Thursday 8 July

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

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All the leading minority faiths in Bulgaria have expressed their concern over
aspects of a proposed draft law on religion that has been put forward by two
parliamentary deputies of the ruling coalition. The Tolerance Foundation, a
religious liberty group based in the capital Sofia headed by EMIL COHEN,
has organised a conference in Sofia on 8 July (together with the Bulgarian
Helsinki Committee and the Bulgarian Centre for Human Rights) to air these
concerns. The Foundation expects most minority faiths to send
representatives. `Unfortunately I am not expecting that the political leaders
will come to this conference. But it is almost certain that the Parliamentary
Commission on Religion and Human Rights, the Religious Affairs Directorate
and the office of the President will send observers,' Cohen told Keston News
Service on 5 July.

`In general, all minority religious groups (including the second largest group -
the Muslims) have expressed their negative opinion towards this draft,' Cohen
reports. `The members of the Evangelical Alliance (the union that includes the
five largest Protestant groups - Pentecostals, Methodists, the Church of God,
the Baptists, Congregationalists) have written a special letter in which they
have expressed their criticism of many articles of this draft.' The Evangelical
Alliance also criticised the speed with which the draft is being rushed through
(religious groups were given just one week to present their views). It believes
this is a deliberate attempt to limit public debate.

The Foundation welcomes some elements of the draft - including for the first
time a deadline for state and local government officials to respond to
applications from religious groups (Art. 17 and 18 of the draft) and a facility
for religious groups to appeal against decisions made by the Religious Affairs
Directorate to the courts - but criticises other elements that it believes could
threaten religious freedom.

Its six main concerns are:
-Firstly, religious groups remain, as in current legislation, under the
supervision of the executive power. The Council of Ministers - through the
Religious Affairs Directorate under its authority - ultimately decides which
religious groups may or may not exist. All religious activity without
authorisation from the Religious Affairs Directorate is subject to heavy fines
(Art. 42 - 45).
-Secondly, the draft obstructs the natural process of divergence of the religious
groups or institutions, as only one religious institution can be created on the
basis of one system of belief (Art. 15). In other words it is impossible to
establish a second Baptist Church, for instance, if such a church has already
been established in the country.
-Thirdly, new tasks have been given to the local authorities. They can impose
a high fine if they decide that the local branches of religious institutions have
violated their own rules of religious behaviour (Art. 44).
-Fourthly, the Religious Affairs Directorate instead of the local authorities will
give permission for building new places for worship (Art. 10, para 4). Many
leaders of religious communities say that this provision is especially directed
against the Muslim minority. The reason for this opinion is that now it is
relatively easily for the Muslims to build a new mosque in areas in which the
members of the Turkish minority hold local power. If the building of new
mosques were to depend on the bureaucracy in Sofia it would be more
difficult to build a new mosque.
-Fifthly, although the draft says that different religious institutions are equal
before the law the Orthodox Church is given special preferences (Art. 8, para
2 declares: `State institutions shall support and pay special attention to Eastern
Orthodoxy as the traditional religious denomination of the Bulgarian nation.').
-Sixthly, it is impossible for a new religious group (for instance the
Unification Church or the Church of Scientology) to enter the country, as new
groups are not allowed to conduct their activities without permission. The new
group has to seek permission from the Religious Affairs Directorate and wait
until it gets it before conducting any public activity, otherwise it will be
subject to a heavy fine.

The draft was introduced into the National Assembly by the two deputies from
the ruling Union of Democratic Forces on 9 June and is expected to be
discussed this week. It would replace the Law on Denominations adopted in
1949 and still in force with modifications (Decision No. 5 of the
Constitutional Court adopted in June 1992 struck several articles from the
1949 law as unconstitutional). `In essence, the draft has been created by the
officials of the Religious Affairs Directorate,' Cohen asserts.

There are two other draft laws on religion under consideration by parliament,
both of which were discussed at the end of June. One was introduced by the
main opposition party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the former communists),
and the other by the small ultra-nationalist party VMRO (Internal Macedonian
Revolutionary Organisation) which is a member of the ruling coalition. The
Commission on Religion and Human Rights has now to decide which draft to
support or whether to combine elements from all three drafts in a new text.
Any draft approved by the Commission would then be brought before the full
National Assembly, where it would need two readings before becoming law.

`I think that the government has supported the draft of the two deputies from
the ruling party,' says Cohen. `On the other hand there are signs that the
advisors of our President are not satisfied by the draft and it is possible that
they will try to put pressure on the Commission in order to delay the final
approval of this draft. The goal of some of them is the adoption of a new law
that will be more liberal than this draft.'

Nevertheless, the Tolerance Foundation remains concerned about the
outcome. `The speed under which discussion of the draft is proceeding
provokes anxiety among a lot of the leaders of minority religious groups as
well as among human rights activists.' And Cohen adds: `This draft shows us
that although the present administration has done a lot to improve the situation
over religious human rights in Bulgaria, the desire of the State to dominate
religious groups is still alive.' (END).