Tolerance Foundation: Annual Report on State of the Religious Freedom in Bulgaria in 2000


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Subject: Tolerance Foundation: Annual Report on State of the Religious Freedom in Bulgaria in 2000

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Tolerance Foundation: Annual Report on State of the Religious
Freedom in Bulgaria in 2000


TOLERANCE FOUNDATION*
 
Annual Report on the State of Religious Freedom in Bulgaria in 2000
 
Sofia, March 22
 

1. General Review 

As a whole, the situation concerning religious freedom did not change
significantly in 2000. The most typical violations of the religious
rights of citizens remained more or less the same. 

The only two new positive developments were related to the compulsory
military service. On July 14 the Parliament adopted a Bill for
abolishment of the so-called ‘Constructive Forces’. These troops have
existed for more than 75 years and as a matter of fact they have been
a way for forced labor. Another new positive development was related
to alternative military service. 

According to information furnished by the Alternative Civilian Service
Board in December, a total of 11 applications for alternative service
had been received during the preceding 11 months of 2000. A total of
28 applications were granted during the year, most of which had been
lodged in 1999 but had not been approved at the time. 

The most serious, as well as the most alarming event in the sphere of
freedom of thought, conscience and religion were the attempts for the
adoption of a new Denominations Act. Fortunately, these attempts were
not brought to a successful conclusion by Parliament. If they had
been, the new law would undoubtedly not only have been the worst of
its kind in Eastern Europe, it would also have been a serious
infringement on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and
religion. Paradoxically, ten years after the onset of the democratic
changes in Bulgaria, attempts are made to adopt a law regulating
relations between the state and religious groups which, according to
the unanimous conclusion of both experts and religious activists, is
more restrictive even than the Denominations Act of 1949, enacted in
communist times which, save for some changes, is still in force today. 

We want to stress on the circumstance that thank to united efforts of
the great majority of the religious leaders together with the Human
Rights organizations and some prominent persons from abroad the final
adoption of the new Denominations Act has been postponed and the Draft
has sent to the Council of Europe for evaluation. 
  

2. The main event 

On 26 October 2000, the European Court of Human Rights delivered a
judgement in the case of Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria. The case
concerns the refusal of the socialist government in February 1995 to
register a leadership of the Muslim believers with Mr. Fikri Hasan as
chief mufti. The Court held that Bulgaria had violated Article 9 of
the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) through the failure of
the Bulgarian State to remain neutral in the exercise of its powers in
respect of the registration of the Muslim religion. According to the
Court, the State had interfered in the internal organization of the
Muslim religion by favoring one leader of the divided religious
community and forcing the community to come together under a unified
leadership. The Court also held that the legally established procedure
for the registration of denominations and their leaderships did not
include guarantees against arbitrary interference by public
authorities and had not met the required standards for clarity and
foreseeability. The Court also held that there had been a violation of
Article 13 of the Convention (right to an effective remedy in the
violation of human rights) in that the Bulgarian Supreme Court had
refused to examine the substance of Mr. Hasan’s appeal against the
decision of the State and only assessed whether and to what extent the
decision for registration had been taken by the competent authority
within the scope of its powers. 

In addition to the attempts to adopt a new law, the other serious
violations of the religious rights of citizens in 2000 included: 
- Expulsions of foreign citizens due to "illegal religious activity"; 
- Adoption by the local authorities in several cities of illegal
ordinances which greatly restrict the rights of the local branches of
religious communities; 
- Break-ups of peaceful meetings of religious communities by the
authorities or by private citizens, undeterred by the authorities; 
- Discriminatory treatment of religious communities by administrative
bodies. 

3. The attempts for adopting of new Denominations Act 

On 2 February 2000, the National Assembly adopted on first reading the
three draft bills on religious denominations tabled by the UtDF
(United Democratic Forces, the ruling coalition in Bulgaria), BSP
(Bulgarian Socialist Party, the main opposition party) and IMRO
(Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, that is a small right
nationalist party), and rejected the draft tabled by a group of MPs of
the Alliance for National Salvation (opposition coalition, whose main
part is Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the party of the Turkish
national minority). The three drafts were sharply criticized by dozens
of representatives of religious and human rights organizations at a
conference organized by the Tolerance Foundation in July 1999. At a
special press conference organized on the day of the voting, the
content of the three drafts adopted on first reading was also sharply
criticized by American human rights activist Prof. William Cole
Durham, chairman of the OSCE sub-committee on freedom of conscience
and religion, who was visiting Bulgaria at the time. On 8 February, 19
religious and human rights organizations adopted a declaration
addressed to the National Assembly, the President and the Council of
Ministers. In it they voiced their deep concern over and protest
against the absence of a dialogue between religious organizations and
the National Assembly on the adoption of a new law. They also declared
themselves against the repressive nature of the adopted drafts, their
unclear and ambiguous character, and against the attempt of the state
to subject religious organizations to administrative control. In
response to the appeal of the Bulgarian human rights organizations, a
number of churches, human rights protection groups and prominent
personalities called on the Bulgarian authorities not to adopt a
repressive denominations act. 

On 12 October, the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and
Religious Denominations submitted a consolidated draft denomination
act for the second and final reading to the National Assembly. On 20
October, more than 90 representatives of religious and human rights
organizations, gathered at the conference organized by the Tolerance
Foundation and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee critically examined
the final version of the draft. Foreign guests also too took part in
the conference. 

The participants stated that the final version was a little better
than the three drafts on which it was based, but that it still
reproduced its main shortcoming: excessive administrative supervision
of the internal affairs of religious organizations. Thus, according to
the consolidated draft, the state authority for interaction with
religious organizations, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, in
conformity with Article 10, paragraph 9 of the draft, exercises
"supervision over the activities of denominations" and also "issues
the opinion of the Sofia City Court on the registration of
denominations" (Article 10, paragraph 4), which in
practice is compulsory for the court. In addition, it "approves the
rules of higher theological schools" (Article 10, paragraph 6). 

A particularly important power vested in the Directorate, which could
easily turn into a precondition for arbitrariness, is the "study of
the religious basis and services and rites of the … denomination"
(Article 16, paragraph 1). The Directorate clears the consignments of
humanitarian aid intended for denominations (Article 42), and gives
its consent for the participation of foreign clergymen or teachers in
the liturgical or educational practices of denominations (Article 35). 

The draft also creates a large number of preconditions for
arbitrariness on the local level. Article 25, paragraph 2, entitles
mayors of municipalities to "to refuse the registration of the local
branches if the services and rites, which the local branch wishes to
practice, do not comply with the statutes of the registered
denomination". According to Article 33, paragraphs 1 and 2, religious
organizations may use a private flat as a house of worship only if all
other owners agree. If they decide to rent a public building, it must
on all accounts have a separate entrance. The draft also artificially
narrows the possibility of citizens to unite for the attainment of
their religious goals. This is effected with the ban on the existence
of religious organizations as separate legal entities if the state
authority judges their names to be the same or if their "religious
basis and rites" are the same (Article 19, item 2). Finally, all
denominations, regardless of whether state-subsidized or not, are
subject to state financial control (Article 39). 

According to the participants in the conference on 20 October, the
following also constitute a danger to the freedom of religion in
Bulgaria: the introduction in the draft of "a denomination, directed
against national security" as a reason for the ban of a religious
organization which directly contradicts Article 18 of the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of
the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the
heavy fines in the penal provisions (Articles 50-52), which render the
establishment of new religious groups in Bulgaria virtually
impossible, and especially the definitions of the legitimate
restrictions of the right to profess a religion, provided in the
supplementary provisions of the draft, which pave the way for
extensive arbitrariness in their application. The conference called on
the National Assembly not to adopt the draft in its present
appearance. Many national representatives also made a number of
comments on the draft and criticized different aspects of it. As a
result it was sent for expert assessment to the Council of Europe and
its adoption was postponed. 

4. Expulsion of foreigners on the ground of their "illegal" religious
activity 

The expulsion of foreign nationals from the country, claimed to
represent a “threat to national security” due to their religious
practices, continued in 2000. On 8 January, a group of six Islamic
preachers – Ahmadis - was caught in the region of Shoumen and expulsed
from the country. According to police information, they had been
preaching without a permit by the Directorate of Religious Affairs.
Later, in May and June, another three Muslims were ordered out of the
country. One of them was Ahmad Musa, a Palestinian, who has been
living in the country for 15 years and is married to a Bulgarian. He
was later detained and expulsed on 6 August. His wife and three
children remained in Bulgaria. In this case too, the reason for
expulsion was "threat to national security". Orders based on such
considerations in Bulgaria are not subject to judicial control. For
this reason, in end effect nobody understood exactly on what facts the
authorities were basing themselves. Press reports, clearly implied by
the Interior Ministry, revealed that the accusation was one of 
"illegal religious activity".  The only "proof" that was cited was Mr.
Musa's participation in the "illegal" Muslim seminar in Narechenski
Bani in August 1997. Mr. Musa's case is now being considered by the
European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 

5. Adoption by the local authorities in several cities of illegal
ordinances which greatly restrict the rights of the local branches of
religious communities 

Throughout the year, ordinances on public order or on the activities
of religious communities, containing many discriminatory and
restrictive provisions, were adopted in several Bulgarian cities
(Bourgas, Plovdiv, Pleven, Gorna Oryahovitsa and Stara Zagora) under
pressure by IMRO municipal councilors and in violation of a number of
laws. Thus, for example, an ordinance adopted in Plovdiv in May,
prohibits "the sale and advertisement of newspapers, magazines or
other literature or articles with a religious or pornographic (!)
Content in the streets, in underpasses, public transport and other
similar public places". It also obliges religious organizations to
inform the municipality in advance about all and any of their mass
events. To hold them without preliminary permission is prohibited.
Preaching of any kind in public places and posting materials with
religious content outside houses of worship is also prohibited. An
ordinance adopted in Stara Zagora in October denies municipal
registration to religious communities, which are banned in European
Union member states, regardless of whether they are centrally
registered in Bulgaria. It also prohibits the advertisement of
"miraculous", "curative" and "healing" effects of the activities of
denominations, as well as any activities among children in children’s
institutions and educational establishments. On the other hand, the
ordinance obliges denominations in Stara Zagora to declare any
donations from abroad before the mayor of the
municipality. The Pleven ordinance, adopted in November, requires
religious communities in the city to send all their documents to the
municipal authorities. It prohibits proselytizing of any kind
outdoors, as well as the distribution of religious literature outside
churches and specialized bookshops. Denominations are also prohibited
to attract persons under the age of 18 to their activities in any form
whatsoever, except with the written consent of their parents, or to
conduct their activities in all kinds of schools and/or children’s’
establishments. On the other hand, they are obliged to declare their
incomes and expenses before the municipal authorities. In November, 11
local branches of denominations instituted proceedings against the
Pleven ordinance in court, and on 8 November the Evangelical Alliance
issued a sharp protest declaration, stating that the ordinance
contravenes a number of provisions of the Constitution and is based on
texts of the Denominations Act which were ruled unconstitutional by
the Constitutional Court in June 1992. 

6. Break-ups of peaceful meetings of religious communities by the
authorities or by private citizens, undeterred by the authorities 

As in previous years, in 2000 too, the authorities and private
citizens and groups, undeterred by the authorities, dispersed peaceful
meetings of religious communities, often violently, in a number of
settlements throughout the country. On 28 January, the police in
Kurdjali dispersed a meeting of Pentecostal preachers from Turkey.
They were told they had no right to preach without permission by the
Directorate of Religious Affairs. On 31 May, several persons,
residents of the village of Maritsa near Samokov, led by the local
Orthodox priest, severely beat up Peter Nikolov, Georgi Angelov and
Nikolov’s wife who wanted to screen the film "Jesus" after preliminary
agreement with the village mayor. Their film reels were confiscated.
The police refused to deal with the case. On 21 June, IMRO activists
in two towns in Blagoevgrad region chased and threatened
representatives of religious communities before the very eyes of the
police. In Petrich, 12 Jehovah's Witnesses were brutally driven out of
the town for distributing leaflets and brochures near the bus terminal
and Town Park. Round about the same time, IMRO – Blagoevgrad gave an
ultimatum to members of the Mormon Church to leave the town. 

7. Discriminatory treatment of religious communities by administrative
bodies 

On 2 October, the National Radio and Television Council (NRTC) refused
to give a license to the first religious radio in Bulgaria – Vyara –
Nadezhda [Faith – Hope] EOOD, a group belonging to the United Church
of God. Discrepancy with five of the requirements of the NRTC, a
necessary condition for receiving a license, was cited as a pretext.
This happened at a time when many licenses were granted to plainly
commercial radio stations. The NRTC, in violation of the Access to
Public Information Act, refused to present the minutes of its meeting
on 2 October which would have revealed the real reasons for the
refusal. 

On 18 February 2000, the Ministry of Education issued an instruction
on the experimental study on Islam in optional religious classes,
ordering that instruction in this religion should be conducted in
Bulgarian and that it should be financed by the Chief Mufti's Office.
Instruction in the Orthodox religion in Bulgaria is financed by the
state. In answer to a question in parliament in connection with these
discriminatory provisions, the Minister of Education and Science
replied that instruction is carried out in Bulgarian because Article
8, paragraph 1 of the National Education Act stipulates that Bulgarian
is the official language in kindergartens, schools and auxiliary teams
of education in Bulgaria. However, there are dozens of schools in the
country in which the language in which both different subjects, as
well as the syllabus as whole, is taught is a foreign language –
English, French, German, Spanish, etc. The Minister failed to provide
a clear answer to the question why the Chief Mufti’s Office, rather
than the state, should finance the teaching of Islam. 

8. Acknowledgments 

A lot of peoples gave their contribution in the fight for improvement
of the situation with the state of religious freedom in Bulgaria. We
can’t express our gratitude to all of them, because of the list of
names is too long. Despite of this Tolerance Foundation considers its
duty to express its gratitude especially to the following people, the
contribution of who is especially considerable: 

- Mr. Krassimir Kanev, Chairperson of the Bulgarian Helsinki
Committee. 
- Mr. Tzanko Mitev, Chair of the Bulgarian Association for Defense and
Encouragement of the Religious Rights. 
- Prof. W. Cole Durham Jr., Director of the Brigham’s Young University
International Center for Law and Religion Studies in Provo, Utah, USA. 
 - Mr. Willy Fautre, Chairperson of the Brussels based human rights
organization "Human Rights without Frontiers". 
- Mr. Paul Staes, Secretary General of the group of the European
People Party (Christian Democrats) in the Council of Europe 
- Mr. Orrin G. Hatch, United States Senator 
- Mr. Gordon H. Smith, United States Senator 
 
On the behalf of Tolerance Foundation: 

Emil Cohen, President 
 _______________________________________ 
*Tolerance Foundation is human rights group, monitoring the freedom of
conscience and the religious freedom practices in Bulgaria, providing
legal assistance to victims of discrimination based on religion, as
well as propagating the idea for tolerance towards religious and other
convictions. 

The group was founded in 1994. President of the Tolerance Foundation
is Mr. Emil Cohen. 

Address:    1000 Sofia, 163A “Rakovsky” St., phone/fax: (+359 2) 981
23 57; Phone: (+359 2) 988 31 36; E-mail:
toleranc@geobiz.com 
  
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