Bulgaria: Religious Liberty

A Brief Historical and Legal Description of Religious Liberty

Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic ruled by a democratically elected government. It declared independence from Turkey in 1908, became a Communist nation in 1944, joined the United Nations in 1945, and rejected communism in 1989.1 Since the fall of communism, there has been controversy in Bulgaria over what level of religious freedom the government should allow. Members of the old regime contend that “non-traditional” religions, those other than the officially recognized Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Protestantism, Islam and Judaism, destabilize the country by allowing new social and cultural forces to influence the people. More progressive members of government, human rights and religious liberty organizations, as well as members of “non-traditional” religions, advocate greater freedom.

On July 1991, Bulgaria passed its current Constitution.2 Bulgaria joined the Council of Europe in May 1993 and ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in September of the same year.3 The U.S. Department of State reports, “Bulgaria’s human rights performance continued to be generally good in 1993. Freedom of press, assembly, religion, speech, association and travel were respected, with some significant exceptions.”4 In its map, “Suppression of Religious Liberty Around the World,” Christian Solidarity International rates Bulgaria as a country with “few violations, none serious, of basic religious liberties.”5

The majority of religious Bulgarian citizens in the country are Orthodox, but there is tension between Evangelical and Orthodox denominations because Evangelical Protestants are providing greater humanitarian relief to the population than their Orthodox counterparts. Minority ethnic and national groups include Armenians, Greeks, Gypsies, Jews and Turks. While the majority of citizens are nonreligious, 26% are Orthodox, 9% Sunni Muslims, 50,000 Catholics, and 50,000 other Christians.6 The Encyclopedia of Human Rights reports that “the government officially discourages the practice of religion, so there are no official statistics on the number of persons practicing a certain religion or belief.”7 The Baptist Union reports that, as of 1994, it has more than 25 congregations in Bulgaria and 2,000 to 3,000 members.8 One report estimates that “There are approximately 100,000 evangelical Christians in Bulgaria.”9

Although the State discourages the practice of religion, the Encyclopedia reports that the government “renders assistance to all recognized faiths, supplements their budgets, provides relief from various taxes, and takes care of the protection and restoration of historical and cultural monuments of a religious nature.”10 The U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights expands, “A number of major religious bodies, including the Muslim and Jewish communities, receive government financial support.”11

Although the Government says it provides support to religious communities, the Organization of the Islamic Conference stated in a 1988 report: “That the Muslims in Bulgaria have been denied free use of their places of worship (mosques), and the restrictions on their use on a particular day in a week or on a particular time only is a negation of a basic religious right of Muslims.”12

Constitutional and Legislative Provisions Regarding Religion
The 1991 Bulgarian Constitution vests sovereignty in the people, guarantees its citizens “[f]reedom of speech, association, press, assembly, religion and travel,” and recognizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the “traditional” religion.13 Constitutional provisions relating to religious liberty are as follows:

Article 13 (1): There is freedom of religion.

(2): Religious institutions are separate from the state.

(3): The Eastern Orthodox religion is the traditional religion of the Republic of Bulgaria.

(4): Religious communities and institutions or religious convictions may not be used in the pursuit of political objectives.14

Article 37 (1): Freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, and choice of religion or religious or atheistic views are inviolable. The state encourages tolerance and respect among believers of different faiths as well as between believers and nonbelievers.

(2): Freedom of conscience and religion may not be detrimental to national security, public order, public health and morality, or the rights and freedoms of other citizens.15

Article 58 (2): Religious or other beliefs are not grounds for refusing to fulfill the obligations imposed by the Constitution and laws.16

Bulgaria has also ratified the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.17

Although the Constitution protects religious liberty de jure, the Government does not respect religious liberty de facto. Parliament has adopted a limited view of the Constitution’s protection of religious liberty. Since 1992, Parliament has passed numerous laws which restrict freedom of religion. In April 1993, Parliament negated the effects of a 1953 Decree which confiscated property of the Catholic Church.18 The Helsinki Commission maintains that, although the Church can regain its land legally, it “faces ‘administrative obstacles’ in the restoration process.”19 At the same time, a member of Parliament proposed a religion bill to allow Orthodoxy to be taught in the schools “and its doctrine spread about in the national mass media and in public.”20 This bill also would prohibit “‘non-traditional’ religions from using state and municipal property.”21

The government stringently upholds the Law on Denominations of 1949 which requires religious bodies to “register with the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or with the courts as a citizens’ association.”22 One of the consequences of the 1949 law is that, as the East-West Church and Ministry Report states, “no foreign person entering the country for the sole purpose of Christian work can acquire a residential visa for longer than one month.”23 Westerners who are not Americans must purchase a visa each time they enter the country.24

The Directorate of Religious Affairs in June 1994 announced changes in the Persons and Family Act which, according to News Network International (NNI), “requires all non- denominational religious organizations to seek governmental approval before registering.”25 The Government now forbids 24 organizations to register, states that they will lose their registration, and forbids them to engage in public activities.26 Those denied registration include an affiliate of Gideons International, a Bible center, a charity organization affiliated with the Church of God and a Christian literature group.27

According to a United Nations report, the Director of Religious Affairs in June 1992, following the Directorate for Denominations at the Council of Ministers of the Council of Ministers of the Bulgarian Government, stripped the Holy Synod [of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church] of all its rights and ordered the bank to freeze its assets and to transfer them to the new synod,” referring to the Law on Denominations of 1949 for legitimacy.28 The Government has since repealed certain sections of the Directorate as unconstitutional, but still holds that the central leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had not been duly registered. When the Supreme Court in November 1992 held that the Directorate exceeded its authority, the Directorate yielded to the Court and appointed a new director.29

In early 1994, Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, passed an ordinance to facilitate implementation of the 1949 Law, requiring all registered non-denominational organizations “with religious intent as its primary goal,” such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and followers of Sun Myung Moon and para-church organizations, to be approved by the Directorate of Religious Affairs and then “to re-register as a religious organization or to come under the umbrella of a specific, currently registered denomination” within 90 days or “the state would gain complete control of the organization’s assets and possessions.”30 East-West continues, “[T]o re-register, each organization is required to prove its need for re-registration, produce financial records for government approval, and undergo extensive interrogation.”31 The penalty for failing to re-register is a 10,000 leva ($180 U.S.) fine, or revocation of registration for those that fail to obey.32 The ordinance recognizes Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, Armenian-Gregorian and Jewish religions as having “the historical presence” in the city, but mandates that it will deny registration to other religious groups if “their activities are directed against national security, national self-consciousness, social order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of other citizens.”33 The director of the Bulgarian Directorate of Religious Affairs said that the purpose of the new law is “merely to distinguish religious communities from non-religious foundations. Dissolution of religious groups and confiscation of property are not the purpose of this law.”34 However, the secretary of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee argues that the law “eventually will lead to the dissolution of several religious associations or religious-affiliated associations.”35

In mid-March 1994, Plovdiv issued another ordinance which prohibits religious organizations from inviting people younger than 18 years to religious activities and from advertising religious events in public places. An ordinance limiting religious groups’ access to public halls has been in place since May 1992.36

Recent Reported Cases of Religious Intolerance

Religious intolerance falls into three main categories: media harassment, missionary harassment, and restrictions on freedom of worship.

MEDIA HARASSMENT. The media is often hostile toward Evangelical Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other “non-traditional” religions, characterizing Protestant groups as “cult-like and responsible for prostitution, drugs and teenage suicide.”37 A Bulgarian newspaper described the mood toward missionaries: “Sects ruin the character, they brainwash, destroy the mind, and break up the values of Bulgarians which make society… vulnerable to the political, economic and ‘cultural’ expansion which spreads after the coming of missionaries.”38 Since March 1993, the major newspapers have conducted a media campaign against all “non-traditional religions.”39 While the media blatantly attacks many religions, the Government denies evangelicals access to TV and radio, and thus prevents them from responding to such attacks.40 In June 1994, skinheads interrupted a worship service at a Church of God, holding captive 300 worshippers and severely beating seven church members.41 According to NNI, “[t]he roots of the June attack can be traced to the media . . . which have for months engaged in propaganda efforts against Protestants.”42

Media coverage has led to a situation where, as an Orthodox priest said, it is okay for young people to beat up evangelical pastors.43 The U.S. Department of State reports that media harassment characterized by “extensive press reporting which painted lurid and often inaccurate pictures of the activities of non-Orthodox religious groups,” lead to missionary harassment.44 The United Nations stated that, “[o]n 2 April 1993, Orthodox priests, students and teachers from the Eastern Orthodox Seminary reportedly marched through the streets of Sofia brandishing torches and setting fire to various symbols of the Protestant faith which they had seized.”45

In April 1993, more than 4,000 Protestants signed an appeal to the National Assembly “protesting acts of intolerance against them and against other non-Orthodox Christians.”46 As of December 1993, the Government appointed two Commissions in the National Assembly to consider Protestant claims, but had made no final determination. The government did state, however, that “It is true that some mass media do not make a distinction between sect and denomination, but the Executive Power has no right to encroach upon the freedom and independence of the mass media.”47

In addition to campaigning against non-traditional religions, the media also opposes Islam. Amnesty International found that “the Bulgarian authorities have attacked Islamic traditions and Islam in general with growing frequency in official publications.”48

MISSIONARY HARASSMENT. The U.S. State Department states that Protestant groups and Western Missionaries have reported harassment. “[S]pecific problems have included difficulties in obtaining visas and residence permits and, in one case, a bomb threat against the opening of an evangelical Bible college.”49 The report stated that a Hare Krishna who was “physically assaulted on the streets and the subject of threats, reportedly had difficulty obtaining adequate police protection.” When a neighborhood group petitioned for the eviction of Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of Parliament supported the petition.50 NNI states that local officials “reportedly seized and sealed” evangelistic materials stored temporarily in the garage of a missionary affiliated with Children Evangelism Fellowship.51

A staff member with Open Doors with brother Andrew reported that he was refused entry at a border checkpoint for carrying Bibles in September 1993.52

In addition to turning a deaf ear to missionary harassment, the state tightened restrictions on missionary entry and activity. In early 1994, the Government denied entry to a planeload of Swedish evangelists who arrived at the Sofia airport without visas.53 An NNI article reports that the state permits few, if any, missionaries with non-registered organizations to enter Bulgaria.54 Missionaries affiliated with churches or para-church organizations not yet registered with the Directorate of Religious Affairs in accordance with a February 1994 law, have extreme difficulty remaining in Bulgaria for longer than the 30 days permitted by their visas. When the Director of World Evangelical Fellowship inquired as to why his visa was denied, the government told him, “Because of the church.” In response to restrictions, some missionaries are expanding their job description to include entrepreneurial activities which allow them to enter the country under the designation of a businessman.55

The Government also imposes “restrictions on humanitarian aid received from abroad” and “excessive custom duties on church imports.” Of course, the Orthodox Church avoids such fees because the state handles its shipments.56

RESTRICTIONS ON FREEDOM OF WORSHIP. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is attempting to become the only official Christian church in Bulgaria so that it can prohibit other churches from working legally. This would contradict Article 13 of the Bulgarian Constitution which provides for freedom of religious institutions and separation of them from government.57 Although the Orthodox Church has not achieved its goal through overt legislation, stringent implementation of a 1949 law requiring churches to register with the government may aid their cause.

A 1994 newspaper article reports, “Many evangelical leaders believe that the governmental persecution is being encouraged by Orthodox church leaders.”58 In 1994, government officials denied recognition to an alliance of Bulgarian evangelical churches to the chagrin of its leaders who assert that such action will limit their ability to resist infringement upon religious liberty. The denial applies to Baptist, Church of God, Congregational, Methodist and Pentecostal congregations. Leaders believe the Bulgarian government is attempting to break up a possibly evangelical “power block.”59 Several religious groups, including Word of Life, have been outlawed in Bulgaria by Parliament´s amendments to the Families and Persons Act, which legalized the tightening of registration requirements for groups whose activities had a religious element.60 More than 75 groups were given just three months to reregister, and after review by the Directorate and the Council of Ministers, more than two-thirds were denied.61

The government has prohibited churches from purchasing land, building on land that they own, and renting public facilities that were once open to them.62 Local authorities in Sofia halted construction of a church on land owned by the denomination by incorrectly claiming that the land was government property. Municipal authorities in Plovdiv passed an ordinance “against renting public spaces for religious meetings.” The government prevented two Christian groups in other cities from using public halls they had been renting.63

Registration requirements have restricted the freedom of worship of many churches. The head of Sofia’s Logos Bible Academy has been attempting to register his organization since 1991. The government informed him in 1994 that they had no record of his attempts to register. A Bulgarian Pastor who applied for registration in the fall of 1993 stated at the end of 1993 that “his denomination has been close to being registered several times, but each time was subjected to ‘unnecessary delaying tactics in the process.’”64 Despite eyewitness evidence to the contrary, the U.S. State Department reports that “No group was denied registration, and more than 30 are officially recognized.”65

For those religious groups that have been able to maintain their registration, the U.S. Department of State reports,

There were no restrictions on attendance at religious services or on private religious instruction. A school for imams, a Muslim cultural center, university theological faculties, and religious primary schools operated freely. Many new mosques were constructed, especially in the southern regions. Bibles and other religious materials in the Bulgarian language were freely imported and printed. Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish publications were published on a regular basis.”66


1 “The State of Religious Freedom in Bulgaria.” (Sofia, Bulgaria: Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 1994): 4.

2 ibid.

3 Amnesty International Report 1993, “Bulgaria,” (Amnesty International Publications: London, 1994): 77.

4 “Bulgaria Human Rights Practices, 1993.” 1994 U.S. Department of State: Department of State Dispatch, (January 31, 1994): LEXIS 3.

5 “Suppression of Religious Liberty Around the World.” (Christian Solidarity International, 1994).

6 “Country Survey.” (Christian Solidarity International, 1994): 3.

7 Edward H. Lawson, ed., Encyclopedia of Human Rights (New York: Taylor & Francis, Inc., 1991): 140.

8 “In the face of endangered religious freedom, several Christian church bodies in Bulgaria have joined in an alliance,” National and International Religion Report, Vol. 7, No. 13 (June 14, 1993): 2.

9 GCN (EP: Sofia, Bulgaria, June 8, 1994).

10 Lawson, 140.

11 U.S. Department of State: LEXIS 11.

12 UN Doc. A/43/230 at Lawson, 140.

13 U.S. Department of State: LEXIS 11.

14 Gisbert H. Flanz, “Republic of Bulgaria,” in Albert P. Blaustein and Gisbert H. Flanz, eds., Constitutions of the Countries of the World (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1992): 89.

15 ibid, 94.

16 ibid, 98.

17 22 September 1993 “Letter from the Special Rapporteur to the Government of Bulgaria,” in United Nations: Economic and Social Council, Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, E/C.4/1994/79, (20 January 1994): 28.

18 Thomas S. Giles, “Watchdog Group Says ‘Serious’ Human Rights Problems Remain.” News Network International (December 21, 1993): 21.

19 ibid.

20 ibid.

21 ibid.

22 U.S. Department of State: LEXIS 11.

23 Jennifer S. Blandford, “Bulgarian Evangelicals Under Siege.” East-West Church and Ministry Report, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 2.

24 ibid.

25 Thomas S. Giles, “Religious Groups Denied Permission to Register.” News Network International (July 6, 1994): 10.

26 ibid.

27 ibid, 10-11.

28 22 September 1993 “Letter from the Special Rapporteur to the Government of Bulgaria,” 27.

29 15 December 1993 “Permanent Mission of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva transmission to the Special Rapporteur,” in United Nations: Economic and Social Council, 29.

30 Thomas S. Giles, “Religious Leader, Rights Advocates Criticize New Ordinance.” News Network International (May 10, 1994): 10.

31 Blandford, 2.

32 Giles, “Religious Leader, Rights Advocates Criticize New Ordinance,” 10.

33 ibid.

34 Giles, “New Para-Church Rule Raises Concerns,” News Network International (March 15, 1994): 12.

35 ibid.

36 Giles, “Religious Leaders, Rights Advocates Criticize New Ordinance,” 10.

37 Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 9.

38 Blandford, 1.

39 Giles, “Watchdog Group Says ‘Serious’ Human Rights Problems Remain,” 21.

40 Mike Creswell, “Evangelism complicated by cults in Bulgaria.” Foreign Mission News (Foreign Mission Board of the Souther Baptist Convention: December 6, 1993).

41 Maryann B. Hunsberger, “Anti-Protestant Propaganda Restricts Religious Liberty.” News Network International (August 17, 1994): 48.

42 ibid.

43 Baptist Press Release (May 31, 1994).

44 U.S. Department of State: LEXIS 10.

45 22 September 1993 “Letter from the Special Rapporteur to the Government of Bulgaria,” 27.

46 ibid.

47 15 December 1993 “Permanent Mission of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva transmission to the Special Rapporteur,” 29.

48 Amnesty International, “Religious Intolerance: Bulgaria.” (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1986): 5.

49 U.S. Department of State, LEXIS: 10.

50 U.S. Department of State, LEXIS: 10.

51 Thomas S. Giles, “Bulgarian Evangelicals Alliance Denied Recognition.” News Network International (October 26, 1993): 15.

52 ibid, 14.

53 Thomas S. Giles, “New Para-church Rule Raises Concerns.” News Network International (March 15, 1994): 12.

54 Giles, “Bulgarian Evangelicals Alliance Denied Recognition,” 15.

55 Giles, “Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance Denied Recognition,” 14-15.

56 Randy Tift, “Bulgarian Protestants Unite to Resist Attacks on ‘Sects.’” News Network International (June 30, 1993): 25.

57 Blandford, 2.

58 GCN.

59 Giles, “Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance Denied Recognition,” 13

60 U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1995): 768; and “Parents of Sect Members Urge Government to Take Steps Against Sects.” Daily News (August 23, 1995): 3.

61 ibid.

62 GCN.

63 Giles, “Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance Denied Recognition,” 14.

64 Giles, “Watchdog Group Says ‘Serious’ Human Rights Problems Remain,” 20.

65 U.S. Department of State: LEXIS 11.

66 ibid.
Source: Handbook on Religious Liberty Around the World, Pedro C. Moreno, Editor. Charlottesville, VA: The Rutherford Institute.