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  • November 2016

On 26 November, 2016, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) issued an Exclusive Address on the Refugee Crisis, expressing fear that refugees from the areas of military conflict in the Middle East and Northern Africa would imperil the existence of the Bulgarian state. Among other things, the document signifies that the mass migration of non-indigenous people presents a serious challenge, not only to such secular bodies such as many European national governments and the European Commission, but also to some Christian churches. It also points out the difficulty of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s hierarchy to deal with democracy when religious pluralism is at stake.

At the outset of its Address, the Holy Synod refutes the widespread public criticism public of the BOC’s passive stand on the refugee crisis. The hierarchs starts their defense with arguments that relate to the Orthodox Church in general. More specifically, they remind that this Church neither takes hasty decisions, nor does she pander to populist opinions or to views that serve those in power. Then, they shift the focus on the duties of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to her flock. Correspondingly, the Address speaks about “our flock … entrusted to our caring by the Lord Jesus Christ”. In the next sentences, the Synod explicitly points that the “crowds coming” will question the stability and existence of the Bulgarian state, and endanger “the ethnical balance existing on the territory of our fatherland Bulgaria”. On these grounds, the Synod appeals to the national government not to “admit any more refugees to our country”. Going further, the Synod turns a blind eye to the constitutional separation of religion and the state in Bulgaria, and refers to its executive authority “as the government of an Orthodox state”. More specifically, the BOC’s hierarchs ask the government to work internationally for the immediate cessation of the wars in the Middle East and North Africa as a means by which to prove its engagement with philanthropy and the European norms of humanities. In addition, the Synod “most categorically” demands that the state representatives at various international forums launch an inquiry to establish whether Christianity in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, etc. has become the subject of a religiously motivated genocide, and what measures have been undertaken to safeguard the religious and ethnic tolerance there. In this regard, the Synod gives concrete policy recommendations to the Bulgarian government, saying among others that it:
 “should concentrate its foreign policy resources upon … the cessation of military hostilities rather than just manifesting solidarity with the consequences of their endless continuation”;
 “should provide for and take into consideration that it would be much better if the refugees … (were) to be people who would fit well our environment” (i.e. they “would not take as moral impediment … the fact that they would be cared for by members of an Orthodox Christian community”).

The Synod closes its Address with a warning that the government should expect even graver problems if they fail to meet the second condition.

The Bulgarian original of the Address and its official translation are published at the website of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. In this regard, however, it is worthy to mention both texts are not fully identical. While the Bulgarian text speaks only about “refugees”, its translated version makes use of the more vague term “migrant” that does not distinguish between those who have left their countries to avoid the perils of war or political and religious persecution, and those who have left their countries in search of better economic and social conditions of life. A no less important difference is the assertive tone of the Bulgarian text and the modality of expression in its official translation, e.g. the Bulgarian “must” becomes “would like” in English.

  • September 2016: New Bulgarian law bans face-covering

On September 30, 2016, the Bulgarian Parliament passed a bill forbidding the partial and full coverage of the face in public areas (Art. 2). The new law allows such coverage to be used for health or professional reasons as well as in cases of sportive, cultural, or educational events that envision temporary coverage of the faces of participants (Art. 3.1). At the same time, believers are free to cover their faces in prayer houses of the registered religious denominations (Art. 3.2). This law defines the coverage of the mouth, nose OR the eyes as a partial coverage of face (Art. 4.1). It also foresees fees for those who break the new rules (Art. 6).

In general, the Bulgarian bill is in tune with similar restrictions adopted by other EU member states. It was initiated by the Patriotic Front’s members of the Bulgarian parliament in April 2016. According to them, face-covering contradicts the secular nature of the Bulgarian state and hides a risk of terrorist attacks similar to those in France and Belgium. In their view, the spread of full face-covering is not the result of a religiously motivated behavior but a demonstration of Islamic radicalism sponsored by Middle East countries, which pursues purely political aims. They stressed that the fashion of full face-covering has been imported from the Arab world and differs from the traditions of the local Muslim population, who have inhabited the Bulgarian lands for centuries. Their first draft included a ban on ear-covering (see the Bulgarian text of the draft laws). Voting it would mean to forbid the traditional Muslim headscarf. Later on, in the course of the parliamentary debates this restriction was dropped. As a result, the voted version of the bill does not impose such ban.

It is interesting that the discussed law was preceded by the decisions of several municipal councils who banned face-covering for the local citizens. The first of them was the city council of Pazardzhik, where, in the span of a few years, many Muslim Roma women adopted the custom to fully cover their bodies and faces. According to representatives of the municipality administration and local political structures, these women have received money to adopt this dress code. Therefore, they imposed a fine of 300 Bulgarian levs (about 150 EUR) in order to eliminate the economic motives behind this behavior. The example of Pazardzhik was followed by other Bulgarian cities despite the fact that their administrations have not registered any burka cases. This move was justified as a preventive measure against the spread of radical Islam.

See also:
 Siobhan Fenton, “Bulgaria imposes burqa ban – and will cut benefits of women who defy it”, Independent, 1 October 2016;
 Kristina Beck, “Bulgarians ban the veil, echoing European trend”, The Christian Science Monitor, 1 October 2016.

  • April 2016: Amendments tabled to the Bulgarian Religious Denomination Act

Two draft laws, proposing amendments to the current Religious Denominations Act, were put down in the Bulgarian parliament in March 2016. The first of them was initiated by Georgi Kadiev, a former MP member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and the second by his former colleagues from the BSP’s parliamentary group. Both documents call for increased state control on the citizenship and vocational training of religious ministers, as well as on the origins of the financial resources of religious denominations in Bulgaria. While Kadiev’s draft law addresses the threat of a radicalization of religious communities in general, the BSP’s project is more specific. The latter is motivated by recently registered “tendencies towards the spread of foreign faith traditions and the propaganda of religions and confessional teachings of questionable, even aggressive nature” in Bulgarian society. More specifically, the authors of the BSP’s draft law point to the propaganda of “radical Islam in some places in the country.” They also warn about the activities of foreign religions, with no court registration, which “rites, customs, and particularities are not simply alien to the Bulgarians, but present a flagrant interference in the domestic peace and threat to Bulgaria’s national security.”

The discussed documents share many similarities. In particular, they promote the principle that religious denominations in Bulgaria should be “Bulgarian religious denominations”. According to it, only faith structures registered by the Bulgarian court are eligible to conduct religious activities. Furthermore, only Bulgarian and EU citizens should be allowed to function as clerics or religious ministers inside the country. The religious ministers who come from outside the EU will be allowed to do so only after having informed the Directorate of Religious Affairs at the Council of Ministers (and having presented a set of documents, according to the BSP’s proposal), and for no more than 2 (in the BSP’s project) or 3 (in Kadiev’s project) months.

Kadiev’s draft law also envisions the Directorate of Religious Denominations maintaining a register with the personal details of all religious ministers. Another important amendment in this document concerns the diplomas received from foreign institutions for religious education. In this regard, Georgi Kadiev proposes to set up a list of religious education institutions recognized by the Bulgarian state. Only the alumni of these institutions will have the right to act as religious ministers in Bulgaria. In their turn, the socialist MPs put the emphasis on “national security”. In their motives to the proposed amendments, they declare that the freedom of religion is incompatible with any preaching against the territorial unity and the national sovereignty of Bulgaria, or against the country’s constitutional order. In addition, the socialist project imposes a ban on the establishment of parallel religious denominations. This gives no chance of registering to bodies that de facto repeat the religious teaching and principles of an already legally registered religious denomination. Most probably, this amendment pursues to prevent the re-establishment of structures such as the alternative chief Mufti’s office or the alternative Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the eventual complications that such religious structures may bring, e.g. the case of Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria or the case of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (Metropolitan Inokentii).

The last set of changes proposed by Georgi Kadiev and his colleagues from the Socialist Party envisions a series of measures for securing the transparency of the financial affairs of the religious denominations in Bulgaria – something that has been omitted by the authors of the 2002 Religious Denominations Act. The drafts contain requirements for annual reports of the religious bodies on their financial activities. Interestingly, these financial reports are addressed to the Directorate of Religious Denominations and not directly to the corresponding state authorities. Under these rules, the Directorate will decide whether there are some problems and indecencies in the submitted reports, and should then undertake the necessary steps for their solution. In this regard, the socialist draft law envisions all reports to be public and published on the internet webpage of the State Gazette. Finally, both draft laws propose a serious increase of the fines for violations of the Religious Denominations Act.


  • Draft Law on the amendment and supplement to the Religious Denominational Law, proposed by the independent parliament member Georgi Kadiev, registered under No. 654-01-26 on 1 March 2016 (in Bulgarian).
  • Draf Law on the amendment and supplement to the Religious Denominational Law, proposed by a group of parliament members from the Bulgarian Socialist Party independent parliament member Georgi Kadiev, registered under No. 654-01-32 on 14 March 2016 (in Bulgarian).

See also: "Proposed changes to laws on religions in Bulgaria spark ire”, Sofia Globe, 30 March 2016.

D 12 October 2016    ADaniela Kalkandjieva

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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