International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in practice for some non-Orthodox religious groups. These restrictions are manifested primarily in a registration process that is selective, slow, and nontransparent. The Government prohibits the public practice of religion by groups that are not registered.

There was some improvement in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The Prime Minister personally ordered the registration of the Church of the Nazarene. The first ever Papal visit to the country took place in May 2002. In 2001 Parliament refrained from passing a new law regulating religious denominations following strong criticism of the draft by experts; in spring 2002, three new bills were introduced. It appears that restrictive municipal ordinances were not enforced due to pressure from the central Government.

Relations between the major religious communities generally were amicable. Although attitudes towards non-traditional groups continued to improve, discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance of nontraditional religious minorities (primarily newer evangelical Protestant groups) remained an intermittent problem. Tensions between factions within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and concerns about Islamic fundamentalism continued to receive media coverage.

The U.S. Government raised the issue of religious freedom repeatedly in contacts with government officials and Members of Parliament. The Ambassador and other embassy officers periodically urged the Government to expedite registration of church groups. In one significant development, in early 2002 the Prime Minister directed that the Church of the Nazarene be registered. This decision culminated 6 years of efforts by the Church of the Nazarene, with U.S. Embassy support, to achieve registration. Embassy officials have already engaged government officials and representatives of the country's main religious communities on the 3 draft texts for a new law on religion.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 42,855 square miles, and its population is approximately 7.9 million according to a 2001 census. According to a March 2001 study by the country's National Statistical Institute, approximately 83.6 percent of citizens are Orthodox Christians and approximately 12.1 percent are Muslims, while the remainder includes Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Gregorian-Armenian Christians, Uniate Catholics, and others. Another study used 1998 figures to estimate that 85 percent of the population are Orthodox Christians, 13 percent are Muslims, 1.5 percent are Roman Catholics, 0.8 percent are Jews, and 1 percent are from other religions. A total of 30 denominations are registered officially with the Government.

Some religious minorities are concentrated geographically. The Rhodope Mountains (along the country's southern border with Greece) are home to many Muslims, including ethnic Turks, Roma, and Pomaks (descendents of Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam centuries ago under Ottoman rule). At the western extreme of the Rhodopes, there are greater numbers of Pomaks, and on the eastern end, more ethnic Turks. Muslim ethnic Turks and Roma also live in large numbers in the northeast of the country, primarily in and around the cities of Shumen and Razgrad, as well as along the Black Sea coast. There are comparatively large numbers of Roman Catholics in Plovdiv, Assenovgrad, and in cities along the Danube River. Eastern Rite Catholic communities are located in Sofia and Smolyan. Many members of the country's small Jewish community live in Sofia, Ruse, and along the Black Sea coast. However, Protestant groups are dispersed more widely throughout the country. While clear statistics are not available, evangelical Protestant church groups have had particular success in attracting numerous converts from among the ethnic Roma minority, and these churches tend to be the most active denominations in predominantly Roma-inhabited areas.

Although no exact data are available on attendance levels, most observers agree that evangelical Protestants tend to participate in religious services more frequently than other religious groups. Members of the country's Catholic community also are regarded as more likely than members of other faiths to regularly attend religious services.

Missionaries are present in the country, including, for example, representatives of evangelical Protestant churches and more than 100 missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in practice for some non-Orthodox religious groups.

The Constitution designates Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the "traditional" religion. The Government provides financial support for the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as for several other religious communities perceived as holding historic places in society, such as the Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Jewish faiths, which also are considered "traditional." These groups generally benefit from a relatively high degree of governmental and societal tolerance.

The 1949 law on religion requires groups whose activities have a religious element to register with the Council of Ministers. A total of 30 denominations are registered. The registration process is selective, slow, and nontransparent. The Government prohibits the public practice of religion by groups that are not registered.

Following criticism in 2001 by the Council of Europe of a draft law on religion, and parliamentary elections in June 2001 which resulted in a new government, Parliament took no further action regarding that draft. Three new drafts have been introduced in the current Parliament. These drafts reflect varying degrees of support among lawmakers for the proposition that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church should be exempted from the requirement to register. Other issues on which the drafts differ include the complexity of the registration process, whether the Government should monitor a religious group's compliance with its own precepts, and whether, if a group is determined not to have followed its own bylaws and the law on religion, the Government may initiate proceedings to dissolve the group. Given the divergence of views on such topics, passage of a new law on religion may be difficult, despite universal dislike of the 1949 law. Members of the Government have indicated that the Council of Europe and other interested parties again may have an opportunity to review and comment on whatever final draft emerges.

For most registered religious groups there were no restrictions on attendance at religious services or on private religious instruction. Four Islamic schools (including a university-level Muslim divinity school), a Muslim cultural center, a multi-denominational Protestant seminary, university theological faculties, and religious primary schools operated freely. Bibles and other religious materials in the Bulgarian language were imported or printed freely, and Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish publications were published regularly.

Optional religious education courses are offered in state-run schools. In the spring of 2002, the Ministry of Education and the Chief Mufti's office initiated a program to provide optional Islamic education classes in primary schools, using a textbook proposed by the Chief Mufti and approved by the Ministry of Education. In June 2002, Chief Mufti Selim Mehmed announced a 2-month course to train teachers to teach Islam, coordinated with the Ministry of Education and the Higher Islamic Institute in Sofia. The Ministry announced that some 18,000 primary and secondary school students attend religion classes. Evangelical groups have expressed concern that other textbooks designed to be used in public schools for religious education are biased in favor of the Orthodox perspective.

At its first session in April 2002, the National Assembly's new ad hoc Commission on Religious Issues decided that it would focus on the problems between the Government and religious denominations, property issues pertaining to individual religious groups, and the Zografski Monastery on Mount Athos. The Commission considered an analysis submitted by Maksim, Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which calls for a new law on religion and legal recognition of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as a juridical person.

The Government generally has encouraged greater religious tolerance since 1998 by seeking to promote greater understanding among different faiths.

In the fall of 2001, senior officials stressed publicly that Islam should not be equated with terrorism.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government restricted religious freedom through a registration process that is selective, slow, and nontransparent. The Government prohibits the public practice of religion by groups that are not registered.

However, while the observance of religious freedom has improved for some nontraditional groups, other groups have faced official disfavor and been disadvantaged by the Government's persistent refusal to grant registration. The legal requirement that groups whose activities have a religious element must register with the Council of Ministers remained an obstacle to the activity of some religious groups, such as the Unification Church and the Sofia Church of Christ. Other church groups have obtained registration from the national Government, but continued to face some discrimination and antipathy from many local governments. The City Council in Burgas maintained its refusal to register the local branch of Jehovah's Witnesses, despite the fact that they were registered by the central Government. The council asked the group to prove that they had not been banned in any European Union country in order to be registered.

In some cases, local authorities used the lack of registration as a pretext for interference with some groups and harassed others. Some church groups circumvented the administrative obstacles created by a lack of registration by registering as nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). Technically it remained illegal for a church to conduct any religious activities through its NGO-registered organization, although the Government sometimes tacitly allowed such groups to conduct worship so long as they kept a very low profile. There were periodic reports of police using lack of local or national registration as a pretext to confiscate signboards and materials, detain or expel religious workers, and deny visas or residence permits to foreign-national missionaries.

The national Government has on some occasions, but not systematically, stopped local governments from enforcing restrictive municipal government decisions, which appear to fall into a gray area of the law. Burgas, Plovdiv, and Stara Zagora are among the municipalities that have reported the greatest number of complaints of harassment of nontraditional religious groups. Some observers note with concern a tendency by certain municipalities to enact preemptively regulations that may be used to limit religious freedom if a perceived need arises. For example, a 1999 regulation passed by Sofia municipality forbids references to miracles and healing during religious services, a provision that many fear may be employed as a pretext to ban or interrupt services by charismatic evangelical groups; however, during the period covered by this report, there were no reports that it was used for this purpose. The regulation cites a Communist-era law dating from 1949, which is technically still in effect, and which forbids foreigners from proselytizing and administering religious services in the country. Other municipalities have enacted similar regulations. In 2001 several evangelical Christian groups filed a lawsuit against municipal authorities in Pleven, alleging that the authorities have prevented religious activists from proselytizing to the public without a permit, but have refused to issue such permits. The 1949 law also has been criticized as an outmoded potential impediment to free religious activity. However, despite the law's continued technical validity, foreign missionaries can and do receive permission to proselytize.

Although several municipalities such as Burgas, Plovdiv, Pleven, Gorna Oryahovitsa, and Stara Zagora previously had passed local ordinances that curtailed religious practices, often in contravention of the constitution and international law, it does not appear that these have been enforced with any vigor. By mid-2001, the local registration requirements were suspended by the governors of the regions where they were passed, and legal proceedings were initiated to invalidate them formally. There were no reported incidents of street-level harassment of religious groups by the authorities during the period covered by this report.

There is a split within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church between those who support Patriarch Maksim and those who view him as illegitimate because he was selected in 1971 under Communist rule. The schism, which opened in 1992, continued despite attempts by the Saxe-Coburg Government to heal the rift. Many Bulgarians view the Government as generally favoring the group headed by Maksim, but the Government has stayed formally neutral regarding the leadership status of either Maksim's "Holy Synod" or the so-called "alternative synod." The split has hindered both efforts to pass new legislation on church-state relations and to resolve outstanding claims relating to formerly Orthodox properties still held by the Government. Tensions between the groups sometimes have run high, and representatives of the alternative synod alleged that the head of the Burgas city police sent men to the nearby Black Sea town of Primorsko to evict believers from a church under the alternative synod's control.

In October 2000, a government licensing commission denied without explanation approval for a new nondenominational Christian radio station "Glas Nadezhda" ("Voice of Hope"), despite the support of the Government's Directorate of Religious Affairs. Several sources reported that the unofficial position of commission members was that non-Orthodox Christian groups should not be allowed to have a radio station, at least until the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has one of its own. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church gave no indication of any interest or intent to establish a radio station. The issue is before the European Court of Human Rights.

There were no further reports that local authorities prohibited the showing of any films with religious content.

During 2001 the ability of religious groups to conduct services freely or hold open events at times was obstructed by local government authorities and because of public intolerance. No new cases of harassment by local authorities of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) or Jehovah's Witnesses were reported during the period covered by this report. However, in November 2001, the city of Kurdzhali refused to issue the Christian Unity Biblical Association a permit for a planned public gathering. A spokesperson for the municipality reportedly justified this decision by stating that the evangelical association preached ideas that were "alien to local people."

Two other members of Jehovah's Witnesses who have been ordered to pay approximately $250 (500 leva) fines for participating in Bible study meetings still await a final determination on their cases.

There was no new information available regarding the March 2000 brief detention by police of two members of Jehovah's Witnesses in Turgovishte; they were charged with disruption of public order under a city ordinance due to their public proselytizing.

There was no new information available regarding the case of several Mormon missionaries in Plovdiv who were charged in April 2000 with distributing brochures without a license.

A number of religious groups have complained that foreign missionaries and religious leaders experience difficulties in obtaining and renewing residence visas in the country; the issuance of residence visas appears to be subject to the whim of individual authorities. New amendments to the Law on Foreign Persons, which went into effect on May 1, 2001, have created problems for foreign national missionaries and religious workers. The revised law has no visa category which explicitly applies to missionaries or religious workers, and rules for other categories of temporary residence visa (such as self-employed or business-owner) have been tightened in ways that seem to make it more difficult for religious workers to qualify. This problem has been exacerbated by the fact that key government institutions have not yet developed implementing regulations or procedures to handle their new responsibilities under the law, despite the fact that the new law is in force. For example, American evangelical missionaries in Stara Zagora reported confusion and delays in their visa application process from October 2001 through June 2002, including bureaucrats demanding unexpected fees or bribes. Missionaries therefore may have to limit the time and purpose of their visits to the 30 days accorded to tourists. Human rights groups also have protested the cancellation of residence status of several persons on undisclosed national security grounds, alleging that the action was a pretext for religious discrimination. In one case, involving Ahmed Musa, a human rights attorney asserted that the expulsion was motivated by the desire of the police to seize the assets of a religious foundation; however, this allegation has not been confirmed.

The high school curriculum includes a course on religion initiated by the Ministry of Education. The original plan called for a world religion course that avoided endorsing any particular faith; however, members of other religions, especially ethnic Turkish Muslims, maintain that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church receives privileged coverage in the textbooks. The religion course is optional and is not available at all schools. Optional Islamic education classes in primary schools are being conducted on a pilot basis.

At the Department of Theology of Sofia University all students are required to present an Orthodox Church baptismal certificate, and married students must present an Orthodox marriage certificate, in order to enroll in the Department's classes. These requirements make it impossible for non-Orthodox students to enroll in the Department.

The Government has abolished the construction and transportation battalions, to which ethnic and religious minorities previously were assigned in order to segregate them from the regular military forces. The conscript troops of the military are now integrated; however, the professional officer corps contains few members of ethnic or religious minority groups.

The failure of the Government to restitute certain confiscated properties remains a sore point in relations between various denominations and the State, and prevents these denominations from raising more revenue through the use or rental of such properties. There were no indications that the Government discriminated against members of any religious group in making restitution to previous owners of properties that were nationalized during the Communist period. However, NGO's and certain denominations claimed that a number of their properties confiscated under the Communist years have not been returned. For example, the Muslim community claims at least 17 properties around the country that have not been returned. The Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, Methodists, Adventists, and other groups also claim land or buildings in Sofia and other towns. Former Jewish properties mostly have been recovered over the last 10 years, with two exceptions in downtown Sofia that have not been returned. The head of the Office on Restitution Issues said that the list of outstanding claims was shorter during 2001, and that the law permits resolution of claims if a timely filing is made. A central problem facing all claimants is the need to demonstrate that the organization seeking restitution is the organization--or the legitimate successor of the organization--that owned the property prior to September 9, 1944. This is difficult because communist hostility to religion led some groups to hide assets or ownership, and because documents have been destroyed or lost over the years.

The law provides for alternative service for a 2-year period, more than twice as long as regular military service; universal conscripted military service is 9 months for most recruits, while university graduates serve just 6 months. Reportedly, several individuals currently are serving in an alternative civilian capacity in lieu of military service. Nonetheless, human rights observers complain that procedures for invoking this alternative as a conscientious objector are unclear. There were no new reports of incarcerations on religious grounds during the period covered by this report.

The Constitution forbids the formation of political parties along religious lines.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

The Constitution prohibits forced religious conversion, and there were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

In January 2002, Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg personally ordered the registration of the Church of the Nazarene, which had tried repeatedly to register for more than 6 years. The long delay was attributed to bias against new "sects" and bureaucratic inertia under the previous government. The Church was registered that same month.

It appears that some local ordinances that restricted religious freedom have not been enforced, and in some cases were suspended, due to pressure from the central Government.

As of June 2002, approximately 2,000 children in grades one through four across the country were attending new optional Islamic religion classes.

In May 2002, the Pope visited the country for the first time. In addition to conducting a Mass in Plovdiv, John Paul II met with senior government officials including Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg, as well as with Orthodox Patriarch Maksim and the leader of the Muslim community, Chief Mufti Selim Mehmed. Some observers noted that the Pope's historic meeting with Patriarch Maksim was a watershed in Catholic-Orthodox relations. The Government was very supportive of the visit, particularly the Pope's dismissal of reports of Bulgarian involvement in the 1981 attempt on his life.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the major religious communities generally were amicable; however, discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance of nontraditional religious minorities (primarily newer evangelical Protestant groups) remained an intermittent problem. Strongly held suspicion of evangelical denominations among the Orthodox populace is widespread and pervasive across the political spectrum and has resulted in discrimination. Often cloaked in a veneer of "patriotism," mistrust of the religious beliefs of others is common. Such mainstream public pressure for the containment of "foreign religious sects" inevitably influences policymakers. Nevertheless, human rights observers agreed that such discrimination has gradually lessened over the last 4 years as society has appeared to become more accepting of at least some previously unfamiliar, "non-traditional" religions.

There are disputes within the country's Muslim community, in part along ethnic lines. Most Bulgarian Muslims, the majority of whom are ethnic Turks, practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Some are concerned that Muslims of Slavic ethnicity ("Pomaks") and Roma Muslims, particularly those living in remote areas, are susceptible to "fundamentalist" (often referred to locally as "Arab" or "Wahabi") influences associated with foreign funding of mosque construction and the training of imams in Arab countries. Unsubstantiated charges of failing to counteract or even fomenting the spread of Islamic extremism have been leveled at the Chief Mufti by some of his opponents within the Muslim community.

Non-Orthodox religious groups continued to be affected adversely by periodic negative media coverage. For example, during the 2000-2001 reporting period, in the Pleven region, a local television station broadcast several times an inflammatory statement purportedly representing the views of the local Bulgarian Orthodox bishop. The statement accused missionaries of the Evangelical Baptist Church of being "agents of foreign influence" and of distributing expired and second-rate goods through its charitable aid program. It further alleged that the Baptists' efforts to build a new medical facility in the region were effectively a bribe to local authorities to gain permission to build a Baptist church in the area.

On February 6, 2002, a youth with skinhead connections in Sofia stabbed a Mormon missionary; however, it is not clear if the attack was connected with the victim's religious activities or affiliation. The assailant was arrested and the missionary has recovered from the attack.

In April 2002, a gang of apparent skinheads attacked a group of Roma in Pazardzhik, resulting in several hospitalizations. Although the motive for the attack is unclear, it reportedly took place following a service by a Swedish evangelical preacher at the local stadium.

In June 2001, in Ravnogor, near Plovdiv, the local priest ordered a group of Evangelical Christians to leave the village. Later the same night, a large group of Orthodox believers attacked the evangelicals' camp, vandalizing it and beating the Evangelicals. Although the local police arrived at the scene, they did not fill out an appropriate report, which has the effect of making it more difficult for the Evangelicals to seek damages in court.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy regularly monitors religious freedom in ongoing contacts with government officials, clergy, lay leaders of minority communities, and NGO's. Embassy officers met with Orthodox clergy members (from both sides of the schism), the Chief Mufti and other senior Muslim leaders, with religious and lay leaders of the Jewish community, as well as with the leaders of numerous Protestant denominations. During the period covered by this report, the Embassy remained closely engaged with government and religious officials concerning drafts of a new law on religion, with various denominations regarding the restitution of properties, and with Muslim leaders regarding the war on terrorism. The Embassy expressed dismay at the February 2002 attack on a Mormon missionary, and urged local prosecutors to bring more serious charges against the perpetrator. As in the past, the Embassy has encouraged the submission of any pending religion law to the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for review and comment to ensure that international religious freedom standards are met.