A district court in March found 13 Muslim leaders guilty of spreading pro-sharia ideology and hatred of other religious groups, and in November security forces detained 26 Muslims on charges of propagating anti-democratic ideology and incitement to war. As of the end of the year, seven remained in custody. Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported continued harassment by the security services and local police, and some minority religious groups continued to report local authorities in certain municipalities discriminated against them, despite their national registration status. Schools banned wearing the hijab and local governments continued to deny requests to construct new mosques. Jewish organizations expressed concern over hate speech and the commemoration of World War II figures associated with Nazism.
In March the Pazardjik District Court found 13 Muslim leaders guilty of participating in an organization not legally registered in Bulgaria that aimed to preach Salafi Islam, which the court determined was an “anti-democratic ideology” because it opposed the principles of democracy, division of powers, liberalism, statehood, rule of law, basic human rights, and religious freedom. One of the defendants, Ahmed Mussa, received one year in prison (but will serve four years accumulated from a prior suspended sentence) and a fine of 5,000 levs ($3,108); two others received suspended sentences of 12 months and 10 months, respectively and a fine of 3,000 levs ($1,865) each; the remaining 10 received fines of 5,000 levs ($3,108). Human rights activists stated the trial had focused on theological, rather than criminal issues and said the prosecution had failed to prove any of the charges. The prosecution said the trial served as an effective deterrent against the spread of radical Islam. The grand mufti’s office said the charges and the sentences were “unacceptable” and the trial would increase mistrust between Muslims and the rest of the population. Both the prosecution and the defendants appealed the trial court decision. As of the end of the year, the first appeal hearing was pending at the Plovdiv Appellate Court.
On November 25, security forces detained approximately 26 Muslims, including Imam Ahmed Mussa, and seized books and computers during a raid on over 40 homes and a mosque. Security forces held those detained for 24 hours, and charged Mussa and six others with propagating anti-democratic ideology and incitement to war. They reported they found Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) paraphernalia, including flags, shirts, and banners, while searching the homes and mosque, and accused Mussa and the group of assisting foreign fighters. As of the end of the year, the seven remained in custody.
As of November the prosecution had not submitted an indictment against the participants in the 2012 assault organized by the extreme nationalist party Ataka on Muslims attending Friday prayer in front of the Sofia mosque. In May the government had presented its position on the case to the European Court of Human Rights, stating that while the protestors had acted in a morally and ethically reproachful way, their actions did not violate human rights.
Many Muslim leaders continued to report harassment by the security services, saying the national security services brought in members of the Muslim community for questioning as a form of intimidation and to create conflict within the community.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported harassment from the local police in Razgrad, Shumen, and Kyustendil, who, they said, told members of the community who were proselytizing that they were in violation of the law and threatened them with “problems.”
Some minority religious groups, including Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report discrimination and prejudice from local authorities in certain municipalities, despite obtaining national registration from the Sofia city court. Contrary to the law, some municipalities such as Lovech and Kyustendil had ordinances requiring the groups also to register locally.
The government recognized Orthodox Christianity, Hanafi Sunni Islam, Judaism, and Roman Catholicism as holding a historic place in the country’s culture.
During the year, Jehovah’s Witnesses informed the ombudsman of two complaints the community had made against local authorities. The first was made on January 13 to the chief of police in Shumen regarding police harassment and the second on February 27 to the regional governor of Kyustendil regarding the Kyustendil municipal council’s February approval of ordinances against proselytizing. The Shumen chief of police subsequently met with local Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives and offered cooperation on preventing future incidents. As of the end of the year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not received an answer to their second complaint.
In March the municipal council in Karlovo (Plovdiv Region) also approved amendments prohibiting door-to-door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature. Despite protests by the Directorate for Religious Affairs against the restrictions, the regional governors of Kyustendil and Plovdiv did not stop the implementation of the amendments.
The government did not permit religious headdresses in official photos for national identity documents. The education ministry and most schools interpreted the law denying privileges based on religious identity to ban the display of “religious symbols,” including wearing the hijab, in public schools. In September the Sofia Administrative Court confirmed the determination of the public Commission for Protection against Discrimination in 2013 that the director of the only public school in Gorno Kraishte had not committed discrimination by banning a student from attending the school for wearing a hijab.
Although the statute of limitations for restitution cases expired in 2013, a number of claims from the grand mufti’s office remained outstanding. As of November the grand mufti’s office reported there were 26 outstanding claims on 28 properties in the country. In April a rival group led by former Grand Mufti Nedim Gendjev challenged the current grand mufti’s office’s succession claim on the former Muslim religious communities that existed from the 1920s to the 1940s, and all restitution claims were suspended until the challenge could be resolved. On June 16, the Kardjali District Court rejected the grand mufti’s office’s claim for ownership of the building housing the regional historical museum, ordering the Muslim community to pay 91,062 lev ($56,595) to the state for court fees. At the end of the year, the grand mufti’s office was appealing the case to the Plovdiv Appellate Court.
The local government in Gotse Delchev continued to take no action on the Muslim community’s application for a permit to construct a mosque. The Sofia municipal government continued to withhold permission for building a second mosque in Sofia, even though some worshippers could not find space in the existing mosque during Friday and holiday prayers and prayed outside on the sidewalk.
Jewish organizations expressed concern over what they stated was government and judicial passivity in addressing hate crimes, particularly the prosecution’s tendency to dismiss hate speech complaints on the grounds of freedom of expression.
Jewish organizations raised concerns over an archaeological conference that took place in December, jointly organized by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and Sofia University honoring former Prime Minister Bogdan Filov. Filov’s government implemented pro-Nazi policies and passed an anti-Semitic law in 1941 that restricted the civil and political rights of Jews.
In July the president hosted an iftar for the first time, inviting the leaders of the six religious groups comprising the National Council of Religious Denominations (a nongovernmental organization that works on projects and issues of common interest and promotes religious tolerance): Orthodox Christians, Muslims, evangelicals, Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and Jews. Along with the prime minister, the president also issued a joint statement against hate speech and ethnic intolerance.
The state budget allocated 4.5 million levs ($2.8 million) for registered religious groups. Of the total, 3.21 million levs ($2 million) were allocated for the BOC; 360,000 levs ($224,000) for the Muslim community; 50,000 levs ($31,000) for the Roman Catholic Church; 50,000 levs ($31,000) for the Armenian Apostolic Church; 50,000 levs ($31,000) for the Jewish community; 80,000 levs ($50,000) for other registered denominations; 450,000 levs ($280,000) for maintenance of religious facilities of national importance; and 50,000 levs ($31,000) for publication of religious books and research. Another 200,000 levs ($124,000) will remain in reserve, including 50,000 levs ($31,000) to create a register of all religious facilities in the country. The “other” registered denominations had to apply to the Directorate for Religious Affairs for funds, but the overall amount of funds available was small and not all received approval. Out of 15 applications submitted, three were turned down during the year: the Buddhist Community’s application on the grounds the group had received multiple previous subsidies; God’s Church in Sofia’s application because it was filed after all available funds were allocated; and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ application due to complaints stating the denomination had violated the law by working with minors.
The country is an observer at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.