The constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the law prohibits the public practice of religion by unregistered groups. The constitution also designates Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the "traditional" religion.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
The generally amicable relationship among religious groups in society contributed to religious freedom; however, discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance, particularly in the media, of some religious groups remained an intermittent problem.
The U.S. government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an area of 42,855 square miles, and its population was approximately 7.76 million at the end of 2004, according to the National Statistical Institute. The majority of citizens, estimated at approximately 85 percent, identified themselves as Orthodox Christians. Muslims comprised the largest minority, estimated at approximately 13 percent; other minorities included Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Gregorian-Armenian Christians, and others. Among the ethnic-Turkish minority, Islam was the predominant religion. While not officially enumerated, academic research estimated up to 40 percent of the population was atheist or agnostic. Official registration of religious organizations was handled by the Sofia City Court; it reported that twelve new denominations were registered between February 2005 and February 2006, bringing the total number of registered religious groups to seventy-three denominations in addition to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC), a nearly 20 percent increase.
Some religious minorities were concentrated geographically. The Rhodope Mountains (along the country's southern border with Greece) were home to many Muslims, including ethnic Turks, Roma, and "Pomaks" (descendents of Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule). Ethnic-Turkish and Roma Muslims also lived 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. More than half of the country's Roman Catholics were located in the region around Plovdiv. Many members of the country's small Jewish community lived in Sofia, Rousse, and along the Black Sea coast. Protestants were dispersed more widely throughout the country. While clear statistics were not available, evangelical Protestant groups had particular success in attracting converts from among the Roma minority, and areas with large Roma populations tended also to have some of the highest percentages of Protestants.
According to a 2005 report of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, only 50 percent of the 6 million Bulgarians who identified themselves as Orthodox Christians participated in formal religious services. The same survey found that 90 percent of the country's estimated 70,000 Catholics regularly engaged in public worship. Approximately 30 percent of Catholics belonged to the Eastern Rite Uniate Church. The majority of Muslims, who were estimated at 750,000, were Sunni; 50,000 were classified as Shi'a. The Jewish community was estimated at 3,500, and approximately 50,000 were said to be evangelical Protestants. The report also noted that more than 100,000 Bulgarians practice "nontraditional" beliefs. (Orthodox Christianity, Hanafi Sunni Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism were generally understood to be "traditional" faiths.) Forty percent of these "nontraditional" practitioners were estimated to be Roma.
Statistics reported by the Council of Ministers Religious' Confessions Directorate reported slightly different figures, listing nearly 1 million Muslims and 150,000 evangelical Protestants, as well as 20,000 to 30,000 Armenian Christians and approximately 3,000 Jews.
Foreign missionaries from numerous denominations, including several Protestant churches, the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah's Witnesses, were active in the country.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the law prohibits the public practice of religion by unregistered groups. The constitution designates Eastern Orthodox Christianity, represented by the BOC, as the "traditional" religion; and the Government provided preferential financial support to it, as well as to several other religious communities perceived as holding historic places in society, such as the Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Jewish faiths.
The 2002 Denominations Act allows only legally registered denominations to perform public activities outside their places of worship. The 2002 law transferred responsibility for registering religious groups to the Sofia City Court, which is responsible for maintaining the national register of religious denominations as well as the register of political parties. The Council of Ministers' Religious Confessions Directorate, which was formerly responsible for registration of religious groups, provides "expert opinions" on registration matters upon request of the Court. However, the Directorate's overall role remains ambiguous, particularly as it pertains to its administrative oversight and sanctioning functions. All applicants have the right to appeal negative registration decisions to the Court of Appeals. Denominations reported a general improvement in the registration process since the court took over this responsibility in 2003. Some local branches of nationally registered denominations continued to experience problems with local authorities who insisted that the branches be registered locally, despite the fact that the 2002 Denominations Act does not require local formal registration of denominations. These complaints were less frequent than in previous years.
Representatives of some evangelical Protestant churches reported problems in obtaining permits for public services from local authorities, particularly in the Dobrich and General Toshev municipalities.
A Council of Europe review of the 2002 Denominations Act, prepared in early 2003, highlighted that the provisions dealing with the process of registration specify neither 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 outlines any recourse if a competent court refuses to grant registration.
The three-year legal dispute surrounding leadership of the Muslim community remained unsettled, despite the Sofia City Court's May 11, 2005, attempt to resolve the issue by formally registering Mustafa Alish Hadji as Chief Mufti. Rival Islamic leader Nedim Gendzhev filed an appeal, and in December 2005, the Sofia Appellate Court ordered Gendzhev's registration as leader. In January 2006, the City Court issued official certificates of registration to both parties in the dispute - to Gendzhev on January 25 and to Hadji on January 26. This allowed both sides to claim legal recognition and control of community funds. Accusations of embezzlement were traded, and many observers criticized the court procedure as opaque and politically influenced. The legal status of the case remained unclear at the time of this report.
On November 5, 2004, the Pazardzhik District Court passed a three-year suspended sentence on Ahmed Ahmed Musa for preaching radical Islam and instigating societal hatred along religious lines. He was also fined for disgracing the national flag. During the trial, Musa made a full confession and pleaded guilty to the charges brought against him. Five doctors confirmed that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and as such was extremely susceptible to outside influence. Musa chose not to appeal the sentence.
The 2002 Denominations Act designates the Metropolitan of Sofia, currently Patriarch Maxim, as the Patriarch of the BOC. The law 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.
In 2004, prosecutors and police intervened to evict members of the Bulgarian Orthodox "Alternate Synod" from properties claimed by the BOC after a twelve-year schism in the BOC. Priests from the Alternative Synod, who oppose Patriarch Maxim's leadership, were forcibly evicted from approximately 250 churches and other properties, and several clerics were temporarily detained. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported police beatings of clergy and lay persons. Alternative Synod representatives responded by filing a complaint before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and were granted an accelerated hearing in June 2005. The case was pending before the ECHR at the end of the period covered by this report, as were several smaller cases in the country's courts involving property disputes between the Orthodox Church and the Alternative Synod.
For most registered religious groups, there were no restrictions on attendance at religious services or on private religious instruction. Two BOC seminaries, a Jewish school, three Islamic schools, the university-level Islamic Higher Institute, a Muslim cultural center, a multi-denominational Protestant seminary, and university theological faculties operated freely. Bibles, Qur'ans, and other religious materials in the Bulgarian language were imported or printed freely, and religious publications were produced regularly.
An optional religious education course was first introduced in state-run schools in 1997. The curriculum, developed by the Ministry of Education's Commission on Religion, initially focused on Christianity but was expanded in 1999 to cover Islam as well. The course examines the historical, philosophical, and cultural aspects of religion and introduces students to the moral values of different confessions. All officially registered religious confessions can request that their religious beliefs be included in the course's curriculum. According to the Ministry of Education, the course was offered to 13,209 primary and secondary school students in 199 schools during the 2004-2005 academic year. While the ministry provides the course material for free to students, the 166 religious education teachers participating in the program are funded directly from municipal budgets.
The Chief Mufti's Office also supports summer Qur'anic education courses.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
The law requires religious groups wishing to operate and be recognized as legal entities, as well as those wanting to engage in public activities outside of their places of worship, to formally register with the Sofia City Court. The number of groups registered with the court increased from thirty-six in 2003 when the Court took over this responsibility, to seventy-three in 2006.
While the state of religious freedom has improved for some nontraditional groups, some groups continued to face limited discrimination and antipathy from some local authorities, despite successfully registering through the Sofia City Court. Article 21 of the 2002 Denominations Act states that nationally registered religious groups may have local branches according to their statute. The law does not require formal local registration of denominations, although some municipalities have claimed that it does.
Some municipalities, such as Rousse, Shumen, Pleven, Stara Zagora, Plovdiv, Blagoevgrad, and Kurdzhali, had local ordinances curtailing religious practices that have not been changed to conform to the 2002 Denominations Act. In most cases, these ordinances were not strictly enforced. In March 2005, the Burgas Municipal Council adopted a new ordinance repealing previous limitations on the right of nontraditional religious groups to publicly practice their beliefs.
Jehovah's Witnesses reported that police in several towns issued arrest warrants for members of the denomination who attempted to proselytize. On June 12, 2005, the deputy mayor of Plovdiv fined Hans Amon, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, for violating a local decree on public order by distributing brochures with religious content. Despite previous hostility in Burgas toward nontraditional groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, the denomination's local branch was included in the mayor's list of local religious groups in January 2005. The Jehovah's Witnesses completed construction of a new place of worship in Burgas in 2005; however, the group also reported that the building was vandalized several times.
A number of religious groups recognized that foreign missionaries and religious leaders experienced difficulties in obtaining and renewing residence visas in the country because the Law on Foreign Persons has no visa category that explicitly applies to missionaries or religious workers. The Jehovah's Witnesses reported that the Government twice refused residence visas to two missionaries from Germany, even though the denomination had received approval for their activities and stay in the country from the Religious Confessions Directorate. Some missionaries have resorted to staying in the country as "tourists," forcing them to limit the length of their visits to no more than thirty days every six months.
On October 26, 2005, the Government denied Unification Church leader Sun Myung Moon permission to enter the country. The Ministry of Interior cited its inability to provide security as the reason for canceling Moon's visit, which coincided with a nationwide security crackdown following the gangland killing of the country's wealthiest businessman. Moon's visit had sparked security concerns due to planned protests by nationalist groups and religious leaders opposed to his visit.
There were no indications that the Government discriminated against members of any religious group in restitution of properties that were nationalized during the communist period. However, the BOC, the Catholic Church, the Muslim community, the Jewish community, and several Protestant denominations all complained that a number of their confiscated properties had not been returned. For example, the Catholic Church reported that only 60 percent of its confiscated properties had been restituted.
A high-profile restitution case involving the Jewish community ended in defeat in July 2005, when the Supreme Cassation Court denied the community's claim to part of a high-value property in central Sofia which was once the site of a Jewish school. Previous court defeats had held that the petitioning organization was unable to establish its lineage back to the original owners of the property. In contrast, the July appellate ruling acknowledged the organization's lineage but held that the expropriation procedure was properly executed by the Communist government in the 1960s, and that the community was not legally entitled to any further compensation. Both foreign and domestic observers expressed concern about possible manipulation of the judicial process. The community's request for an extraordinary judicial review of the July decision was denied in March 2006, effectively exhausting all judicial remedies. In an attempt to find an equitable political solution to this and other outstanding restitution cases involving the Jewish community, the Government established an inter-ministerial commission in May 2006 to study alternate forms of compensation.
The constitution prohibits the formation of political parties along religious lines.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.
The country's small Jewish community became a target of the extremist political party Ataka, which employed anti-Semitic rhetoric during the June 2005 parliamentary election campaign. Both the newspaper launched by Ataka in October of that year and the group's website (www.ataka.bg) contain anti-Semitic material. Ataka is not a member of the governing coalition, and politicians from all sides of the political spectrum have spoken out against its extremist message.
Police arrested three teenagers who had admitted desecrating more than one hundred Turkish graves in Haskovo on April 8, 2005. The three youths, who had acknowledged an interest in the skinhead movement, were reportedly intoxicated when they decided to vandalize the cemetery. The investigation was ongoing at the time of this report.
Forced Religious Conversion
The constitution prohibits forced religious conversion. 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
Despite initial fears that the 2002 Denominations Act would hamper religious organizations' ability to operate freely, thirty-seven new religious groups have registered with the Sofia City Court since 2003.
Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination
The generally amicable relationship among religious groups in society contributed to religious freedom; however, discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance of some religious groups remained an intermittent problem. While human rights groups reported that societal discrimination against nontraditional religious groups has continued to gradually lessen in recent years, it was not uncommon for the media to disseminate negative and derogatory stories about nontraditional denominations. For example, the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses both reported numerous print and broadcast media stories with negative, derogatory, and sometimes slanderous information about their activities and beliefs.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. Embassy regularly monitors religious freedom in ongoing contacts with government officials, members of Parliament (MPs), clergy and lay leaders of religious communities, and NGOs. Embassy officers met with Orthodox leaders and clergy, senior and local Muslim leaders, religious and lay leaders of the Jewish community, and leaders of numerous Protestant and nontraditional denominations. During the period covered by this report, the embassy remained closely engaged with government officials, MPs, religious organizations, and NGOs concerning the 2002 Denominations Act. The embassy also remained concerned with government interference in the BOC schism, and reports of discrimination against religious organizations; with various religious groups and government entities regarding the restitution of properties; and with Muslim leaders regarding Islamic extremism and the Muslim leadership dispute.