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Tolerance Foundation presents the Report on Religious Freedom in Bulgaria in 1997

26 February 1998


Generally, when it comes to religious freedom, one can say that in 1997 a certain progress was made in the respect for human rights in Bulgaria. In comparison with previous years the number of flagrant violations of religious freedom has fallen down. No cases of encroaching religious freedom such as job dismissals or deprrivation of parental rights o grounds of membership in religious minority organizations have been observed. The state started procedures, which, if brought to an end, might lead to Jehovah's Witnesses' registration. The government approved a Draft law for the Alternative service. This Draft has serious drawbacks, but if adopted by Parliament, it will help put an end to imprisonment on grounds of conscience.

However, a number of facts reveal that the government officials are planning to adopt a new Law on Religion, which, given the responsible officials' ideas about the law (For a detailed report about the ideas for the new Law on Religion see Bulgarian Authorities do not intend to give up exerting political control over religions, Emil Cohen, Obectiv, November 1997.) will not contribute at all to the promotion of religious freedom in Bulgaria.


In 1997 no new laws were passed regarding religion and no old ones were abrogated. On 1st of December the Council of Ministers approved a Draft Law for Alternative Service. This law fulfills art. 59, par. 2 of the Constitution after a 6-year delay. It guarantees to the citizens the right to objection to military service for compelling reasons of philosophy and enables them to replace their military obligations with alternative, unarmed service. Although we appreciate the fact that such a Draft Law was approved (Today almost all European countries provide for replacement of the military service with an alternative one. Our data (which are not exhaustive) show that only in Albania, Byelorussia and Turkey one can find no legal means to object to armed military service. In 1997 Greece, which had been the only member of EU and NATO not to provide for the right to objection to military service, adopted a Law on Alternative Service. ) we should point to its serious imperfections from the point of view of international standards. (See UN Human Rights Committee's General Commentary N 22 (48), September27, 1993 of art.18 of the Universal Pact for Civil and Political Rights, Addendum CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, 27 September 1993; Recommendation N R (87)8 of the European Council's Committee of Ministers on objection to armed service on grounds of philosophy, Council of Europe, Publications and Document Division, Strasbourg, 1988, ISBN 92-871-1568-0; European Parliament's Resolution on objection to military service on grounds of philosophy and on alternative civilian service, 13 October 1989, Document A2 - 0433/88/A and A3/15/89 A.)

Firstly, the definition of the grounds for objection can be criticized. Art.3 of the Draft Law says that the right to objection is a "constitutional right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion".

The wording of earlier versions was more correct: "All men ... may ask for replacement of their armed military obligations ... for compelling reasons of ethics, morals, humanism or philosophy". (This was the wording of the Draft dated September 23, 1997.) The final version might be easily interpreted as concerning only religious beliefs. This creates the danger that young men's convictions, which are firm, but not religious, be not respected as grounds for replacement.

Secondly, the final Draft restricts the right to replacement of the military service with alternative one by means of defining annual quotas for alternative service. Moreover, it stipulates that alternative service shall last twice longer than the military one (art.15). Thus the length of alternative service becomes punitive, which contradicts international standards.( Art.5 of European Parliament's Resolution, dated 13 October 1989, reads: "The European Parliament persistently appeals that the length of alternative service should not exceed the length of the military service by more than a time and a half, in order to compensate for the periods of regaining qualification of those, who do military service." )

Then, art.29, par.2 of the Draft restricts the rights of those, performing alternative service - during performance they do not have the right to carry out religious or atheistic propaganda, be members of labor unions, run for elective state or municipal offices. These restrictions, motivated by the desire to put the legal status of those on military and alternative service on an equal footing, cannot be justified and they contradict the European Convention for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. According to the Convention any restriction of human rights has to be "reasonable" and "necessary to maintain the national and public security, public order, to protect health, good morals or other people's rights in democratic society." (See art. 8,9,11 of the Convention, as well as art. 12, 18, 21, 22 of the Universal Pact for Civilian and Political Rights.)

The final Draft provides for a symbolical salary for those, who do alternative service. While at work they enjoy most of the rights, provided for in the Labor Code and after work they are civilian. This makes the restrictions ungrounded. Neither can the provisions of art.22, par.2 of the Universal Pact for Civil and Political Rights, justify them because these concern the military and the police.( "This article does not hinder imposing legal restrictions of this right for members of the armed forces and the police." (I.e. the right to freedom of association, include. labor unions.)

The project also explicitly states that the alternative service is a civilian service (this is undoubtedly positive) and it is not part of the system of the Ministry of Defense. It is therefore extremely ridiculous that those, who object on grounds of religious belief, can not carry out religious propaganda in their leisure time (In case that the phrase "during performance of the service" is being interpreted as related to the calendar length of service.)


In 1997 the state made steps towards recognizing Jehovah's Witnesses religious community. Both parties' statements of satisfaction with the achieved progress followed the talks between representatives of this community and the Religious Direction on 20th December. The talks had been preceded by the European Human Rights Commission's decision that Jehovah's Witness's claim against Bulgaria was considered "acceptable". (The Supreme Court did not meet the Jehovah's Witnesses appeal against the Decision of the Council of Ministers, dated 28 June 1994, which denied registration under art.133A of the Law for the Persons and the Family. In the spring of 1995 Jehovah's Witnesses Christian Association brought the matter to the European Human Rights Commission. The religious association claimed that the Bulgarian State violated art. 6,9,10,11,14 of the European Convention for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.)

The Commission recommended a "friendly settlement" of the matter and on 18th of August the Council of Ministers declared they would seek such a settlement. If the settlement is achieved, i.e. if the Bulgarian state grants the status of a juridical person to Jehovah's Witnesses, this will make Bulgaria cease being the only country in Europe, where Jehovah's Witnesses are compelled to practice their religion semi-legally, constantly in danger of police raids on prayer meetings, confiscation of religious literature and expelling foreign members of the community.

On August 20 the Council of Ministers, in Decree N 727, registered under art.133A of the Law for the Persons and the Family the Christian association Gedeon. Thus Gedeon, (See Official Gazette, 27 August, 1997) who only distribute the Bible, were granted the right to freedom of activity after having been banned (In the summer of 1994 Gedeon, together with about 50 other religious groups, was denied renewal of their registration under art.133A of the Law for the Persons and the Family.) for more than three years and a half.

On 13th of March the Supreme Administrative Court decided that Ficri Sali was the legitimate Chief Mufti of the Muslims in Bulgaria. Thus the court declared illegitimate the Bulgarian Muslims' Conference, which was held in November 1995 and where Nedim Gendjev, who had previously worked for the former National Security's VI Department, was elected head of the Muslim community. Meanwhile on 8 September the European Human Rights Commission had declared Ficri Sali's appeal against Bulgaria acceptable.

The schism in the Muslim Church, caused by the actions of different governments, was overcome at the uniting conference successfully held on 14th of October. On 28th of October the Council of Ministers legitimized its resolutions and officially recognized the new leadership of the Muslim Community, led by Mustafa Hadji.

In autumn a court in Sofia decided not to accept the prosecutor's accusation against Women's Federation for Peace. The prosecutor wanted that the organization's registration be suspended because it was an organization, used to "conceal the activity of the sect of Moon".


In November and December the Government's ideas for a new Law on Religion were made known. (For more details see the article in footnote 1). These ideas are not final and are going to be discussed. However, there are several things we can point out even now, because they portend that certain violations of religious freedom might be made legitimate if these ideas were to prevail.

Firstly, the Government's suggestions still provide (only for the religious organizations) for administrative procedures to enable granting recognition by the state. (In this connection Mr. Liubomir Mladenov, acting Director of the Religious Direction, stated that if the court is entitled to register religious organizations, the state will have to give up carrying out any policy in the area of religion. See the article in footnote 1.)

Secondly, the crucial principle suggested is "one confession - one organization". Actually, if this principle becomes a legal act, some of the present religious organizations might lose their independence and be compelled to artificially unite with other organizations, considered to have the same confession.

Then, associations and organizations, related to religion or religious education, might be allowed to exist only as bodies of officially recognized religions. Thus, if this idea is put to practice, new and/or small religious groups will be deprived of the right to be recognized and act legally, until they become able to qualify for religions and continue their activity under a religion's supposedly privileged status.


We witnessed an official statement that there existed religious police in Bulgaria. In an interview for Obectiv (the newsletter of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee), the acting Director of the National Security Service colonel Atanassov confirmed that a special group of the Security Services monitored the activities of unregistered religious communities. He did not state the legal grounds for the work and existence of this special subdivision of the security services ("There are subdivisions in the National Security Service that are dealing with religion. I.e. we monitor the persons and organizations, who are not duly registered ... We do not deal with the official religions..." See NSS deals with the unregistered religions, interview with Atanas Atanassov (secretary of the Ministry of Interior) Obectiv, August - September 1997); neither did he give an example of criminal activity of the so-called "sects". According the information Tolerance Foundation has, Security Service employees win over secret collaborators from among the unregistered religious communities, using threats.

Last year the police kept raiding upon private homes, offices and prayer meetings, confiscating religious literature and expelling foreigners on grounds of their membership in religious groups. Again, the main victims were last year the members of the Unification Church and Jehovah's Witnesses Christian Association.

On April 6 the police scattered the people who had gathered for a symbolic wedding ceremony of members of the Unification Church in Blagoevgrad. A lot of books, audiotapes were confiscated, as well as publications of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and even the UDF program. (The Union of Democratic Forces is the political party in power) The unification Church brought to court the police that carried out the scattering and confiscation. An the end of June and in July the police raided upon private homes of adherents of the Unification Church in Sofia, Kiustendil, Blagoevgrad, Assenovgrad, Plovdiv, Varna and the city of Rila. Almost in all cases, when numerous books, brochures, religious audio and video tapes (once even a TV set and a videorecorder) were confiscated, the police did not have a prosecutor's order and no preliminary procedures had been started against the victims.

On August 3 in Shoumen literature was confiscated and, as the newspapers put it, "sectants from Jehovah's Witnesses were discovered while receiving instructions." (Trud newspaper, August 4, 1997). On 20th of July policemen beat two members of the Church of the Adventists of the Seventh Day (a religious organization, which has been present in Bulgaria for decades, moreover, it is officially recognized) because the latter were selling religious literature in the streets.

On August 29 the police raided a holiday house in Narechen and discontinued a religious Muslim workshop, accusing them of "preaching the Koran illegally". The performance was witnessed by newspaper, TV and radio journalists, who had received invitations beforehand; hence the broad coverage of the event. Religious literature was confiscated. The explanation, provided by the security officials in Plovdiv, was that "a mob of Islam fundamentalists had gathered" at the workshop. The speakers, clergymen from Saudi Arabia, were threatened with expelling from the country. According to the testimonies of the witnesses the visitors of the workshop were mainly elderly people from the Rhodopes villages, inhabited by Turks.

On September 2 an Austrian member of Jehovah's Witnesses was expelled from the country. He was "caught" preaching in Smolian. On September 11 the Bessarabian Bulgarians Stepan Kara and Maria Kara were commanded to leave Bulgaria because they were members of Jehovah's Witnesses. The order, issued by the police in Kardjaly was appealed against and the Karas are still in the country. What was tragic in their case was that both had come to Bulgaria in order to obtain Bulgarian citizenship under the program for granting Bulgarian citizenship to the Bulgarians in Bessarabia.

Last year we witnessed tumultuous manifestations of extreme religious intolerance and furious media campaign against some of the Protestant churches in Bulgaria. The evangelization led by the famous pastor Shambach and organized by the Pentecostal church and the Churches of God on May 16-18 in Hall 1 of the National Palace of Culture, gave reason for nationalists' demonstrations against this religious event. They were stigmatized as "betrayal", "invasion of a religion, which is foreign to Orthodox Christianity" and so on. The attention here has to be drawn not to the demonstrations (everyone has the right to protest), but to the position of a number of officials, who are obliged to be neutral when it comes to religion. The Chief Prosecutor Mr. Ivan Tatarchev said that the registration of the churches, which organized evangelism, might be suspended. The Chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission, Mr. Ivan Sungarski said that the only way to stop the invasion of the "sects" was to declare Orthodox Christianity the official religion by law. Though smaller, the media hysteria reemerged again in October, when the Rema church, which is a branch of the Church of God, organized another evangelization with foreign speakers.

On September 15 the mayor of the South region of Plovdiv, Mr. Alexander Dolev, issued an order, which was deprived of any legal grounds whatsoever. The order confiscated a building, built for religious purposes by Emmanuel Bible Center. (Emmanuel Bible Centre is one of the 54 religious groups that were deprived, under art.133A of the Law for the Person and the Family of the right to registration and continuation of their activity in the summer of 1994. Since the autumn of 1996 Mr. Dolev has been trying to, first, forbid the use of the building for religious purposes, and, second, confiscate the building, which was built with the personal means of Mr. Ivan Nestorov, the leader of the church, as well as of members of his church. ). After the confiscation in September Emmanuel appealed in the court against the mayor's order.

The court has not come up with a decision yet. The mayor's decision was again accompanied by a fierce campaign against Emmanuel Bible Center.

The mayor himself threatened the members of the religious group and the pastor, Mr. Nestorov, in person ("If needed, we will make some of them emigrate. Ivan Nestororov travels abroad ... in Germany... anyway. Let him go there and preach if Germany tolerates him! Not in Bulgaria though! ... VMRO will tread on Emmanuel! Then we will proceed with the others - Jehovah's Witnesses, the Family, we will throw them all out of Bulgaria - one after another, as lice are exterminated. In the name of faith. To make Bulgaria clean." Maritza newspaper, 17 September, 1997).

Mr. Dolev was brought to court for his order for confiscation, which is absurd anyway, to be declared invalid.

On June, 27 four young men, who said they were adherents of VMRO, rushed in the prayer house of the Bulgarian Church of God in the rime of service, shouted, spit on the sacred objects, broke several chairs and the glass of the front entrance door. The sufferers complained to the Vratza police department. There is no evidence that any investigation has been launched against the perpetrators.

On September 4, 1997 in the village of Gabra, region of Elin Pelin, the local inhabitant Dimitar Pechurkov attacked believers from the church in Vakarel, connected to the Bulgarian Church of God (The church in Vakarel is housed in a wagon. Since 1993 the wagon has been repeatedly attacked and plundered), who were distributing literature. He threatened them that he would beat them and instigated other peasants to attack the believers. The pastor, Mr. Krassimir Partovski, was beaten, many brochures for free distribution were done away with and food for free distribution was scattered. Everything happened before the eyes of the local inhabitants, who gathered at the square. The victims complained to the Elin Pelin Police Department, but their complaint was not filed and nothing was done against the perpetuators. A complaint was filed in the Prosecutor's Office. There is no evidence that the latter undertook any action in line with the provisions of the Penal Code for such cases.

In December the United Church of God announced that the municipality in Silistra denied registration to the branch of the church in the city. In the autumn of last year the Kiustendil municipality refused to give land for building a prayer house for the local branch of the Bulgarian Church of God. VMRO organized a furious media campaign, as well as attempts for demonstrations against the showing of the movie "Jesus" in this city (to our information, which is now being checked the same happened in other settlements as well). The movie was described as "sectant", "trading away Bulgarian culture" and so on. (See Nova Bulgaria newspaper, October 20 and 23, 1997, Kiustendil.) The Christian Unity Bible Association, who was showing the film, experienced similar problems in Breznik. In the spring of last year the municipalities of Pernik and Trun forbade showing the movie in all municipal buildings in their region.

In Elin Pelin and in Pernik in the late autumn of 1997, the Bulgarian State Railways, who had rented premises to the local branches of the United Church of God, canceled the contract with the churches with no notification at all. The churches do not have any place for their services. The unofficial explanation for the cancellation of the contracts was that the United Churches of God were a "sect". On new year's eve the local branch of the Pentecostal church were ordered out of the hall they had rented - the Bourgas Philharmony.

The case with the spinning out and denial of registration to the International Evangelical Church in Krichim, pastored by Mr. Ivan Ralev is special. This church has officially existed since 1935. In 1992 the church got its present name by a decision of the Plovdiv Regional Court and registered as a non-profit association. In 1992 the Chief Prosecutor attacked this decision in the Supreme Court. However, the church, which had grown and had 32 local branches and more than 1500 members, held a convention in 1995, elected its leaders and submitted an application for registration under art.6 of the Law on Religion. The application has never been granted. Therefore, a new convention was held and the International Christian Church filed a new application to the Religious Direction. After waiting for the one-month time limit for providing an answer according to the Law for Administrative Procedures, the church appealed against the "silent refusal" of the Religious Direction before the Supreme Administrative Court.

Tolerance Foundation has information about other flagrant violations of the religious freedom, which are now also being checked.