No vote yet on law restricting religious freedom in Bulgaria

Bulgarian Parliament House in Sofia (Photo / Dennis Jarvis / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Christians in Bulgaria pledged to continue public prayer meetings and peaceful protests until the nation’s lawmakers either withdraw legislation that would severely restrict religious freedom or make substantive changes to it.

Christians rally at Parliament Square in Sofia, Bulgaria, to pray and protest proposed restrictions on religious liberty. (Photo courtesy of Teodor Oprenov)

In early October, the Bulgarian Parliament approved on first reading changes to the Religious Denominations Act that would significantly restrict the rights of minority religions, including missionary activity and theological training.

The Nov. 16 deadline for receiving public comment on the amendments passed with the nation’s parliament taking no immediate action.

International pressure

Prior to the deadline, international attention to the situation in Bulgaria grew. Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Elijah Brown and European Baptist Federation General Secretary Anthony Peck sent a Nov. 8 letter to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov asking the proposed legislation be withdrawn.

“No state, we believe, should be in a position to control the training and activities of ecclesiastic ministers, nor should a state favor one faith expression over another,” they wrote. “The Bulgarian constitution rightly guarantees freedom of religion; we urge that this principle be adhered to as the right of all the Bulgarian people.”

Bulgarian Christians gather in Sofia to pray and peacefully protest proposed restrictions on religious freedom. (Photo courtesy of Teodor Oprenov)

On Nov. 15, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom tweeted: “USCIRF is concerned about proposed changes to be voted on tomorrow that would restrict #ReligiousFreedom in #Bulgaria.” The tweet included a link to the BWA Nov. 8 letter.

Christer Daelander, religious freedom representative of the European Baptist Federation and member of the BWA Religious Liberty Commission, wrote to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, saying the proposed changes in Bulgarian law would violate the United Nations Convention on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as well as similar European Conventions.

Kishan Manocha, senior adviser on freedom of religion or belief at the OSCE, replied in a Nov. 14 email, saying her organization’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights “has submitted a letter to the Bulgarian authorities signaling its readiness to prepare a legal opinion on said draft law.”

“We will also continue to closely follow developments pertaining to freedom of religion or belief in Bulgaria and would be pleased to hear from you again concerning further developments,” Manocha wrote.

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Continue prayers and protests

In the days immediately preceding the Bulgarian Parliament’s Nov. 16 deadline, a working group of politicians and representatives of major religious bodies met to discuss the legislation. The meetings reportedly produced “some softening” on certain provisions, said Teodor Oprenov, pastor of Evangelical Baptist Church in Sofia and leader in the Baptist Union of Bulgaria.

“We hope to be able to see the changed document before they have it discussed in the parliament and vote on it,” Oprenov said in a Nov. 16 email.

Bulgarian Christians march in downtown Sofia to protest proposed restrictions on religious freedom. (Photo courtesy of Teodor Oprenov)

However, fearing the changes may be “merely cosmetic,” Oprenov said, “many evangelicals have decided to continue with our prayers and peaceful protests until the suggestions for he changes of the religious law are completely withdrawn or until we see realistic suggestions which fairly guard the religious freedom and right to a belief of everyone in Bulgaria.”

About 2,000 Christians rallied in Sofia outside the Bulgarian Parliament and marched peacefully to the National Palace of Culture on Nov. 11, and smaller groups gathered to pray and protest around the country.

In spite of inclement weather, about 1,000 people participated in a second public demonstration Nov. 18, Oprenov reported in a Nov. 20 email.

“The weather was not kind to us, as rain and very cold wind made the open-air gathering very unpleasant,” he wrote. “The first snow of this winter came a few hours later. Some 1,000 people, though, still gathered in front of the Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia to pray and peacefully protest against the discriminative bill in question.

“Words were said, prayers were offered, hymns were sung and a clear statement was declared that the evangelical Christians are against the entire set of suggestions for changes, not merely some clauses in the bill. We still believe that there is nothing in that text that is really of benefit to faith and religious freedom, but quite the opposite.”

Oprenov acknowledged proposed changes removed “some of the initial harsh and anti-constitutional and anti-freedom of religion clauses.” However, some discriminatory clauses remained, he said, and some reportedly were more restrictive than in the original amendments, such as raising the minimum membership requirement for registered religious groups from 300 to 3,000.

Protestants in Bulgaria planned another prayer meeting and protest in Sofia Nov. 25, along with additional public demonstrations in towns and cities throughout central and eastern Bulgaria, Oprenov said.

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