Bulgaria’s National Assembly approved on December 21 the second and final reading of amendments to the Religious Denominations Act, legislation that has been the subject of controversy since the first reading was approved on October 11.
Since that first reading, there have been numerous changes to the amendments in the light of objections from numerous faith groups, which in turn were contested in a committee meeting on December 20 and on the floor of the House on Friday.
The December 21 debate and voting on the amendments saw a walkout by the United Patriots, the coalition of nationalist and far-right parties that is the minority partner in government, after a number of their amendments were rejected.
In large part, the amendments to the law began as an attempt, among other things, to stem any influence of preachers of radical Islam in Bulgaria. The initial version of the law thus provided for several restrictions regarding funding of religious groups from abroad and participation of foreign clergy in religious rituals in Bulgaria.
Because these restrictions were written as of general application, this led to objections by other faith groups that would have been affected. Several faith groups also underlined that it was not appropriate to try to address a national security issue by rewriting the law on religions.
Also among the contentious issues throughout has been the method of calculating eligibility for state subsidies for religious groups. The initial version set the bar at a level that would have enabled only the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – to which most Bulgarians claim to adhere – and the country’s Muslim minority to receive state subsidies.
The version approved by Bulgaria’s Parliament on December 21 envisages state subsidies for officially registered religious denominations on the basis of how many citizens declared themselves to be an adherent of that denomination in the most recent census, at 10 leva a person, and with denominations of more than one per cent of the population, of a total subsidy of up to 15 million leva (about 7.5 million euro).
In effect, this means that state subsidies for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and for Bulgaria’s Muslims are guaranteed by the law as approved on December 21, though at the discretion of the government and Parliament, subsidies may be voted for other faiths.
The amendments provide that where a state subsidy is used to pay clergy and employees of religious institutions, their salaries may not exceed the average monthly salary of a teacher.
The sums for the denominations will be spelt out in Bulgaria’s annual Budget Act. Informal calculations showed that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church would get 15 million leva, while the Muslim community would get six million leva.
Yulian Angelov, an MP for the nationalist VMRO, objected to the funding formula approved, saying that the Muslims would get six million leva with a community of 600 000 while the Orthodox Church would get 15 million leva while it had four million people. The law was an “insult” to the church and was “subversive and anti-Bulgarian,” Angelov said.
The United Patriots walked out in protest against the rejection of their stricter rules over funding and property, and the defeat of other provisions they wanted, such as the ban on foreign funding.
The law also will require faith groups to submit annually to the Cabinet’s Directorate of Religious Denominations a list of houses of worship used for services, which the directorate will compile in a public register.
The amendments ban religious groups from using loudspeakers and other such sound devices unless for major religious holidays and celebrations.
Though not stated specifically, this comes against a background of years of complaints from Bulgarian nationalists against mosques using loudspeakers to relay the call to prayer.
Also to the chagrin of the United Patriots, a proposal to allow a religious denomination to formally register only if it it has a minimum 300 Bulgarian citizens as members was voted down. A proposal setting the number at 3000 also was rejected.
A proposal by the United Patriots to compel all religious denominations to fly the Bulgarian national flag outside their houses of worship also was rejected.
Iskren Vesselinov of the United Patriots explained to reporters the group’s objections to the final form of the law, saying that it had wanted to provide a formula for state funding while banning foreign funding.
“Now we are giving millions, and at the same time taking from Turkey, to whom these people will be loyal,” he said, in an apparent reference to the country’s Muslim minority, many of whom are of Bulgarian Turkish ethnicity.
Vesselinov described as positive the provision that foreign clerics would have to co-ordinate their presence in Bulgaria with the Religious Denominations Directorate.
Outside Parliament, a group of evangelical and Protestant Christians held their eighth successive protest against the amendments, which they see as unconstitutional and as counter to freedom of religion.