The Saga with the Bulgarian Bill on Religion

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.