Bulgaria’s Parties Seek Control over Religion

Two alternative legislative proposals put forward by Bulgaria’s main parliamentary fractions would give the state more oversight over the activities of the country’s faith groups.

Bulgaria’s parliament is seeking to change the Law on Religious Confessions, to limit external financing and crack down on religious “radicalism”.

Two separate pieces of legislation – one backed by party leaders of the ruling GERB party, the opposition Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, MRF – and another introduced by GERB’s minor coalition partner, VMRO, were both deposited in the assembly on Monday.

The first proposal aims primarily to introduce state subsidies for the major religious denominations of up to 15 million levs [7.5 million euros] a year.

This sum would be divided among the faiths whose followers number at least 1 per cent of the population, according to the latest census data. In practice, this would mean that only the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Muslim community would be eligible for the cash.

The alternative proposal, introduced by Defence Minister Krasimir Karakachanov’s VMRO party, follows similar lines. However, it focuses also on the fight against “radicalization” and seeks the introduction of more oversight of religious activities and financing by the state.

Both proposals would only allow foreign preachers to deliver sermons in the presence of locally accredited clerics. The two proposals are a response to a cross-party agreement reached after an April National Security Consultation Council, organized by President Rument Radev.

However, the plans are already dividing the ruling GERB-United Patriots coalition, with the latter claiming they were not consulted by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s party about the plans.

On Sunday, Iskren Vesselinov of VMRO, one of the three parties in the United Patriots, told Bulgarian National Radio that there had been “a problem with communication” within the coalition about the legislative proposal.

“We had to introduce it to parliament before we received statements from the major religious communities because the other piece of legislation was already deposited, which would have slowed down the entire reform process,” Vesselinov added.

The lack of consultation with religious communities may also turn out to be an issue, experts warned.

“There is a problem with the philosophy of the reform proposals; until now, the Religious Confessions law sought to guarantee the rights of the faith communities. Now it will seek to introduce oversight and control,” Mihail Ivanov, an ethnic minorities expert from New Bulgarian University who took part in the preparation of the 2002 law, told BIRN.

He noted other problems, too – that both plans introduce a discriminatory element that divides the two big religions from the many smaller faith communities and limit the ability of foreign preachers to practice in Bulgaria.

“The changes don’t take into account important religious differences – for example, the Catholic Church is a unitary body and its Bulgarian priests receive their funding from the Vatican. This would now be rendered illegal,” Ivanov observed. According to him, the same applies for visiting clergymen who might not now be allowed to preach in places where there is no local pastor of their faith. Another issue Ivanov pointed out is that both proposals would increase the regulatory role of the Religious Confessions Directorate under the Council of Ministers. This would, in practice, place control over donations, religious institution accreditation and educational program matters in the hands of the executive power.

However, Ivanov said the positive sides of the changes include the two major Bulgarian religions receiving state financing guarantees. “It is good that the debate about religious regulations has been opened; now the political forces need only to leave the discussion to experts and members of the religious communities themselves,” he concluded.

Using state funding for “illegal activities” by religious denominations will be sanctioned with prison terms of 3-6 years. With these sanctions in mind, the new legal measure embodies the following rationale:

  1. Churches and ministers must declare all foreign currency money flow and foreign bank accounts
  2. Participation of foreign persons in the administration of any denomination is strictly forbidden
  3. Foreign parsons shall not be allowed to speak at religious meetings in any way shape or form especially religious sermons
  4. Anonymous donations and donorship to religious organization is not permitted
  5. Bulgarian flag shall be present in every temple of worship
  6. The new measure will block all foreign interference in the faith confessions and denominations in Bulgaria

August 2018 Update: Churches across Bulgaria have petitioned against the new changes in the Law of Religion as they constitute:

  • Limitations on freedom of religion and speech
  • Merge church and state
  • Establish goverment control over preaching
  • Ban any missionary work and preaching in a foreign language
  • Halt international support for religious organizations
  • Removes meeting form rented closed properties
  • Legalizes discrimination on basis of religion and faith convictions