Thursday 10 February 2000

by Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service

On 2 February 2000, although it was not on the agenda of the Bulgarian
Parliament, the Socialist Party representatives (former Communists) proposed
the first reading of the three different drafts of the new law on religious
organisations in Bulgaria. The motion was accepted, and within half an hour all
three drafts passed into the second round. A special commission will now
amalgamate them into one law proposal for the second and final reading. The
three drafts, prepared by the government, the Socialist party and the VMRO
party, were previously accepted by a parliamentary Legislative Committee
session in November 1999; a fourth draft, prepared by the representatives of
various religious minority communities and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee,
was rejected.

On 8 February 2000 representatives of nineteen religious minorities and
organisations in Bulgaria met in Sofia for a national conference regarding the
first reading of the draft laws in Parliament, and from that meeting issued an
eight-point Appeal to the President of Bulgaria, to the Chairman of Parliament
and to the Chairman of the Council of Ministers (the prime minister). The
Baptists, the Congregationalists, the Adventists, the Mormons, the Methodists,
the Pentecostals, the Church of God, the Catholic Church in Bulgaria, and the
United Churches, as well as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Institute for
the Principle of Justice, the Association for the Protection of Religious
Freedom, the Christian Coalition, the Tolerance Foundation and others all
signed the Appeal.

Rev Dr NIKOLAI NEDELCHEV, President of the Baptist Faculty �Logos� in
Sofia, and currently President of the European Evangelical Alliance, spoke to
Keston News Service about the origins of the present dispute. �In June 1999 the
government sent to all religious organisations and groups in Bulgaria its draft
of the new law on religion for evaluation and feedback. The Evangelicals,
along with some human rights organisations in Bulgaria, organised an open
conference in July 1999, inviting the government and Parliament to send
representatives. We gave our objections in written form and explained why we
were not satisfied with the proposal. Our evaluation was that the new law was
going to be even worse than the old Communist one. We were received by the
President, Parliament and high government officials, and we were given
assurances that the draft would be reworked, and that our remarks would be
taken into a consideration.�

�With the help of the Helsinki Committee, several religious groups prepared
and submitted a fourth draft in November 1999, which was flatly rejected by
the Legislative Committee. This draft was a short, simple one, saying that
church and state are separate and guaranteeing freedom of religious expression.
However, the other three drafts passed. We organised a press conference with
the Helsinki Committee and with some members of Parliament, and stated our
disagreement with this method of work. And then, a week ago, we were all
shocked by the speed and the way the three drafts were passed at the first
reading. It is obvious that members of Parliament are not informed about the
delicate issues arising in the area of freedom of religious expression. We had to
act, we had to do our �homework�. At this point we mobilised ourselves and are
now trying to do the best we can. At the moment there is a media campaign in
Bulgaria, we are giving interviews to the local media. Every day someone from
our side is on the radio or television. We are trying to explain our position,
even though we bring together so many different bodies.�

The signed Appeal expresses concern about the fact that those proposing the
drafts failed to discuss disputed issues with representatives of religious groups
and organisations before the process was put in motion in Parliament. The
signatories to the Appeal are indicating that some articles contradict the
Constitution and the principles of International Law that have been ratified by
Parliament. �The proposed drafts give primacy and the status of state church to
the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. We oppose this, since although Article 13 of
the Constitution states that the Orthodox Church is the traditional Bulgarian
Church, which is indisputable, this new law would give more rights to the
Orthodox Church and would discriminate against the others, which goes
against the Decision No. 5 of the Constitutional Department of Justice of 11
June 1992,� Nedelchev said.

All the signatories are against the requirement of re-registration of already
registered denominations and groups Nedelchev explained: �One of the drafts,
that of the VMRO Party, divides religious groups into three levels. On level
one is the Orthodox Church, as is to be excepted as it is to be the state religion;
level two comprises the groups registered before 1944 including many of the
Evangelicals, but not the new groups; and the third level comprises
organisations registered since 1989, with plenty of restrictions against them.
We cannot accept this and still say that we are living in a real democratic
country�We also objected to the proposed process of registration, which
would give more power to the local authorities and make the Ministry of
Religion the arbiter in almost all cases.�

�We all concluded that the new religious law was going to be extremely
important for the activities of all religious bodies in Bulgaria. This is the reason
why we had to react and again ask Parliament to pass a law that will take us
one step further toward the democratisation of our country and the
incorporation of Bulgaria into the European Union.�

According to Parliamentary regulations the second reading of the new draft law
compiled from the three approved drafts could be as soon as in two weeks�
time. �We are sure God is in charge, but we are also trying to do the best we
can under the present circumstances,� Nedelchev concluded. (END)

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