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2014

  • The status of properties of religious denominations in Bulgaria

On 16 July 2013, a group of deputies from the newly established 42nd Bulgarian National Assembly proposed several amendments of laws which concern the restitution of properties to religious denominations in Bulgaria as well as the exemption of taxes for such assets, the labour conditions of clerics and religious ministers as well as their retirement and health insurance.

On 7 November 2013, the Bulgarian National Assembly voted one of the proposed amendments. More specifically, it changed the text of Article 24 § 9 of the Local Taxes and Fees Act. Its previous version used to exempt “the houses of worship which belong to lawfully registered religious denominations in their country” of local taxes. The new one exempts not only these particular buildings, but also "the landed property [pozemleni imoti in Bulgarian] where they have been built", i.e. estates which also belong to lawfully registered religious denominations.

Meanwhile, the amendments which concern the labour conditions, retirement and social insurance of clergy did not provoke any public debate. Having in mind that the Orthodox diocesan hierarchs used to pay the salaries of their priests in candles, it seems strange that the latter keep silence on this issue. Moreover, in 2010, the Podrepa Trade Union announced that the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church owed about € 1,75 Million to the National Pension Fund and Health Insurance Fund. Since then, however, this issue has disappeared from the public scene and today, the society does not know who pays the health insurance and pensions of this professional group. It is also unclear whether this is a specific problem of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which represents the religious majority in the country, or if it also concerns the other religious denominations in the country.

The amendment that has provoked the most heated disputes in Bulgarian society, however, concerns the property claims of religious denominations over urban buildings (mostly in the Muslim case) and archeological excavations (mostly in the case of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church). In fact, the draft law of 16 July 2013 initiates a second wave of restitution of such properties in Bulgaria. The first wave, which started with the restitution laws of 1991 and 1992 and ended in 2012, aimed at the return of arable lands, forests, industries, urban estates and other assets confiscated by the communist regime. As a result, the Orthodox Church received back 120,000 hectares of arable lands and forests, and the Muslims 80,000 hectares (see the article of S. Stoykov, in Bulgarian). In addition, these two religious denominations restored their properties rights on many office and residential buildings (temples not included). At present, however, there still is no register of the returned tangible and intangible assets. In this regard, it is important to note that no public information is given as to whether the two largest religious denominations, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Muslim administration, have ever paid any taxes for their properties and incomes. This first wave of restitution, however, did not rouse any debate in the society. The major concerns were at the time provoked by publication by the media about their misuse. People were especially annoyed by the luxury demonstrated by some metropolitans. Therefore, they are very critical of the lack of transparency on the management of church properties, and on the expenditure of the incomes these properties provide.

The situation changed after the announcement of the draft law of July 2013. It proposed to add a new paragraph (§ 3) to Article 21 of the 2002 Religious Denominations Act which reads : “the monasteries, temples and prayer houses that have existed at the time of enforcement of this law and that have been designated as places of worship, together with the landed estates where they are built, are property of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church - Bulgarian Patriarchate or correspondingly to other registered religious denominations and their local branches”. The authors justify this amendment as a guarantee for the freedom of religion in accordance with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 10), the Bulgarian Constitution (Articles 13.1 and 37.1) and the 2002 Religious Denominations Act (Article 4.2). In their view, the separation of religious institutions from the state requires a specific treatment of the ownership of places of worship. In their motives, the authors of the draft law point that the churches, monasteries and prayer houses constitute res sacrae and thus that this special category of immovable property needs to be excluded from the civil realm. This means that the houses of worships, together with the various estates of religious denominations, must be exempted from state and municipal taxes.

This particular proposal, however, provoked heated disputes in the society, and even brought about open conflicts which threaten the religious and ethnic peace in Bulgaria. The major criticism was directed against the restitution of religious property. The reason roots in the unrestricted retroactive force of the amendments. According to the Motives to the Draft Law, the restitution has effect over the period from the Baptism of the Bulgarians (864) to nowadays. On the one hand, this approach allows the administrations of religious denominations, such as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, to claim ownership even over archeological excavations. On the other hand, many temples have seen their purpose change several times during the discussed period (Orthodox churches were converted to mosques during the age of the Ottoman rule ; mosques were converted into churches after the liberation of Bulgarian in 1878 ; religious buildings were turned into public ones under communism). As a result, more than one religious community can claim property rights over the same building. Moreover, such a situation also involves the interests of non-religious groups, e.g. archeologists oppose the claims of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church over some excavations. Finally, the tensions in society are additionally fueled by lawsuits filed by the Chief Mufti’s Office which claims ownership over urban buildings. The most problematic cases concern towns with almost no Muslim population, and with buildings that have never been mosques or have ceased to function as such before the communist takeover.

To reduce the tensions over the restitution of religion properties, a group of deputies in the 42nd National Assembly proposed a new draft law, registered on 9 December 2013. It excluded the buildings which currently function as museums, galleries, or archeological exhibitions, and have the status of public state or municipal property. The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, however, protested against this proposal as it impedes the arrangement of its ownership over certain buildings. Meanwhile, protests against the lawsuits filed by the Chief Mufti’s Office continue. On 14 February 2014, protests took place before the Plovdiv regional court and resulted in wounded and arrested people. The nationalist party Ataka made use of this event and on 19 February 2014, registered its own draft law aimed at preventing further restitutions of properties to religious denominations by the means of court judgment.

Sources :
Draft Law 354-01-40/16 July 2013 (in Bulgarian), Draft Law 354-01-91/9 December 2013 (in Bulgarian), Draft Law No. 454-01-22 /19 February 2014 (in Bulgarian).

Stefan Stoykov, lawyer, ‘If the New Law on religions enters in force : The Mufitiate and the Synod take back 1,000,000 hectares’, [newspaper] Pressa Daily, 18 September 2013.

Daniela Kalkandjieva, The Bulgarian Draft Law on Religious Properties, available in Orthopuzzle.

7 août 2013