SPECIAL REPORT - BULGARIA: Religious Liberty Ahead of Papal Visit.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 20 May 2002

The head of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II, arrives in Bulgaria in the evening of Thursday 23 May after visiting Azerbaijan on his 96th papal visit outside Italy. As the world's attention will focus on the religious situation in Bulgaria, it remains unclear whether the pope will raise any religious liberty concerns with the authorities.

Identified by local believers and human rights activists as one of the main religious liberty concerns is the longstanding failure to adopt a new law on religion to replace the 1949 Denominations Act that remains in force. Several attempts have been made to adopt a new law - some of which would have severely restricted religious rights for minority faiths - but all have been unsuccessful. Three drafts are currently in contention. On a local level, municipal authorities have severely restricted some religious communities they dislike, banning them from meeting or handing out religious literature in the street or refusing to grant them local registration. Some believers who feel their rights have been infringed have been forced to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECHR).

According to the official programme for the "apostolic visit" released by the Vatican on 30 April, on arrival Pope John Paul will attend a welcome ceremony in St. Alexander Nevski Square in the capital Sofia. The next day, 24 May, he will visit President Georgi Parvanov in the morning in the presidential palace, then go to the Orthodox cathedral of St. Alexander Nevski in Sofia to celebrate the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, evangelisers of the Slavs. He will then be received by Patriarch Maksim and the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the patriarchal palace. After dining in the apostolic nunciature with Bulgaria's Catholic bishops, the pope will meet Jewish representatives, before meeting cultural and scientific figures.

On Saturday morning, John Paul II will go to the Monastery of St. John of Rila, where he will have a private meeting with Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski, former king of Bulgaria. The pope will return to Sofia for dinner, after which he will meet the Chief Mufti and representatives of the Muslim community, as well as representatives of the Evangelical churches. He will then visit St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral of Latin rite in Sofia and the Catholic Cathedral of Byzantine-Slavic rite dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. On 26 May, the pope will travel to Plovdiv in central Bulgaria to celebrate the beatification of the martyrs of Communism in the city's main square. After dining with the Catholic bishops, the pope will meet young people in the cathedral. He will leave Bulgaria from Plovdiv airport that evening. An official Catholic website, www.popeinbulgaria.com, has been set up to publish coverage of the visit.

Ahead of the visit, Pope John Paul declared that dialogue with the Orthodox Church would form a key part of his meetings. "Although my visit to your country has a pastoral purpose, to confirm my Catholic brothers and sisters in the faith," he told visiting Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy at a Vatican meeting on 11 May also attended by Metropolitan Kalinik (Aleksandrov) of Vratsa, "my fervent desire is also to strengthen the bonds of Christian communion between the Catholic Church and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church."

One of the main problems delaying the visit has been the split in the Orthodox Church between those who alleged that Patriarch Maksim's 1971 election had been swayed by the communist authorities and those who retained loyalty to the patriarch. The worldwide Orthodox community has maintained its backing of Patriarch Maksim, and the Catholic Church has followed suit. While the earlier government of the anticommunist Union of Democratic Forces backed the rival Synod, now headed by Bishop Inokenti (Petrov), the current government under Prime Minister Saxecoburggotski resolutely supports Patriarch Maksim.

Bulgaria has made some progress in recent years in improving religious rights. On 29 January of this year, the government finally recognised the Church of the Nazarene after an eight-year battle. "My opinion is that the reason for the long delay is that there are many different powerful groups within Bulgaria that do not want any outside groups to come into the country, especially evangelical groups from the West," Rev. Jay Sunberg, the church's superintendent in Bulgaria, told Keston News Service. "If Bulgaria was not seeking entrance into the European Union, there would have been no chance for registration." He describes the rights his Church has finally achieved: "We can function more openly, we can print literature in our own name, we have a possibility of becoming junior members of the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance, we can rent halls and purchase property more easily, we have more credibility and legitimacy, we can put our name on the door, and we can start new works much more easily."

However, not all groups that have applied for registered status on a national level have achieved it. Two independent Protestant churches, a Roma church in the north-western town of Lom and a church in Krichim near Plovdiv are preparing to challenge denial of registration at the ECHR in Strasbourg (to whose jurisdiction Bulgaria is subject as a member of the Council of Europe).

On a local level, administrations have often violated national law by refusing to register individual communities. The city council in the Black Sea port of Burgas had for example refused to register the Jehovah's Witness congregation in the city on such grounds. "Local authorities don't have the right to refuse," Tsanko Mitev, a pastor of the Adventist church who also chairs a religious liberty group, told Keston from Sofia. "Religious communities only have to notify the authorities of their existence - that is all. But the local authorities have often broken the law." He says two Adventist village churches were refused such local registration in the past year. However, he says the Adventists managed to persuade the local authorities to revoke their refusal. "We don't like to challenge these decisions in court, as it sets the local authorities against us. We prefer to use persuasion." Governors of a number of regions last year suspended a requirement imposed by some local administrations that local registration was required, but believers of a number of faiths say local authorities still intervene arbitrarily against groups they dislike.

Pastor Mitev reports other local restrictions. In a complaint echoed by other communities, he says local mayors have denied the Adventists permission to conduct evangelistic campaigns in some small towns. "We have had three or four such incidents this year." Emil Cohen, chairman of the Sofia-based Tolerance Foundation, a religious freedom watchdog, reports numerous similar incidents. Speaking to Keston from Sofia, he complained that in Burgas, city authorities demand a permit before religious groups can sell religious literature on the streets. In the northern town of Pleven religious communities have to hand copies of their full budget to the local authorities. "These are all in contradiction with current law," he notes.

The Tolerance Foundation complained last year of the failure of the police to intervene to protect members of the United Church of God who had organised an evangelistic film show in the village of Ravnogor, in the Bratsigovo municipality, which was attacked on 21 June 2001 by "fanaticised crowds of Orthodox Christians". It reported of similar cases in April 2001 when local municipal authorities obstructed the Agape Association from showing the "Jesus" film at the Students' Municipal Association in Sofia and in Nova Zagora.

But by far the most important issue is the new draft law. "We need a new law because the old law dates from the communist period," says Mitev. "It has many of the old ideas in it." Cohen agrees. "Religion is still governed by the old and very bad communist-era law," he told Keston. "I hope the process of adopting a new law will be finished with good results." He reports that three drafts are currently being considered in parliament: one by a deputy of the ruling party Borislav Tsekov, which he complains is "very bad" and restricts the rights of the non-Orthodox; one by the mainly ethnic Turkish party, the Movement of Rights and Freedoms, which he described as "very good"; and a new draft presented at the end of April by the ruling party deputy Kiril Milchev.

Cohen says a new law is unlikely to be adopted by the end of the current parliamentary session. "The earliest a new law could be adopted is the autumn."

International organisations have taken the government to task for its religious policy. An earlier "unified draft" of the religion bill, uniting elements of three separate drafts, was severely criticised in March 2001 by the Council of Europe in a report that the then government tried to suppress. And in an important decision, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in October 2000 that the government had meddled in the right of the Muslim community to choose their own leadership freely by rejecting the validly-elected leader and accepting in his place a rival leader (see KNS 7 November 2000). Other cases pending before the ECHR include that of two Jehovah's Witnesses, Nikolay Arabadjiev and Kostadin Stavrev, who complained that their right to freedom of assembly, expression and worship had been violated by a mob attack - in which the city's mayor reportedly took part - on a Jehovah's Witness place of worship in Plovdiv on 4 May 1998. Court officials have told Keston that the case was registered at the court on 13 November 2001 (case number 7380/02).

Cohen believes the Bulgarian government does pay attention to what international organisations say. "We're a small country and our rulers are accustomed to listen to advice from those places," he declares. He hopes international bodies will criticise Tsekov's draft of the religion law if it proceeds any further. In a view shared by Mitev, Cohen says he believes the Saxecoburggotski government is more "open" to adopting a liberal religion law than its predecessor. "However, there is one big exception: it wants to preserve and continue the leading position of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church - and to give preference to one wing of the Church, that ruled by Maksim. From the point of view of human rights, that is not a good intention."

Some minority religious leaders are optimistic the papal visit will raise the status of minority faiths in the Orthodox-dominated country and bring greater religious freedom. "The pope's visit will, I believe, change the opinion of the majority of the population, as most think we have to have only one Church, one state and one nation," Pastor Mitev told Keston. "Now they will see it does not cause any problems having the Catholic Church, that it has a place in our history and traditions and that the Protestant Churches have had the same position in our history." (END)