Wednesday 17 March

BULGARIAN CHURCHES PROTEST AGAINST NEW RELIGION REGULATIONS IN SOFIA



by Felix Corley, Keston News Service



A number of Churches have already protested against plans by the city

council in the Bulgarian capital Sofia to introduce new regulations

to restrict religious activity. Meeting on 9 March the Executive

Committee of the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance discussed in detail

the planned regulations, which they had received the previous day.

They resolved to write a letter of protest to the city council

declaring that the new regulations were unnecessary and to work with

other religious groups to have the plans overturned.



NIKOLAI NEDELCHEV, the general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance,

told Keston News Service on 9 March that his organisation viewed the

proposed regulations as `restrictive', in some places duplicating

provisions in other laws already in existence, in other places

contradicting those laws. In particular, he declared, the Alliance

complains that the regulations set out the responsibilities of

religious groups, but not their rights.



The Alliance is concerned about the wording of articles relating to

the participation of children under 16 in religious activities, the

advertising of religious events and the use of property for religious

purposes (it believes that if the latter provisions are applied

strictly, up to 80 per cent of places of worship - including some

belonging to the Orthodox Church - could be threatened).



However, Nedelchev is hopeful the regulations can be overturned. `We

already have one case in Plovdiv region a few years ago when such

rules were cancelled,' he told Keston.



Speaking to Keston by telephone from Sofia on 10 March, a Catholic

priest declared that his Church had not officially received the text

of the proposed regulations, which are yet to be published. However,

the priest, who preferred not to give his name, reported that the

Bishops' Conference had already complained about the proposed

regulations, protesting in particular against the proposal that

onlyBulgarian citizens might be allowed to preach in Sofia, not

foreigners.



Some members of the Orthodox Church - the largest faith in Bulgaria -

have also opposed the proposed regulations. `Denominations are

divided into traditional and non-traditional ones,' Archimandrite

Pavel Stefanov declared. `They must register and their registration

may be revoked after complaints, foreign missionaries are strongly

discouraged from working in the capital and teenagers may participate

in the work of denominations only with the written permission of both

parents. If strictly applied, the latter restriction can prevent

young people from participating in the life of the Orthodox church as

well.'



The government's Directorate of Religious Affairs is also apparently

opposed to the proposed regulations.



The fact that new regulations on religion were being planned by the

Sofia city council first came to light a month ago, when reports

appeared in the local media on 10 February. The impetus for the

proposed regulations seems to come from Sofia's mayor STEFAN

SOFIANSKY. He is said to be close to Moscow's mayor YURI LUZHKOV, and

some commentators have claimed the new document has been modelled on

the Russian religious law. (END)





Wednesday 17 March

KAZAKH GOVERNMENT WITHDRAWS CONTROVERSIAL DRAFT BILL ON RELIGION



by Felix Corley, Keston News Service



The Ministry of Culture, Information and Social Accord has withdrawn

the draft text of the bill on freedom of religious confession and

religious organisations drawn up at the end of last year by SERIK

AMIRGAZIN, an official of the then Ministry of Information and Social

Accord. The announcement was made on 13 March by GAZIZ TELEBAYEV, a

department head in the Ministry, at a one-day conference held in the

former Kazakh capital Almaty. The conference, organised jointly by

the Almaty Helsinki Committee, the presidential Human Rights

Commission and the Congress of Spiritual Harmony, was convened in

response to concerns expressed among religious and human rights

groups about the new proposed bill. Attending were government

officials, human rights activists, religious representatives,

journalists and representatives of international bodies, including

the OSCE and the European Union.



`The draft text has been revoked,' Telebayev declared categorically,

telling the conference that the process of drafting amendments to the

1992 law on freedom of religion and religious confessions would

continue, but with radical changes to the controversial draft. `There

will be cardinal changes and the text will be reworked,' he pledged.

In particular he highlighted specific elements of last December's

draft (copy of draft in English http://www.keston.org/) that he

recognised as unacceptable. He pledged to change the preamble, which

had specified the aims of the draft bill as tightening state control

and regulating religious activity. Telebayev criticised the

definition of terms used in the draft in Article 1, which he called

`a mistake on the part of the drafter'. He pledged that the removal

of subsidies from students at religious higher education

establishments would be looked at again. He recognised that the

wording of Article 6 of the draft bill on foreign missionary activity

in Kazakhstan had aroused controversy and admitted that `the style

was unsuccessful' and that the `formulation of the second half of the

article was bad'. He pledged that there would be a fresh look at the

article on religious associations and which type of religious

associations were specified.



On Article 10, which laid down what information had to be presented

in the charter of a religious association before it could apply for

registration, Telebayev recognised that the requirement to present

`other information relating to the peculiar features of the activity

of the given religious association' was too vague a formulation. On

Article 11, which specified registration procedure, Telebayev

admitted that further work was needed. He stated categorically that

the 10-year rule preventing religious associations from applying for

registration in the first decade of their existence `will be

excluded'. However, speaking on a personal note, he declared that he

favoured some time period before groups could apply for registration,

preferring a period of between one and three years. He added that he

believed that the certificate confirming the length of time a

religious association has existed should be drawn up by a commission

of experts, not by the `organs of local self-administration' as

envisaged in the draft bill. Telebayev declared that he believed this

one - to three - year period should relate to local associations of

all religious groups, not just to new religious movements. He also

affirmed that fresh work would be needed on Articles 12 and 13, which

relate to the refusal to register religious associations and

suspension or bans on their activity.



Telebayev recounted that his ministry had written to religious groups

suggesting the establishment of a League of Religions to discuss such

laws, as well as other matters of interest. He believed such a League

should meet on a regular basis. He pledged that no future drafts of a

law on religion would be produced without a discussion of them by the

League.



Although the conference welcomed Telebayev's announcement on the

withdrawal of the December draft bill, many speakers expressed their

concern about the way the process of drafting amendments to the law

had proceeded. They complained that religious groups had been given

little or no information and that even different agencies of the

government seemed to have little idea of what other agencies were

doing.



The conference decided to set up a small working group to be

organised under the auspices of the Almaty Helsinki Committee to

monitor developments on any new draft bills and to keep all religious

groups informed, as well as to provide the government with its own

comments. It was suggested that the group should include members of

several different religious communities, including Muslims,

Christians and members of other faiths, as well as lawyers and human

rights activists. However, the conference did not select any specific

members of such a working group. Serik Amirgazin of the Ministry of

Culture pledged that the government would accept input from the

working group formed as a result of the conference.



Although the conference was attended by representatives of many

religious groups, the leading denominations - including the Muslim

Board, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church - stayed

away, despite being invited. Participants regretted their absence.



The draft bill drawn up at the end of 1998 has aroused great

controversy among minority religious communities in Kazakhstan.

Although the government claimed religious groups had been consulted,

it seems this amounted to little more than a small group of

representatives based in the new Kazakh capital Astana, news of which

did not filter down to Almaty, the former capital and the country's

largest city. It was only when the draft bill was discussed in a

debate on the Maidan programme on the Khabar television channel

thatmany religious groups heard about it. Even then, many had great

difficulty acquiring the text of the draft. A group of Protestant

Christians wrote a detailed letter of complaint about the draft to

the ministers of Information and Justice in January. On 1 February

the Deputy Minister of Justice MEREI VAISOV wrote a reply to the

Emmanuel church in Almaty which had sent the letter, pledging that in

any reworking of the draft bill by the Ministry of Justice their

views would be taken into account. There was no reply from the

Ministry of Information.



In February of this year the Almaty administration of the Ministry of

Culture, Information and Social Accord sent a questionnaire to fifty

of the larger religious groups in the city. In an interview in

Almaty, the official responsible for relations with religious

organisations, GULMIRA BAITLENOVA, stressed to Keston News Service

that the survey had been entirely voluntary and was aimed solely at

finding out their views on the proposed new legislation and on the

idea from the Ministry of forming a Round Table of religious

associations in the city to discuss matters of mutual interest.

Thirty-one of the fifty religious groups responded to the survey. In

a three-page summary of the results, the administration reported to

the Ministry in Astana that `a significant enough number of experts

do not see a need to adopt a new law on freedom of religious

confession, as they consider the current law optimal for today's

situation. At the same time the Russian law [on religion of 1997]

aroused great condemnation, as did the possibility of the inclusion

of articles in the Kazakhstan law drawn from the Russian, which they

saw in the draft drawn up by the Ministry's department of religion´┐Ż.

Thirteen respondents had declared no need for a new law, while six

had responded in favour. A further six had found it difficult to say.

There were two other responses, one saying the present law should be

carried out in practice, the other saying there should be a new law,

but not like in Russia. Respondents were more favourable towards the

idea of a Round Table, with 20 positive responses.



In a separate development in Astana, the Minister of Justice,

BAURZHAN MUKHAMEDZHANOV, told representatives of the OSCE Centre

(located in Almaty) on 11 March that there would not be a ten-year

rule in any law on religion.



The recently-published plan of bills to be discussed in parliament in

1999 does not include any new law on religion. However, legal

specialists in Almaty told Keston that this did not absolutely rule

out the possibility that a bill could be brought to parliament.

Specialists say that bills are on occasion brought to parliament

without prior notification or entry into the plan. (END)