Meeting Prime Minister Boiko Borissov on March 11, the leaders of the country’s Muslims and Bulgarian Orthodox Church expressed their support for legislation that scraps more than eight million leva in debts owed to the state, mainly by the Chief Mufti’s office.
The first reading of the legislation was approved by Parliament on March 8, with the votes of Borissov’s GERB party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. It was opposed by government minority partner the United Patriots, a grouping of nationalist parties.
Borissov announced at the weekend that he had asked Chief Mufti Mustafa Hadzhi, spiritual leader of Bulgaria’s Muslim minority, and Patriarch Neofit, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, to meet him to discuss the legislation.
A government statement said that Borissov thanked the Chief Mufti and the Patriarch for attending the meeting. “As always, we have one goal, for Bulgarian citizens to be calm and for everyone to confess their faith,” the statement quoted Borissov as saying.
Borissov said that at meetings with the church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, and with the Patriarch, the metropolitans and the Chief Mufti’s office, the purpose of the amendments to the Religions Act had been very clearly stated.
This was “for the Bulgarian religions, for the Bulgarian denominations, the Bulgarian state and not other states will pay”.
Borissov was taking the line that earlier was taken by the Chief Mufti’s office, that writing off the millions of leva owed in arrears social security and tax payments was a matter of national security, to prevent Bulgaria’s Muslims becoming radicalised.
The government statement quoted Hadzhi as saying that the amendments were belated.
“That’s why I thank the Bulgarian government, represented by you, for finding the strength and determination to do this,” Hadzhi was quoted as telling Borissov.
The Chief Mufti said that had such questions been resolved timeously, such problems would not have accummulated.
He expressed hope that the amendments would produce a positive result. “In order for all people in Bulgaria to be equal, so that all people in Bulgaria can freely practice their religion, no matter what it is, we are ultimately all Bulgarian citizens and we are exerting efforts to preserve peace in our homeland,” Hadzhi said.
The Chief Mufti said that the debts had been built up since 2005 and the Muslim denomination did not have enough properties to pay to cover them. He said that many Muslims properties had been nationalised under communism and had not been restituted to the community.
Patriarch Neofit said that the conversation had been useful, and thanked Borissov for maintaining good relations with faith communities.
Borissov called on the two leaders to obey the law once it was adopted, and not to build up further debts.
The debts owed by a reported six faith groups amount to about 8.2 million leva, of which the Chief Mufti’s office owes about 8.1 million leva. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has denied that it has arrears debts to the state.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Hadzhi declined to go into details about the debts. He said that these were accounting matters and he did not deal with them. “I do not want to mislead you,” the Chief Mufti said.