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  • March 2017: Catholic Priest Leaves Bulgaria after Protests against the Church Sheltering a Syrian Refugee Family

The migrant crisis during the last year provoked different reactions in Bulgarian society. Some towns and villages met the refugees with hospitality, e.g. the Banya village near the town of Nova Zagora, but there were also places where the population did not allow the newcomers to settle and to send their children in the local schools (e.g. the village of Kalishte or the towns of Elin Pelin and Belene). According to the latter, all migrants, even those who have legalized their status, present a serious threat for the communities where they are going to settle. Some majors even refuse to register such refugees. One of the last examples of such acts of rejection took place in the Danube town of Belene, famous for its community of Roman Catholics who have lived here for centuries.

In the beginning of March 2017, the Bulgarian State Refugee Agency referred to Father Paolo Cortese, who was in charge of the Roman Catholic parish in Belene, and who had volunteered to house refugees, following the call of the Pope. He was invited to accommodate in his house a Syrian family with two children, who had been granted legal humanitarian status. The newcomers were welcomed by the local parish. Nevertheless, one of the municipal councillors initiated protests against the accommodation of the refugees, claiming that the priest had not asked the permission of the municipality (see Sofia Globe, 10 March 2017). He was supported by a group of about 30 like-minded people who claimed that the refugees would endanger the local society. After this campaign, the refugees left the town. At the same time, Father Paolo was recalled from Belen due to the death threats he had received from the anti-refugee camp. Before leaving, he gave an interview reminding about the events of March 1943, when the then acting leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood against the planned deportation of Bulgarian Jews and rescued their lives. He said:

“I did not succeed to protect one peaceful family. Today Syrians are refugees. Seventy years ago, the refugees in Europe were Jews. Tomorrow it could be us.” (Sofia Globe, 12 March 2017)

On this occasion, the foundation “Truth and Remembrance” initiated a petition in support of Father Paolo Cortese. In addition, a group of supporters of Father Paolo Cortese organized a peaceful protest in front of the office of the President of Bulgaria, but received no answer (Nova Television, 12 March 2017). The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, however, reacted by confirming again its statement on the refugees issue of 2015 (in Bulgarian, see also the English version) (reissued in 2016).

D 20 March 2017    ADaniela Kalkandjieva

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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