International Religious Freedom Report 2003
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 no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. In December 2002, the Government passed a new law on religion--the Confessions Act. While an improvement over the previous law from 1949, religious and human rights groups have criticized the new law for the preferential treatment given to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and for provisions that appear to take sides in what many see as an internal Church conflict.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance of non-traditional religious minorities remained an intermittent problem. No major incidents were reported during the period covered by this report, and attitudes towards non-traditional groups continued to improve. 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 in the context of its overall dialog of promoting human rights.

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 the most recent statistics from the country's National Statistical Institute, approximately 82.6 percent of citizens are Orthodox Christians and approximately 12.2 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 36 denominations are registered officially with the Government, up from 30 in 2002. According to the head of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Religion, a number of denominations still have pending registration requests with the Sofia Court.

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.

A new law on religion, known as the Confessions Act, was approved by Parliament on December 22, 2002. It entered into force 1 week later, replacing an outdated religion law dating back to 1949. Religious and human rights groups have strongly criticized the law for the preferential treatment given to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and for provisions that appear to take sides in what many see as an internal Church conflict. Under the new law, all religious groups, with the exception of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, must register with the Sofia Municipal Court before they can practice their beliefs in public. The rather broad influence given to the Religious Denominations Directorate of the Council of Ministers, particularly regarding the Directorate's exclusive right to give "expert opinions" to the Court regarding registration matters, also has been a cause of concern.

Several drafts of the new law were under consideration in late 2002. The Act was adopted before international legal experts and human rights groups had the opportunity to review the final draft to ensure it was consistent with international standards on religious freedom. Upon review following adoption of the law, legal experts and human rights groups found some provisions in the law to be ambiguous or even contradictory. A review prepared in early 2003 for the Council of Europe highlights that the provisions dealing with the process of registration neither specify the criteria establishing the basis on which the Court should grant registration, nor the grounds on which such registration can be withheld. The Act also fails to specify the consequences of failure to register as a religious community or outline any recourse if a competent court refuses to grant registration. Therefore, the actual impact of the new law will depend to a great extent on how the Act is implemented, including the Sofia Municipal Court's practices regarding registration. There are reports that some groups have encountered undue delays with their re-registration. Since visas are contingent on re-registration, the Missionary Sisters of Charity and the Salesians reportedly have been denied visas.

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. Following the successful introduction of a program to provide optional Islamic education classes in primary schools in 2002 using a textbook proposed by the Chief Mufti and approved by the Ministry of Education, the Ministry agreed to assist with funding for such courses in 2004. The Chief Mufti's office reports that in 2002 it funded more than 1,000 students participation in the pilot program. The Ministry announced that approximately 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.

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

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.

The 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 to head that church led to tension between the groups and violence in July 2002. The schism, which began in 1992, continued despite attempts by the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha Government to heal the rift. While many Bulgarians viewed the Government as generally favoring the group headed by Maksim, the Government had stayed formally neutral regarding the leadership status of either Maksim's "Holy Synod" or the so-called "alternative synod." However, the new law recognizes Patriarch Maksim as the sole representative of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. It furthermore prohibits any group or person who has broken off from a registered religious group from using the same name or claiming any properties belonging to that group. Effectively, this prohibits members of the alternative synod from formally registering as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church or from claiming any of the Church property currently under its control.

On July 22, 2002, Stefan Kamberov, a 66-year-old priest associated with the alternative synod, was murdered near the St. Panteleimon Monastery near Dobrinshte. The two synods were in open conflict regarding the control of the monastery. Two suspects with connections to Maxim's synod (including one priest) have been arrested in connection with the murder, but the case has not yet been brought to trial.

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 Sofia Municipal Court 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 successfully registered through the Court, but continued to face some discrimination and antipathy from many local governments.

The Jehovah's Witnesses are legally registered, and have been recognized since 1998; however, there have been problems between the Jehovah's Witnesses and some local authorities. The Jehovah's Witnesses have had a difficult time in Burgas, a city on the Black Sea. The locally elected municipal authorities, responding to public demonstrations against a Jehovah's Witnesses prayer house being built so close to a public school, used their "public order" powers to stop construction of the prayer house. The case is pending before a court and being appealed to regional authorities. Also Article 21 of the new Confessions Act, which requires religious organizations to register at the national and then the local level, is viewed as likely to exacerbate such problems since certain localities like Burgas have been consistently hostile to non-traditional groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses.

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 non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 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 as 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 on some occasions, but not systematically, has 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 non-traditional religious groups. Some observers note with concern a tendency by certain municipalities to enact regulations preemptively that may be used to limit religious freedom if a perceived need arises.

These restrictive actions appear to be motivated by public intolerance. 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." In June the Municipal Council in Burgas passed a decision banning Jehovah's Witnesses from building a prayer hall near a local public school. According to the Chairman of the Council, local residents and the school community protested the construction of the building. The Council's decision was based on regulations granting it the authority to protect "public order and security." Central government authorities have made no attempt to appeal the Council's decision.

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 strictly enforced. There were no reported incidents of street-level harassment of religious groups by the authorities during the period covered by this report.

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 that 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. 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.

Following the successful introduction of optional Islamic education courses in 2002, and the expected development of additional courses in 2004, there has been some discussion of requiring all students to enroll in a course on religion, and students would be given the option of which course they wish to take.

The Department of Theology of Sofia University changed its rules requiring all students to present an Orthodox Church baptismal certificate and married students to present an Orthodox marriage certificate in order to enroll in the Department's classes. This change has made it possible 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. While the conscript troops of the military are integrated, 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, NGOs 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 one exception in downtown Sofia that is pending before the court. 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 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 prohibits 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 or attempts at forced conversions, 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 October 2002, the Government decided to transfer ownership of the property at 9 Suborna Street to the Jewish organization "Shalom," thus resolving one of two significant outstanding cases of Jewish community property restitution. Following the successful introduction of a program to provide optional Islamic education classes in primary schools in 2002, the Ministry of Education has agreed to assist with funding for such courses in 2004. The Chief Mufti's office reports that in 2002 it funded more than 1,000 students participation in the pilot program and expect other denominations to develop similar programs in 2004.

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.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the major religious communities generally were amicable; however, discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance of non-traditional religious groups (primarily newer evangelical Protestant groups) remained an intermittent problem. The number of reported incidents decreased during the period covered by this report. Strongly held suspicion of evangelical denominations among the 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 5 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 Bulgarian 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. Opponents of the Chief Mufti within the Muslim community have accused him of failing to counteract or even fomenting the spread of Islamic extremism; however, these charges have not been confirmed.

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 NGOs. 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 the new law on religion, with various denominations regarding the restitution of properties, and with Muslim leaders regarding the war on terrorism. The Embassy maintained close contact with the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe regarding their views on the Confessions Act and a mutual goal of ensuring that international religious freedom standards are met.