10 Religious Liberty Cases in 2019

May 10, 2019 by  
Filed under Featured, News

Despite the continual threats to the religious freedom of Christians in America, there were a number of advances over the past twelve months (see: The 7 Most Significant Religious Freedom Victories of 2018). But continual vigilance is necessary, and we are fortunate to have groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith, working to protect our liberties.

Although the new year is still a few days away, ADF is already preparing to defend a number of important legal challenges to freedom of religion. Here are ten cases coming in 2019 you should know about:

State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington, is headed back to court in 2019, with ADF arguing her case before the Washington State Supreme Court. Although Barronelle serves all customers, the state of Washington and its attorney general are suing her in her business and personal capacity because she politely declined to create custom floral art for long-time customer’s same-sex wedding in 2013. While targeting Barronelle for her biblical beliefs about marriage, the state chose not to take action against a coffee shop owner who profanely berated and expelled customers because of their Christian beliefs—even though the incident was caught on video. If the government succeeds in punishing Barronelle for her beliefs, she and her husband could lose everything—their business, their home, and every penny they’ve saved.

Tree of Life Christian Schools v. City of Upper Arlington In a case that could make a major difference for churches, religious schools, and other religious groups across the United States, Tree of Life Christian Schools is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2019. Represented by ADF, Tree of Life has been kept from using its own building for the past seven years simply because the City of Upper Arlington—near Columbus, Ohio—refuses to allow it to do so. The city’s ongoing discrimination against Tree of Life is a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—a federal law passed unanimously by the House and Senate before being signed into law by President Bill Clinton. A win for Tree of Life would allow the school to double its current enrollment of 660 students—which represents 18 countries of origin and a high percentage of income-based voucher and scholarship recipients—and would set legal precedent that would help other Christian schools, as well as churches, synagogues, and mosques facing discriminatory government regulations. Learn more here.

Downtown Hope Center v. Anchorage Driven by its faith to help women victimized by rape, sex trafficking, and domestic violence, Downtown Hope Center provides a safe place for sexually exploited women to sleep at night. But Anchorage officials are demanding that Hope Center allow men who believe they are women to disrobe and sleep three to five feet from women in its overnight sleeping facilities. As one woman who stays at the shelter put it, “I would rather sleep in the woods than sleep in the same area as a biological man.” If Hope Center follows its convictions and chooses to protect the privacy and dignity of the vulnerable women in its care, it could be forced to shut down its women’s shelter, depriving battered women of a much-needed safe place. ADF filed suit in federal court to protect Hope Center’s freedom to serve consistent with its faith. Learn more here.

New Hope Family Services v. Poole New Hope Family Services is a Christian adoption provider and pregnancy center that has placed more than 1,000 children into adoptive homes since 1965. Yet, if the state of New York has its way, New Hope will have placed its last child into the arms of an adoptive family—all because of New Hope’s belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. In keeping with its Christian faith, New Hope places children only in homes with a married mother and father, while referring unmarried couples, same-sex couples, and others to nearby adoption providers. This October, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) gave New Hope an ultimatum: it could either violate its conscience by placing children in same-sex households, or submit a close-out plan for its adoptive services. Represented by ADF, New Hope has asked a federal court to stop the state’s campaign to shut down its adoptive services because of its biblical view of marriage. Learn more here.

Masterpiece Cakeshop Part II Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, is being harassed for his faith again by the state of Colorado. Less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that Colorado cannot treat Jack differently than other cake artists who decline custom projects based on the messages they convey, the state has decided to prosecute him again for living out his faith. This time, an attorney asked Jack to create a cake designed pink on the inside and blue on the outside, which the attorney said was to celebrate a gender transition from male to female. Jack declined the request because the custom cake would have expressed messages about sex and gender identity that conflict with his religious beliefs. ADF filed a lawsuit against Colorado to immediately stop its attempts to punish Jack and ensure that he is not forced to express messages that violate his faith. Case page here.

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski One primary battlefield for free speech and religious liberty is the public university campus—many of which have instituted arbitrary, and often comically small “free speech” zones to chill speech. One of these zones was used to keep Chike Uzuegbunam from sharing the gospel at Georgia Gwinnett College. The policy—which Georgia Gwinnett has since abandoned—forbade any expression “which disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s)” and restricted speech to two tiny speech zones that made up less than 0.0015 percent of campus and were open only 18 hours per week. Administrators tried to get a free pass for repeatedly violating Chike’s rights by changing its policies and asking the court to dismiss his case. Although the trial court unfortunately did so, ADF appealed to make sure Chike’s rights are vindicated and to keep this all-too-common situation from repeating itself on other college campuses. Read more here.

Students for Life at California State University-San Marcos v. Abrego Another major problem for free speech and religious exercise on public university campuses is the way administrators are putting their thumb on the scale through mandatory student fees. That was the case at Cal State San Marcos, which denied a Students for Life’s request to draw $500 from a $2.1 million pool of mandatory student fees in order to host an event to educate fellow students on abortion and the sanctity of life. Meanwhile, the university allocates $52 in mandatory student fees to two groups—the Gender Equity Center and the LGBTQA Pride Center—for every dollar it makes available to the other 100-plus on-campus groups combined. Students for Life and its campus president, Nathan Apodaca, is challenging the school’s unconstitutional use of mandatory student fees in federal court with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom. Read more here. Watch video here.

Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island v. Town of Edisto Beach Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island, South Carolina, had rented the Edisto Beach Civic Center for Sunday worship on two occasions, but after the church proposed another rental agreement, the town council voted to reject the church’s application and amended the facility-use guidelines to ban all rentals for “religious worship services.” ADF challenged the town’s unconstitutional action in federal court, and is expecting a decision in early 2019.

Brush & Nib Studio v. City of Phoenix On January 22, 2019, ADF attorneys will be arguing a case at the Arizona Supreme Court that involves two artists who risk jail time and fines if they violate a sweeping Phoenix criminal law. Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski co-own a Phoenix art studio called Brush & Nib Studio, which specializes in hand-painting, hand-lettering, and calligraphy for weddings and other events. Brush & Nib is challenging a city ordinance that, as Phoenix interprets it, forces the studio’s owners to use their artistic talents to create artwork celebrating same-sex marriage. The ordinance also forbids them from publicly expressing the Christian beliefs that prevent them from doing so and the beliefs that require them to create art celebrating only marriages between one man and one woman. The law threatens up to six months in jail, $2,500 in fines, and three years of probation for each day that there is a violation. Case page here.

Telescope Media Group v. Lindsey Carl and Angel Larsen are professional storytellers who use film to help their clients tell their most important stories. They want to bring their talents to the wedding industry and use their gifts to promote their religious beliefs about marriage. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s government won’t allow them to do that. According to state officials, a state law mandates that if the Larsens tell stories that are consistent with their beliefs about marriage, then they must tell marriage stories that violate their beliefs as well. If they decline to do so, they would face steep fines and even up to 90 days in jail. The couple has challenged the law in federal court, and await a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Case page here.

Cup & Cross featured in the Works of William Penn

May 5, 2019 by  
Filed under Featured, News

POPE to visit BULGARIA

May 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Featured, News

Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, will visit Bulgaria from May 5 to 7 2019, the Bulgarian government information service said on December 13, citing a statement by the Vatican.

His visit to Bulgaria will include stops in capital city Sofia and in Rakovski, the latter a town where a large percentage of the population are members of Bulgaria’s Roman Catholic minority. The dates announced mean that Pope Francis will be in Bulgaria on an important day in the country’s calendar, May 6, a public holiday celebrated as St George’s Day and as the Day of the Armed Forces.

Pope Francis will visit the Republic of Macedonia’s capital Skopje on May 7, the Vatican said. Further details of his travel programme would be announced later, the statement said.

In May 2018, after Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov was received in audience by Pope Francis, it emerged that the Vatican was prepared to consider a visit by the Pope to Bulgaria, Romania and perhaps a country from the Western Balkans. A visit by the Pope to Bulgaria was discussed between head of state President Roumen Radev and the Apostolic Nuncio to Bulgaria, Archbishop Anselmo Guido Pecorari.

The only previous visit by a serving head of the Roman Catholic Church to Bulgaria was in 2002, when Pope John Paul II visited. The majority of Bulgarians declare themselves to be Orthodox Christians, with Roman Catholics constituting a small minority among the country’s Christians, similar in number to Protestants in Bulgaria.

The Case of the Protestant Spies in BULGARIA

April 30, 2019 by  
Filed under Featured, News

The Modern Inquisition. Hugo Dewar 1953

Chapter VI: The Case of the Protestant Spies

Just as the former Nazi rulers of Germany could not tolerate the existence of any organisation not subject to strict control by the state, so the present Russian satraps in the Eastern European countries are equally resolved to permit no organisation to function independently of the state. We have already seen in the trial of József Mindszenty an example of the methods used in Hungary against the Catholic Church. This trial was, of course, simply a particularly outstanding expression of a process in operation in all the satellite states. It is a process that necessarily affects not the Catholic Church alone, but all religious bodies; and not religious bodies alone, but all groups of people organised for a specific purpose. Such organisations must either be destroyed, or transformed to serve the purposes of the Stalinists. A further striking example of the use of the confession trial in furtherance of this process ofGleichschaltung can be seen in the trial of the fifteen Protestant pastors in Bulgaria, the official announcement of which was made two days after the Hungarian court had passed sentence on Mindszenty and his fellow-accused.

On 10 February 1949, the authorities in Sofia announced that fifteen leaders of the evangelical churches — chief among them Ziapkov, head of the Congregational Church — would be tried on charges of espionage on behalf of Great Britain and the USA. Six of the accused would also be charged with currency offences. The Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister stated that the forthcoming trial was not an attack on religious freedom, which was guaranteed by the constitution; the accused were charged with specific crimes, to which they had all confessed. (On the same day it was announced that the Socialist and Liberal Parties considered their independent existence no longer necessary. Their members would henceforth work in the organisations of the Fatherland Front.)

On 11 February the British Foreign Office stated that most of the accused men had been under arrest since May of the preceding year, and that many official enquiries regarding their fate — under the clause of the peace treaty safeguarding human rights — had been addressed to the Bulgarian government, but that only evasive replies had been received.

The Bulgarian authorities made great play with the fact that before the trial the ‘American and British governments as well as various prominent individuals in the West’ immediately expressed disbelief in the guilt of the accused (The Trial of the Fifteen Protestant Pastors (Sofia, 1949), p vii).

To every thinking person [the government argument continued], it became immediately clear why these gentlemen, contrary to juridical logic and diplomatic ethics, made these declarations before even having had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the indictment, to see and check up on the material evidence and to wait for the results of the court enquiry and the materials which it subsequently produced. (Ibid, p vii)

The spokesmen of the West were thus severely taken to task for prejudging the case. This argument blandly ignored the fact that, as the Bulgarian government officials themselves stated, ‘the Sofia press printed daily letters from ecclesiastic boards and parishioners of the four Protestant denominations, denouncing the espionage activities of their erstwhile leaders…’ (ibid, p viii); that is, that the entire propaganda resources of the Bulgarian state (not to speak of other resources) were set in motion in order to prejudge the case. Just as in the Mindszenty case, and in all such cases, an atmosphere was deliberately worked up in order to make acquittal of the accused impossible. The Bulgarian government affected righteous indignation at the prejudgement of the British and American governments, while itself doing precisely the same thing; with this very vital difference: that the expressions of incredulity emanating from the West could in no way affect the course of the trial, could in no way offset the atmosphere of official hostility to the accused created by the very people who were to try them. Moreover, the British and American governments were fully justified by past experience of these trials, with their monotonously identical charges, in attaching no value to the alleged confessions of the accused, who had been held incommunicado for many months. The refusal of the Bulgarian government, in defiance of the peace treaty to which it had appended its signature, to give any information regarding the accused during this period also told heavily against it. Further, all experience fully justified the assumption that there would be in this case no more ‘material evidence’ than in any of the others. In these circumstances the reaction of the Bulgarian government to the protests of the West was sheer hypocrisy.

As usual, the authorities are much concerned to rebut the charge that pressure had been brought to bear on the accused. This constant presentation of good conduct certificates to the interrogators becomes a little wearisome: a general declaration on the part of all the satellites — possibly through the medium of the Cominform — that the police always treat their prisoners correctly, no matter how long they hold them incommunicado, might save us in the future any further spectacles of humbled men commending their inquisitors. The pastors, says the official report, ‘knew full well that many foreigners were present, yet they did not even attempt to retract one single word, and when asked whether physical or moral pressure had been brought to bear on them, they all answered in an unwavering voice, without the slightest hesitation, “no”’ (ibid, p x). Is there then no ‘pressure’ in the very fact of shutting a man in a prison cell, isolating him from the world for more than half a year? Is there no ‘pressure’ in the hired press and radio, the dragooned factory meetings, screeching their prefabricated resolutions, howling ‘Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty!’ day after day? As though trying to cover a mountain of filth with a pocket handkerchief, the report draws attention to the well-groomed appearance of the accused. There is Naumov, with his ‘well-tailored pastor suit, with a starched collar and meticulously combed hair’, and the others: ‘… clean-shaved, with pomaded hair and neatly pressed pants — the very picture of torture!’ What humour! What delicious irony! Yes, the tailor and the barber must have had some busy hours cleaning up. Only it was unfortunate for the general appearance of things that the authorities could not keep these broken men from constantly weeping throughout the ‘trial’.

It is emphasised that this is not an attack on religion. ‘Half an hour per week the pastors spent in the pulpit; the balance of the time was devoted to sorting and delivering strategic information on military, political, economic and other subjects…’ (Ibid, p xi) There is an almost humorous note about this — it depicts the accused as postmen, with preaching as a very spare-time occupation.

It is in addition necessary for the authorities to show that the accused have not become spies as a reaction against recent events; they have always been that way. ‘Many of them — Nikola Mihailov, Yanko Ivanov, Dimiter Mateev and others — had worked for the Gestapo in the past.’ Once again, the unmistakable trademark of the Moscow Trials — ‘Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ Yet these hardened criminals, life-long agents of foreign and ignoble powers, suddenly repent. Why is this? The answer is very simple: it is ‘the granite-like pillar of our human justice’ that has induced them to make a clean breast of their sins, asserts the Bulgarian government. ‘Faced by it, even the criminal consciences of professional spies fold up. The pseudo-pastors came to realise the extent of their crime, its utter senselessness and futility.’ (Ibid, p xii)

Yet the accused hardly give the impression of men toughened by a life of secret crime. Over and over again the official report is compelled to record that the accused are in tears as they speak. Was it the ‘granite-like pillar of human [sic] justice’ that also reduced their nerves to this ragged state?

The report also tells us, with unconscious candour, something of what took place behind the scenes during the rehearsals:

The accused Mihailov declared that from his arrest up to the day of his appearance in court he went through a real political school, which made him realise the utter baseness of his activities and the greatness and invincibility of the new Bulgaria. It was before these that the accused capitulated. This explains the repentance of the accused.

So the granite-like justice was after all not quite enough; the greatness and invincibility of Bulgaria was also required — that is, they had to be convinced that Bulgaria did not care a fig for the human rights clauses in the peace treaty. But it still took more than half a year of ‘schooling’ to make them all see the light; and this schooling continued right up to the day of their appearance in court.

As an indication of how hard put to it the Bulgarian government was to find arguments in support of this trial, we find it quoting an article in theEconomist, as a ‘clincher of the pastors’ guilt’. The quotation reads:

There is no doubt that some American and British officials had such cloak and dagger tastes in the years immediately after the war… If only five per cent of the allegations made recently against American agents in Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Bulgaria were true, that would be sufficient to cause serious anxiety and doubts about the efficiency and discretion of the persons involved. There is little scope for the amateur behind the Iron Curtain. (Ibid, p xiv)

In quoting this, the Bulgarian authorities ignore the fact that the commentator in the Economist is speaking of the inadvisability of employing ‘amateurs’, whereas the pastors were allegedly ‘professionals’. But this is a small point. What is most striking here is the use made of an expression of opinion on the part of a journalist writing in an independent foreign weekly. Why should the Bulgarian government, so sensitive on the subject of its sovereignty, have to look abroad for a final ‘clincher’ to justify its verdict? Why does it feel the need for this extraordinary ‘clincher of the pastors’ guilt’, if it already has solid proof?

We find also the following argument employed: ‘All the accused pleaded guilty. We shall not dwell here on the genuineness of their repentance, but at any rate it removes the last doubts as to their guilt.’ (Ibid, p xv) So without their confessions there would have still remained ‘last doubts’. Seeking with these words to give the impression that there was some other evidence apart from the confessions, they succeed only in admitting that without the confessions the rest of the ‘evidence’ (in fact, non-existent) was insufficient to sustain a verdict of guilty.

During the court proceedings the chief prosecutor was very anxious to impress observers with the policy of religious toleration pursued by the Stalinists. He makes a comparison between the then existing situation and the situation before 9 September 1944, in order to show how much more favourable the new regime is to the work of the churches. In support of his argument he quotes a report of the evangelical churches, signed by the principal accused, Ziapkov, dated 27 May 1947, and entitled The Fatherland Front and the Churches. Before 9 September, says this report, the churches functioned under great restrictions:

The pastors were submitted to incessant police supervision. No pastor could leave his parish for another place without permission from the police authorities. Outside the churches any activity whatever was prohibited. Every announcement of a religious service or printed invitations were interpreted as harmful propaganda. Some pastors were interned.

After 9 September conditions ‘basically changed’ (ibid, p 96). This extract makes the general tenor of the church report clear. It is highly favourable to the attitude of the regime to the churches. Consequently, the Bulgarian people are asking, says the chief prosecutor, ‘why they wanted to restore pre-9 September conditions…?’ Why, indeed? And not only the Bulgarian people ask this question, but everyone else. It is a puzzle to which not even the prosecutor himself can find an answer. Not even he can explain how the British and American governments were able to persuade the pastors to work for the restoration of conditions under which they would once more be subject to severe restrictions and even run the risk of internment for conducting ‘harmful propaganda’. Nor can he explain why these pastors, ‘many of whom had worked for the Gestapo’, were viewed with such disfavour by the Germanophile regime prior to 9 September. Nor can he explain why these pastors should care a brass farthing about restrictions upon church activities, if all they were really interested in was ‘collecting and sorting and delivering strategic information’. So his argument, advanced to demonstrate the policy of religious tolerance pursued by the Fatherland Front, serves only to make the charges against the pastors all the more incredible.

The chief prosecutor then refers to the cases of Mindszenty in Hungary and the Patriarch Tikhon in Russia, apparently unaware that analogies of this nature add nothing in proof of the guilt of the accused. ‘Both past and recent history’, he says, ‘show cases of imperialist intelligence digging its claws into ranks of prominent ecclesiastic officials who took advantage of their eminent religious positions to cover up their ignominious spying activities.’ (Ibid, p 98) Even if taken as seeking to establish that espionage on the part of ecclesiastics is possible, these analogies carry no weight. We have already shown the falsity of the charges against Mindszenty, and the Public Prosecutor is in an even worse situation with the Tikhon analogy, since Tikhon, arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1922, was never tried on a charge of espionage, or on any other charge. The evidence against him was not strong enough to offset the vigorous protests made on his behalf throughout the world, protests to which the Bolsheviks were at that time prepared to pay heed. So in spite of the fact that Patriarch Tikhon had been ten times more outspoken in his attacks on the Bolsheviks than Mindszenty had been against the Hungarian Stalinists, he was released from prison after admitting that his opposition had been mistaken. He lived in peaceful retirement and died a natural death some years later. We do not doubt that his admission of error, had it been made when the confession trial had become an established method of political propaganda, could have been worked up into a full-blown confession. But the fact remains that Tikhon was never made to confess to espionage and there was no evidence against him on that score. The Public Prosecutor’s reference to this matter was therefore completely irrelevant and made solely with the object of introducing prejudice, in the expectation that no one would recall the exact circumstances of the Tikhon affair.

As the statement quoted above indicates, the evangelical churches were at first by no means hostile to the Fatherland Front regime established immediately after 9 September. Indeed, there is support for the view that Ziapkov, leader of the Congregational Church, had illusions about the Stalinists’ policy right up to the time of his arrest, which took place sometime after that of the others. Ziapkov was known to many of his friends as ‘the Red’, and it is indisputable that he was sympathetic to socialist ideals, which he mistakenly assumed the Stalinists held. He was on terms of friendship with Dimiter Iliev, Minister of Cults (later relieved of this post), and other leading government officials, to whose homes he was a frequent visitor. He was regarded as sufficiently sympathetic to the regime to be chosen to attend the Peace Conference in Paris. Right up to the last he was unable to bring himself to believe that the numerous arrests of evangelical churchmen formed part of a concerted action aimed at the churches themselves, and were not just unconnected actions against individuals, arising from errors on the part of over-zealous officials or on the basis of minor, inadvertent infringements of the law. But Pastor Ziapkov was quickly disillusioned when he himself fell into the hands of the police.

All the actions of the pastors that were interpreted in the indictment as crimes against the state took place between the years 1944 and 1947, when Bulgaria was under direct control by the USSR, Great Britain and the USA. As if to underline the fact that the Bulgarian government considers Bulgaria as part and parcel of the Soviet Union, the accused were charged, among other things, with spying upon Soviet occupation troops. Thus Angel Dinev ‘through the accused Chernev, delivered information to the foreign intelligence concerning the location of Soviet troops in Sofia, the movement of Soviet troops in the district of Yambol’ (ibid, p 13), as well as information regarding the productive capacity of certain factories and so forth. This man Dinev, although he is unquestionably as much or as little involved in ‘espionage’ as the other accused, curiously enough received a sentence of only one year — and even that was suspended — together with a fine of 10 000 leva, confiscation of property to the amount of 10 000 leva and loss of political and civil rights for two years. Immediately after the trial he was permitted to resume his work as a pastor in the Pentecostal Church. A quite naive statement made by him after his release explains this clemency towards a ‘professional spy’ and also illustrates the effectiveness of the ‘political schooling’ given during the preliminary interrogation.

I was questioned for two months [he said], before I made my final statement. I was told in the beginning that I would get a lighter sentence if I confessed. I got better food and a softer bed after I made my confession. My statement in court that I was well treated was quite a sincere one. I was well fed and given plenty of books to read… At first I was questioned for quite short periods, but as time went on and they were in a hurry they kept at it for longer periods, sometimes late into the night.

In further explanation of the confessions, Pastor Dinev said: ‘We knew nothing about the Communists but we were really afraid of them. But they treated us as human beings. We saw they breathed the same air as us.’ (Report in The Times, 9 March 1949)

It is not suggested that Pastor Dinev is here being insincere, or at least that he was consciously so. Victims of the interrogation technique are more or less easily ‘conditioned’ in accordance with their varying moral and physical strengths. The very fact of being in prison may so undermine the resistance of some that they are ready to yield at the slightest pressure. The technique, as we have noted, varies in accordance with the individual psychology of the person concerned. Although it took Dinev two months to rationalise his desire to yield, it is not difficult to see that he really believed that he ‘confessed’ of his own free will, really believed that the prospect of freedom and permission to continue working had had nothing to do with his decision. For many people it is hard to admit, even to themselves, that they yield out of fear; they prefer if possible to put a less unflattering construction on their actions, and they are not necessarily insincere in so doing. Pastor AG Zahariev was another who proved useful to the prosecution for fabricating a case against those considered more important figures, and against whom the sentences were correspondingly severe. Zahariev himself received a sentence similar to Dinev’s in consideration of his services — there could have been no other reason for this mildness, since the ‘evidence’ against him was the same as that against those who were severely dealt with.

The fifteen men charged at this trial represented the Congregational, Methodist, Baptist and Pentecostal Churches in Bulgaria. These churches were sharply divided from one another. Relations between the accused Yanko Ivanov and Vassil Ziapkov, representing respectively the Methodist and Congregational Churches, were particularly strained. The question of the union of the two churches had been under discussion for ten years without result. The doctrinal disputes between those four churches were a prominent feature of every annual conference, and there were also differences of opinion within each church, giving rise to factions rallied round one or another pastor. Yet in spite of these often very sharp dissensions, in spite of the lack of personal confidence between the leading members of these churches (particularly between Ivanov and Ziapkov, the two main accused), there was allegedly a harmonious unity in secret plotting and espionage activity against the regime; that is, in the kind of activity demanding the most absolute personal confidence between those engaged in it. The prosecution is forced to recognise this contradiction, since the disunity of the churches, and the personal squabbles between the leaders, was known to everyone concerned with religious affairs. ‘The churches were disunited’, says Prosecutor Tsakov, ‘but at the same time were they not united round the slogan — to collect information?’ (Ibid p 24) The accused Mihailov, thus questioned, replied that they were so united; but something a little stronger than his mere assertion is required to remove our doubts about it. Further evidence of the utter lack of confidence between the alleged ringleaders is given by Mihailov when he says:

In our conversation with Black [Cyril Black, Secretary to the former US Mission in Bulgaria-author] in 1946, the question of who should be our vital link was raised. Black smiled and said: ‘Vassil Ziapkov will be the vital link between us.’ I said: ‘Oh, Mr Black! In no case. Ziapkov is a double-faced man. We can put no trust in him.’ (Ibid, p 29)

Yanko Ivanov also ‘decisively refused to collaborate with Ziapkov’ (p 30). Yet in spite of this categorical disapproval of Ziapkov we find Ivanov saying, on page 36, that he ‘transmitted Black’s instructions to Chernev, Mihailov and Ziapkov’; Ziapkov, the ‘vital link’ who could not be trusted because he was ‘double-faced’, yet from whom Ivanov had received ‘information’ back in July 1945 — ‘for the third time’ (p 38), and to whom Ivanov ‘transmitted Black’s instructions’ in 1946. There is an unresolvable contradiction between this and Ivanov’s ‘decisively refusing to collaborate with Ziapkov’. They were thus not ‘united round the slogan to collect information’. Small wonder that the president of the court says to Mihailov before he leaves the dock to make way for the next accused: ‘… answer clearly and categorically — the court desires to know, was any pressure or violence of any kind exerted upon you by the organs of the enquiry?’ And the answer is, of course, as clear and categorical as any president of such a court could desire.

Ziapkov then enters the dock. ‘Mr President, I only wish to make a confession…’, he begins, and then bursts into tears.

Ziapkov confesses to a conspiratorial meeting with ‘Andrews and his brother’ in October 1944. But Stanley (formerly vice-consul in Sofia) and Charles Burt-Andrews (an officer in the RAF section of the British element of the Allied Control Commission) were at no time in Sofia together and Ziapkov could not therefore have had a meeting with them in October 1944. Stanley Burt-Andrews did not go to Sofia until 30 March 1946, and therefore the further meetings between him and Ziapkov in November and December 1944, and in February, April and October 1945, could not have taken place.

Although the report of the evangelical churches on the policy of the Fatherland Front on religious matters — signed by Ziapkov — was issued as late as May 1947, and was extremely favourable to the Fatherland Front regime, we find Ziapkov stating the following at his trial:

How did the hostile spirit of the Supreme Council manifest itself? In the first place, it was an indiscriminate criticism of all Fatherland Front initiatives and a negative attitude towards our liberator, the USSR. It also expressed itself in our criminal relations with the Anglo-Americans, espionage relations [weeps] under the veil of religion. (Ibid, pp 48-49)

Now, as has been pointed out, all the actions of the accused that were characterised as criminal took place between 1944 and 1947; it is in these years that the ‘hostile spirit’ allegedly expressed itself in ‘espionage relations’, and at the same time manifested itself in ‘indiscriminate criticism’. However, there is no evidence advanced regarding the specific nature of that criticism (other than that it was ‘indiscriminate’); no such evidence as it was possible to produce in the case of Mindszenty in Hungary who had openly inveighed against the Stalinist regime. On the contrary, the prosecution, far from producing evidence of this ‘indiscriminate criticism’, quotes only a report of the evangelical churches, issued as late as May 1947, which is eminently favourable to the regime, and which could only have the effect of rallying support for it among Protestants of all denominations. That, of course, was the purpose of this declaration. And Ziapkov himself was sent on an official mission with official blessing in 1946. Thus, although it is not excluded that individual members of the churches may have given expression to opinion hostile to the regime, the church organisations as such, and their leaders, were by no means indulging in ‘indiscriminate criticism’, nor was this at any time alleged against them during the period in question. It would indeed appear from this declaration of May 1947 that at least a large majority, if not all, of the representatives of the four churches believed it possible to work with the new authorities and considered it desirable to give them their support. The ‘indiscriminate criticism’ of which Ziapkov spoke was therefore, if it existed at all, confined to a small number of individuals and did not express the official viewpoint of the churches. Hence the impossibility of producing evidence of this at the trial. However, Ziapkov’s words once again show that in Stalinist eyes criticism, whether indiscriminate or not, is tantamount to treason. Worth noting also is the ‘loyalty to the USSR theme’ that occurs in all these trials. Ziapkov, too, makes his cringing acknowledgments to the ‘great liberator’, sings the praises of the regime, and does not simply confine himself to a confession of plotting against it. No one can blame him for that: for the preliminary interrogation has reduced him, like all the others, to a ventriloquist doll without a voice of his own.

It is not here necessary to examine the nebulous ‘evidence’ regarding the so-called espionage information allegedly passed by the accused to Western agents. A couple of examples of this evidence will alone suffice to demonstrate its nature. The witness Lobomir Tzanov, a former industrialist, spoke of the information on production at his factory that he passed to the accused, Pastor Michkov. This very secret information was available — up to the nationalisation of the factory in December 1947 — to anyone sufficiently interested to pay the concern a visit. For publicity purposes, it was customary to conduct such visitors on a tour of inspection of all the departments, to provide them with catalogues and any other data regarding production that they might want. The second example is taken from the examination of the accused N Michailev, head of the Baptist Church, who confessed to having sent abroad information on the number of pupils in the schools and on the incidence of sickness among the population. Michailev timidly objected that in the past this had never been regarded as espionage — a not unreasonable objection. But he was informed that in the existing situation the slightest and the most innocent information could profit the enemy. There you have it! Given such a conception of espionage, it is possible to manufacture spies ad libitum, and permit the chief prosecutor to make the ridiculous assertion that ‘the spy ring branches along the lines of every church and it included most of the evangelical pastors in Bulgaria’ (ibid, p 99). With such a conception of espionage information the World Council of Churches can be represented as having no other purpose than to serve as an espionage organisation for the West. ‘This World Council’, says the accused Mihailov, ‘is squandering large sums of money which is incomprehensible to us, the common people’ (ibid, p 30 — author’s emphasis). The implication is patent. But mark the peculiar reference to himself and his colleagues as ‘the common people’! And why should this ‘squandering’ be so incomprehensible to this leading member of the ‘Pastor spy ring’? The explanation of this absurd attitude lies in the absurdity of the whole affair. Mihailov has consented to play a role, believing that this is the only way in which he can save himself. He is required to depict the entire church organisation as nothing more than a vast espionage organisation. In order to do this, he must confess that he himself was a spy. At the same time he is unable to resist the impulse to defend himself indirectly with this reference to the ‘common people’, which, in the general context of his confession, makes absolutely no sense at all. It sounds ridiculous — and it is ridiculous: because it is an element of truth in a welter of lies. But no one questions him on this point. No one asks him what he means by referring to himself and his colleagues as ‘the common people’. It is thought better not to draw attention to this inconsistency. Earlier in his testimony he has stated that: ‘Up to this time I had no definite political outlook. I sympathised with the broad socialists whom I regarded as reformers.’ (Ibid, p 26) This is in complete accord with his view of himself as belonging to the common people, but it is at the same time in complete disharmony with his still earlier evidence depicting himself as an agent of the Gestapo up to 1939. Only a Stalinist lumps socialists together with fascists in ‘one reactionary mass’. The whole of the so-called evidence on espionage is shot through and through with contradictions of this kind, yet no attempt is made to get at the truth behind them: the stage managers had made sure beforehand that no one would be so foolish as to try it.

The main purpose of the Bulgarian government in staging this trial was to block one of the loopholes through which contact with the West could be maintained. The membership of the evangelical churches in Bulgaria embraces a quite insignificant proportion of the population, which is overwhelmingly Orthodox. As far as immediate popular influence was concerned, these churches therefore presented no danger to the regime; nor is there any reason to suppose that their influence could have so grown as to represent any danger in the future. Contributions from the membership of these churches had never been sufficient to meet the wages of the pastors, and all of them had been to a greater or less extent dependent upon outside financial aid, which derived primarily from fraternal bodies in the United States. This assistance dated from the very founding of these churches in Bulgaria, and was no secret to anyone. The Stalinists were well aware of it. They knew that the war had stopped this aid from the US, and they also knew that contributions to the upkeep of the churches had been resumed with the cessation of hostilities. Yet they did not question this during all the time when relations between the Fatherland Front and the churches were friendly. At no time since the foundation of the Communist movement in Bulgaria had its members ever charged that these contributions from abroad were payments for espionage services rendered. It was only when the Stalinists felt that their control of the repressive machinery of the state was sufficiently secure for them to throw off their temporary allies that this extraordinary charge was thought up. The trial of the Protestant pastors had propaganda value. This perfectly natural financial assistance was given an unnatural interpretation for a definite political purpose; together with the fact that one or two of the accused had at one time or another spoken with Petkov, or had been members of the Agrarian Union, this made the entire evangelical church an agency of the British and American intelligence services. The object of this was to offer a lesson that even the dullest could assimilate. All representatives of the West, no matter what their ostensible functions, are spies, and anyone having connections with them is open to more than the suspicion of being a spy himself; their influence is in every way pernicious; they are spiritual lepers, to be approached at one’s peril. Behind this exaggerated propaganda lies a very real fear of the influence exercised by Western ideas and ideals, and a genuine anxiety lest any information, no matter how trivial, on the internal political, social or economic situation should reach the West. The basis for this fear is both political and military. A knowledge of the true situation in Bulgaria would enable military observers to estimate her potential for aggression and it would enable Western political commentators and propagandists to counter more effectively the Stalinist propaganda representing the People’s Democracies as a kind of heaven on earth for the common people. These considerations of course apply to all the satellites. The driving force behind the policy of strict isolation from the West is the Soviet Union, or, more precisely, the privileged ruling class in that country. This policy reflects the interests of this ruling class, and springs partly from a real fear of the aggressive intentions of the West and partly from the need artificially to preserve this fear.

It is possible that the warped intelligences of many Stalinists made them really accept the argument that since the pastors had received financial aid from their supporters in the West, this was proof of their disloyalty. Stalinist functionaries could reach this conclusion from their own experience of financial dependence upon the Soviet government; for them it would be quite simply a question of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. But the initiated in whose hands the preparation and conduct of the trial was placed were well aware of the falsity of such an analogy. They knew that the accusation of espionage was ridiculous. No matter — it was an excellent method of ensuring that all intercourse with Western individuals and institutions would be cut off. This ‘isolationist’ purpose is well brought out in the following statement of one of the accused: ‘I would like to make a warm appeal to all Evangelicals. Stay far, far away from foreign influence.’ (Ibid, p 32) This was not an appeal, it was a warning, and it was addressed not to the evangelicals alone. There is no need to ask who put those words into the mouth of the accused.

Most of the witnesses brought forward to testify on the question of illegal dealings in foreign currency had already been in prison for some months, were still under arrest, and could naturally be expected to say what was required of them. Although for these offences no very severe penalties were prescribed by law (a fine and/or imprisonment — in serious cases as much as one year’s penal servitude) no news of their subsequent fate is available. But the currency charges occupied no prominent part of the proceedings in the pastors’ trial. The very long period during which the accused had been subjected to the Soviet interrogation technique had reduced them all to a state of complete malleability in the hands of the prosecution. The one possible exception to this was L Popov, who pleaded guilty only to the minor charge of infringing the currency regulations. A trial in which the accused were charged solely with currency offences would not have had anything like the same value as a trial of Western spies; moreover, these charges could be brought against only six of the fifteen accused. Those accused also on this count were the two Popov brothers, Chernev, Ivanov, Mihailov and MM Dimitrov. But the nature of the evidence on these matters is seen from the following statement of Mihailov: ‘… we decided to invest the money at the Moser Bank in order that we may receive a more favourable rate of exchange… a message was soon received that the Moser Bank has accepted the sum of seven hundred dollars at my disposal.’ (Ibid, p 31 — the reader will appreciate that errors in language are due to the official translation of the report from which we are quoting.) Exchanging dollars through a bank hardly gives the impression of black-market dealing. But apparently the general purpose of the prosecution was served here by the fact that the bank in question had a German name. It must be remembered that the propaganda material provided by these shows is directed primarily at the population of the country in which they take place. Demagogic crudities, although basic to Stalinist propaganda in all countries, may be more effective in one country, where the general political level of understanding is low, than in another, where the people are politically more educated. Thus at the pastors’ trial care was taken to see that one of the accused mentioned that some of the alleged black-market intermediaries for the exchange of currency were Jews. There was nothing inadvertent about this; it was part of the script. The prosecution simply allows the fact to register in the audience’s mind, without comment. In Hungary the Stalinists could try to create prejudice against Mindszenty by accrediting him with anti-Semitism; in Bulgaria they can use popular prejudice against Jews by associating the accused with them in black-market dealings. The Stalinists’ utter lack of principle allows them to assume whatever pose may appear most suitable to the circumstances.

The evangelical churches, disunited on points of doctrine and with their leaders at loggerheads with one another, somehow or other forgot all their differences, and put aside all personal distrust of one another — when it came to the question of espionage. No sooner did this question come up for discussion than all dissension ceased. The picture is somewhat marred by the fact that no one of the conspirators would trust the vital go-between, Ziapkov; but the prosecution airily ignores this. To give this picture a little more colour and make it seem more like the real thing, the prosecutor asks the accused Chernev: ‘Did you have a code?’ And Chernev replies: ‘Yes, our code word for one thousand dollars was “one bale.”’ (Ibid, p 59) Not exactly a complicated code, but apparently it satisfied the prosecutor — one can imagine the triumphantly significant expression with which he surveys all present and allows a moment’s pause for this telling item of information to sink in.

So the evangelical churches were not only united among themselves on this matter of ‘collecting, sorting and delivering strategic information’, but they were also working in unison with Petkov — and, yes, even with Tito! To the outsider this may seem crazy, but there is method in this madness. Petkov has been tried, found guilty, condemned. It is now a matter of the record that he was a traitor. There is no disputing it. The accused in this trial admit ‘connections’ with this man, ergo — they are also traitors. And just as in the Moscow Trials, the arch-agent behind all the accused was Trotsky, so now behind all the plots against the People’s Democracies is Tito, arch-agent of the Western imperialisms. Willy-nilly, Tito’s name has therefore to be dragged into the trial; but since Tito was unaware of even the existence of these pastors, the effort to do so is painfully clumsy. The witness Stratev is made to say:

Only recently, when the Tito treason [yes, ‘treason ‘ — a witness in these circumstances knows how to choose his words] was announced, Pastor Mihailov, filled with joy, told me: ‘Didn’t I tell you Tito would make a break?’ We asked him where he had gotten the information. Mihailov replied that the source did not matter, what counted was that Tito had done just what he, Mihailov, had predicted. (Ibid, p 90)

This is the sum total of the evidence connecting the accused with Tito; this is the proof that they were hand-in-glove with the arch-traitor. Well, what more do you want? All opposition to the Stalinists is ‘one reactionary mass’, represented as organisationally and politically homogeneous — Fascists, Zionists, Trotskyists, Socialists, Catholics, Protestants, Masons, etc, all working in close union for identical policies. This only seems absurd to those who are unable to realise that black is white, and white, black.

In the published report of the trial the part played by the defence is hardly mentioned. Only in the case of Mihailov are we informed that ‘the examination concluded with several questions put by the president of the court, the Public Prosecutor, and the defence’ (ibid, p 93). Nowhere else is any indication given that the defence was present, even formally. Of course, defence counsels were present, but the complete absence in this official report of any information on what questions they asked and how they conducted their cases is a very striking illustration of how little importance the authorities attached to them. In the overwhelming majority of these trials the defence is a mere formality; the Petkov trial alone provided an example of a defence counsel attempting to do his job (although there was no vigorous political defence put up, and the conciliatory tone was dominant). The defence in the Protestant pastors’ trial was so obviously a mere formality that it was not felt worthwhile mentioning in the report. One almost feels that the Public Prosecutor was being consciously ironic when he said:

No one can deny that as a result of the court proceedings carried out publicly… with full freedom for all defendants and the defence under the most meticulous verification of the charges, with examination of the defendants and witnesses and verification of the material evidence, the many and varied criminal activities… were found to correspond to the indictment. (Ibid, p 93)

Since the indictment was framed on the basis of the confessions extorted from the accused and the witnesses behind the scenes over a period of many months, and since the evidence was only an amplification of the indictment thus framed, and since everything had been painstakingly rehearsed beforehand, the correspondence referred to by the Public Prosecutor is hardly a matter for surprise. (Incidentally, there was not a single document produced in court — not even such a remarkable ‘document’ as the public telephone directory solemnly admitted into the evidence at the second Moscow Trial.)

The trial concluded with life sentences on the four principal accused: Pastors Ziapkov, Ivanov, Naumov and Chernev; nine others receiving sentences ranging from five to fifteen years, and two (neither more nor less guilty than the others) being freed after their sentences had been commuted. So ended another phase of Bulgaria’s incorporation into the Russian Empire.


Bulgarian Pentecostal riddle…

April 25, 2019 by  
Filed under Events, Featured, Missions, News

Five kings with five crowns
Four bishops and castle in the middle
Who will blow the whistle
and who will play the fiddle?
A Bulgarian Pentecostal riddle…

Alive, alive, alive forevermore…

April 20, 2019 by  
Filed under Featured, News

baba-dida-v-dialog-s-baba-djenka1Rev. Dony K. Donev, D. Min.

“When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also.”

2 Timothy 1:5

My Grandma, Todorka Mindova, was one of the first Sunday school teachers in the Bulgarian Pentecostal Union. After successfully graduating from a training course in the city of Sliven led by Donka Kinareva and personally organized by Dr. Nicolas Nikolov, she was allowed to minister in the denomination. But for grandma, the faith was more than teaching or a sermon. It was life. Many Bulgarian Pentecostal ministers can testify to the effectiveness of her ministry. And for her constant fasting and thousands of answered prayers I could write a book.

But far more interesting for me as a child was the fact that being a Sunday school teacher, Grandma never tried to preach to me. In the hardest moments of life she would only confess these words, which I have remembered from my childhood: “We serve a living God.” More was not needed. For Grandma preached with her life. Read more

Evangelical Education in Bulgaria is at Halt

April 15, 2019 by  
Filed under Events, Featured, Missions, News

With the new Bill on Religion in Bulgaria, the Muslim community has been given amnesty on some $4,500,000 of public debt, while granted another $3 million in annual government subsidies. As a result, the monthly salary of Muslim clergy (imams) has already increased with 20% and a new Islamic school is being opened in one of the historically oldest Christian places in Bulgaria, the city of Sliven. All while, the evangelical protestant communities are not receiving financial support under the new law and their schools remain without proper government legalization via the Bulgarian Ministry of Education. 

Though this legal precedent follows the Russian Law on Religion that has already effectively closed the evangelical seminaries in Moscow, it is manifesting a political agenda undergoing in Bulgaria for over a decade. What remains unsaid with the recent changes in the Law of Religion in Bulgaria is the ultimate halt of evangelical education in the country. The Bulgarian Evangelical Theological Institute has been functioning at its operational minimum for years now. Students are trained mainly online or via small local groups spread in various cities. They are called to the school departments only for graduation or occasionally lectures by visiting scholars. Even after years of waiting, the Institute was never granted official accreditation through Bulgaria’s Ministry of Education and most of the students preferred getting their degrees from other accredited and licensed institutions. Less than 1% of the students who were not in ministry at the time of their enrollment entered the ministry post graduation. And even fewer of them remain in ministry today; which ultimately ensures the lack of adequately trained ministers for placement in the evangelical churches of Bulgaria.

The last Bulgarian to graduate from the Church of God Theological Seminary did so over a decade ago, and 2009 was the last class of the Bulgarian Theological College (seminary). One of the greatest mistakes made was closing the college in 2009, thus leaving the movement with virtually no higher ministry training for the last decade.

We were present at the national meeting of elders on September 10, 2009 in Sofia when the final decision to close the Church of God Theological College was voted. Only a few others along with us disagreed with the vote and pleaded with the assembly to make everything possible and keep the school open. At the final vote, it came down to a few thousand dollars due in annual membership fees and the school was closed.

Five years prior to these events in 2004, we published an article on evangelical education in Bulgaria with some warnings. The article proposed a change of the evangelical educational paradigm in anticipation of new legal changes and the prolonged waiting for a governmental accreditation. In fact, the same issues addressed in our proposal repeated themselves in 2016 upon Russia changing its own legislation on religion and religious education thus effectively illegalizing evangelical seminaries and overall missionary work. Today, similar legal measures are put in place by the Bulgarian government as well.

The final of our 10-point proposed plan in 2004 included the following observation:

  1. Naturally, the well-educated graduates have chosen not to occupy themselves with denominational politics both to avoid confrontation and to express their disagreement. This dynamic has been partially ignored by leadership remaining from the period of the underground church when religious education was virtually nonexistent and lacking a complete realization of the power of education. This unnoticed trend, however, endangers Bulgarian Evangelism creating a lack of continuity within the leadership and preparing the context for the emerging leadership crises.                                                                                                                              

With the new Bill on Religion in Bulgaria closely following the effective closure of evangelical seminaries in Moscow, the opportunity for a government recognized ministerial training in Bulgaria may be legally impossible to regain. In the light of those resent changes, our 2004 proposal for a legal ministry training alternative was successfully implemented and used for our Master of Chaplaincy Ministry graduates since 2009 providing a single valid alternative for evangelical education in Bulgaria.

30 Years Ago He Prophesied the Fall of Communism

April 10, 2019 by  
Filed under Featured, Missions, News

Johny Noer in Bulgaria (1989) Джони НОЕР в БЪЛГАРИЯ

bulgaria2015The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 did not take believers in the Eastern Block by surprise. They had been fervently praying for God to intervene and He did. Perhaps the greatest miracle of the 20th century was Communism falling on its own. If suffering with the Regime had been an eschatological expectation, the fall of the Regime was an eschatological celebration. And through all these times, the search for deep, biblical holiness after the heart of God never stopped. For the people of God, that search was always miraculous and prophetic.

IДжони Ноер в БЪЛГАРИЯ 10n the spring of 1989, a Danish journalist by the name of Johny Noer came to Bulgaria with a prophetic message. For years he had lived and travelled in many countries with his family and coworkers in a convoy of several trailers. They met the start of 1989 with a seven-day fast on the island of Pathmos where God told them to travel to Eastern Europe and proclaim the fall of the Regime. The Convoy did so through many difficulties paying a high price to minster in Bulgaria for the next three months.

The last service they conducted before being extradited by the authorities was on Easter morning at the Black Sea port city of Varna. Thousands of believers arrived from all over the country. The use of an auditorium was not allowed so they gathered outside the small Pentecostal church at the cities outskirts. They were surrounded by a dense police cordon of several hundred K9 patrols. Under these circumstances, the sermon could only be short and simple. In fact, it contained the exact words the Communist Police forbade Pastor Noer to say: “Let My People Go!” A prophecy was given that Communism will soon fall. It was fulfilled exactly seven months later on November 10, 1989.

Джони Ноер в БЪЛГАРИЯ 2But there was something else that happened at that memorable Easter morning. Two large scrolls were brought into the church. There, over 5,000 men and women signed their names as a testimony of their dedication to God and preaching the Gospel until revival breaks through in Bulgaria. Beside a petition to the government for religious freedom, this national declaration affirmed the search for holiness, which even Communism had not been able to stop in Bulgaria.

In the fall of 2014 our ministry invited Pastor Johny Noer to Bulgaria again. His second visit marked exactly 25 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall. After a week long crusade in a dozen of Bulgarian cities, several thousand Christians gathered again in Varna and signed two new scrolls containing the Second Varna Declaration. The event was just like a quarter of a century ago and made clear that revival cycles take place on increments of 25 years – a period where two generations overlap. It also proved that the search for holiness has not stopped in Bulgaria.

NEW Prophetic Word for Bulgaria in 2014 (video)

Read Also:

BibleTech meets in Washington

April 5, 2019 by  
Filed under Featured, News

The Saga with the Bulgarian Bill on Religion

April 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Featured, News

The saga with the Bulgarian Bill on religions is over. For now!

It began about a year ago, when new corrections were proposed to the 2002 similar legislation. The 2002 bill has been in operation for 17 years as seen as democratic replacement of the 1944 law on religions enforced by the Communist Regime. The 2018 corrections to the 2002 bill first included:

  1. preaching limited to Bulgarian language only
  2. no church sponsorship outside of Bulgaria
  3. heavy restrictions on foreign preachers and missionaries
  4. minimum 3,000 members for the registration of a religious confession

The tensions increased in the fall of 2018 when the new legislation was accepted by Parliament with no corrections and proceeded to its second and final vote of the floor. Meanwhile, the parliamentarian discussions eliminated the 3,000 limit and foreign sponsorship restrictions and moved toward a more administrative moderation on religions. It included government subsidy for the religious groups as the larger ones (Eastern Orthodox, Muslim) would receive government salaries, while the smaller groups (Protestant evangelicals, Catholics, Jewish, etc.) would be granted smaller amounts (under or about 100,000) via the Directorate of Religious Affairs.

This final correction was voted in on the last working day of 2018, however on January 31, 2019 new corrections were offered in Parliament. They involved a one time financial amnesty of public debts owed by all religious groups. The total estimate was roughly $8.2 million of which $8.1 was owed by the Muslim confession. As the proposal brought much tension, it was reduced to a 10 year extension for all confessions to pay back their public debt. It was dully noted that the said $8.1 million amount owed by the Muslim confession will reach a statue of limitation around 2024 and will perhaps not be paid in full for the said 10 year period.

With these corrections, the New Bill of Religions in Bulgaria is now voted and finalized. As it stands in its final form, it still demands:

  1. open registry for all religious buildings and religious workers of all denominations (in some cases involving both clergy and employed laity)
  2. registration of ALL foreign guest speakers (it is not defined if this involves preachers, missionaries, short-term groups etc.)
  3. restriction on open air evangelism and otherwise open air events to days of national holidays only and in most cases with prior notification and officially granted administrative permission

A final restriction, perhaps most essential for evangelistic ministry, is the general ban of sound systems during outside meetings. Though some use is allowed during holidays upon a special permit, for a ministry like ours it proposes a major limitation.

For more than 20 years now our ministry in Bulgaria has been outside of the four walls of the church. Though we have spent much of our resources in renting auditoriums through the years, our most successful meetings reaching larger crowds have been outside, open air, tent revivals or youth camps. On most of these occasions due to the large audience we have been renting professional sound equipment and at times partnering with sound companies who specialize in large concerts and open air events. To limit the sound of the voice in such events is basically to limit the freedom of speech. Sure, you can still speak, but who can hear?

We’ve dealt with similar limitations in prior years by live streaming and releasing recordings of the events on the internet. There are multiple technical workarounds that could be implemented and we’ve tried most of them before. A personal cell phone, which nowadays everyone owns, could be used to communicate and broadcast live events, without disturbing the surrounding neighborhood, but it certainly takes away from live communication, speaker interaction and audience response. Finding a remote location is also an option, but it puts much strain on people travelling and attending.

These new restrictions are particularly concerning to our ministry close to the Turkish border areas where most of the Muslim population lives and many foreign migrant camps are located. Even without the current legislation, it has been difficult to carry sound equipment to the area and pass through various check points and municipal governmental requirements. Without proper sound equipment open air meetings or showing of the Jesus film will be simply impossible. And with that, access of our evangelistic ministry to those areas of Bulgaria where it is needed the most may be soon restricted for good.

After over 20 years of open air evangelism, this new legislation is directing us into a search for a ministry building where we can concentrate our work in Bulgaria without risking complications. Only time will show if this approach would be acceptable and efficient, but one thing is for sure – we need to do everything possible to keep communicating the Truth of the Gospel while even the least freedom to do so is still available in the region.

Next Page »