US State Dept report reflects concerns about rising antisemitism in Bulgaria

The United States State Department annual International Religious Freedom for 2023 reflects concerns about rising antisemitism in Bulgaria.

The report notes that the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria Shalom repeatedly expressed concerns regarding escalating public hate speech and antisemitism, including on social networks, and offensive graffiti.

In February, media outlets reported that Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova banned what organizers called the annual Lukov March honoring General Lukov, the 1940s-era antisemitic, pro-Nazi leader of the Union of Bulgarian National Legions, following public outcry against the event.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, political parties We Continue the Change, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Democratic Bulgaria, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, as well as NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions all spoke out against the planned march.

The report says that in spite of the ban, Lukov marches took place on February 13, when approximately 200 participants gathered outside Lukov’s house in Sofia to mark the anniversary of his killing, and on February 24, when a few dozen participants marched in downtown Sofia with banners and torches.

On February 25, the day of the march, Sofia police prevented participants from gathering or marching.

Visitors from the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Spain, and Sweden, who traveled to Sofia to participate in the Lukov March, took part in a protest march against the ban, ending in front of the Sofia courthouse.

In March, Shalom issued a statement expressing disagreement with the government’s year-long program commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews, which it said contained positions and events that presented the country’s 1940s antisemitic laws and labor camps as “pro forma,” “unreal,” and designed to protect the Jewish population.

Shalom also said the program ignored the actions of the government at the time, actions that led in 1943 to the deportation by authorities of 11 343 Jews from territory then administered by the government to Vienna and onward to death camps in Poland.

In an August meeting with National Coordinator on Combatting Antisemitism and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Irena Dimitrova, the contact group for combating antisemitism confirmed its commitment to provide prompt and coordinated response to antisemitic acts.

On October 18, the government adopted the country’s first five-year national action plan on combating antisemitism, which lists combating antisemitism as a main human rights priority.

“Despite the legal ban on the propagation of fascism or other antidemocratic ideologies, authorities rarely enforced the law, and souvenirs with Nazi insignias were available in tourist areas around the country,” the report says.

On July 13, Shalom filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office over a collage distributed in self-described nationalist political party Vuzrazhdane’s Telegram channel depicting armed soldiers in Nazi uniforms carrying away a man bearing the face of a former minister of foreign affairs, Solomon Passy, who also is a prominent member of the Jewish community, in a prison uniform with the caption, “If you don’t want Russian gas, you can have some of ours.”

The President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria political party coalition, and many NGOs condemned the publication as an act of antisemitism.

The report says that Vuzrazhdane filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, accusing Shalom president Alexander Oscar of pursuing political goals and engaging in discrimination and anti-Bulgarian actions.

In October, Bourgas Municipality officials removed from a public facade graffiti depicting a hanged man with the name of Passy next to it after the Alef Jewish Bulgarian Cooperation Center filed a complaint.

According to press reports, on October 13, Sofia mayor Fandukova issued an order banning a planned march “in defense of Jerusalem” announced on Facebook by an anti-Israel individual resident in the city, which was announced in the week following the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel.

A post on Facebook announcing the march contained anti-Israeli content.

The same day, the Public Prosecutor’s Office said in a media statement that, regarding hate speech, including calls for radical actions based on religious and ethnic grounds spread on social networks, the office would be “uncompromising” in exercising its powers to guarantee public order and security and to protect what it said were the rights and freedoms of citizens.

It said perpetrators of such acts could be held criminally liable under provisions of the criminal code against preaching hatred on a religious basis. Shalom expressed appreciation and gratitude, especially to Fandukova, for holding a clear position regarding attempts at radicalization and to the municipal government of Sofia for banning the march.

The report says that the US ambassador and other embassy officials held regular discussions with representatives of the MFA, the Council of Ministers’ Directorate for Religious Affairs, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, the judiciary, and local government administrations about cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives to support interfaith dialogue.

Embassy officials raised specific examples of harassment of religious communities with the MFA, including a rise in antisemitism cases, the report says.

It says that in several meetings with Shalom, the US ambassador and embassy officials discussed rising antisemitic rhetoric.

Subsequently, the embassy expressed solidarity with the Jewish community against religious discrimination and denounced hate speech and intolerance through social media posts and events throughout the country.

In February, the embassy issued a public statement denouncing the Lukov March, in close coordination with the MFA, like-minded diplomatic missions, and the Sofia municipality, the report says.

(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)

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