Bulgarian parliamentary committee approves amendments writing off 8.2M leva debts of Chief Mufti, Orthodox Church

The religious denominations and human rights committee of the Bulgarian Parliament approved on March 7 the first reading of legislative amendments that provide for writing off debts to the stated owed by the office of the Chief Mufti – spiritual leader of the country’s Muslims – and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, amounting to millions of leva.

At the meeting of the committee, the amendments – due for first reading in plenary on March 8 – were supported with eight votes in favour, one against and with one abstention.

The amendments to the Religious Denominations Act, which come just more than two months after Parliament approved previous amendments, were tabled by Tsvetan Tsvetanov, parliamentary leader of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party, and Mustafa Karadayi, leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF).

Kornelia Ninova’s opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has alleged that GERB’s support for the amendments is part of a trade-off between GERB and the MRF that saw Karadayi’s parliamentary group join in voting on March 6 to overrule President Roumen Radev’s veto of amendments to the Electoral Code. Tsvetanov has rejected this allegation.

Ninova’s party currently is boycotting sittings of Parliament and was not represented at the committee meeting.

The amendments to the Religious Denominations Act envisage writing off debts to the state owed by religious denominations up to December 31 2018, including principal and interest. Applications for the write-off must be submitted within three months of the law coming into effect.

The committee meeting was attended by, among others, representatives of the Finance Ministry and Justice Ministry, and of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Chief Mufti’s office. Both ministries stated support for the amendments.

The size of the debts is disputed. Tsvetanov said earlier this week that in total, religious denominations owe about 8.2 million leva in unpaid social insurance and other taxes.

BSP MP Stoyan Mirchev said that only the office of the Chief Mufti owed outstanding debts, which he said amounted to 12 million leva.

At the committee meeting, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Metropolitan of Varna, Yoan, denied that the church owed back taxes.

The law sets out that the state subsidy granted to the faith groups will be distributed by, respectively, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Chief Mufti’s office. For the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s dioceses abroad, the state subsidy will be granted in amounts approved annually in the national Budget Act and paid via the Cabinet office’s Directorate of Religious Denominations.

The amendments specify that the leadership of the religious group will be able to spend sums beyond immediate costs only after the salaries of the clergy and employees of the religious institutions have been paid.

The maximum amount of the salary of a clergyman may not exceed the average monthly salary of a teacher. Salaries of employees in religious institutions may not exceed the average salary of an employee in the public sector, with an exception for the pay of members of the governing bodies.

The state subsidy for religious denominations is set at 10 leva (about five euro) per each person who has declared in the most recent census their adherence to a particular faith group, and then is payable only if that faith group exceeds more than one per cent of the population – which is why currently only the Orthodox Church and the Muslim group are eligible under this system.

Earlier this week, the spokesperson for the Chief Mufti’s office, Dzhelal Faik, told Bulgaria’s Darik Radio that the write-off of the debts would serve to prevent the radicalisation of the Muslim community in Bulgaria.

Faik said that the sum owed was about eight million leva, mainly in social security contributions and taxes, adding that these had been calculated incorrectly.

He said that the Chief Mufti’s office did not have enough money to pay the 600 imams in its employ.

“I think that, in general, the Bulgarian people should look at things from a moral point of view. If we succeed in giving a hand to the Muslim denomination, to prevent our Muslims from radicalising and taking some extreme action, that would be good,” he was quoted as saying.

Tsvetanov said that the amendments were intended to solve a problem, to enable the religious denominations to receive their subsidies, pay salaries and make social security contributions.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church had received its subsidies and had paid its debts, but the Chief Mufti and the imams had not been able to receive money because once received, it would have to go immediately to pay debts, Tsvetanov said.

(Photo, of a mosque in the Bulgarian town of Assenovgrad: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)



The Sofia Globe staff

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