian specialist church news website Dveri said.
MPs have assured the Bulgarian Orthodox Church leadership that the law will not be passed at second reading before full agreement is reached on it with the denominations in the country.