Draft bills in Bulgaria to change the law for religions

March 30, 2016. Two draft bills tabled in Bulgaria’s Parliament by opposition socialist MPs to amend the law on religious denominations – including provisions that would limit the activities of foreign clerics – are causing controversy, with critics condemning the bills as an assault on religious freedom, as the website sofiaglobe reports.

One bill was tabled on March 1 by Georgi Kadiev, an MP formerly with the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and other amendments were tabled two weeks later by BSP MPs including Vassil Antonov, deputy head of the parliamentary committee on religious affairs.

The two bills have several similarities, giving the appearance of Kadiev’s former party trying to outdo him.

Kadiev’s bill provides for tighter state control over religious groups and expands the power of the religious affairs directorate at the Cabinet office. Employees of religious groups would have to monitor revenue from donations, including a requirement for declarations of the sources of the money.

If approved, the bill would outlaw employees of religious groups and teachers in religious schools being people who received religious education at institutions other than those approved by the religious affairs directorate.

Arguably most controversially, worship, rites and rituals in Bulgaria could be performed only by Bulgarian or European Union citizens. Citizens of non-EU countries could preside at worship in Bulgaria only with permission, and for no more than three months in a calendar year – a provision that would affect, among many others, citizens of the United States, Russia, Turkey and Middle Eastern countries.

In Kadiev’s bill, all donations equal to or greater than 420 leva (the current legal minimum wage in Bulgaria, equivalent to about 215 euro) would have to be declared in a register submitted to the religious affairs directorate. Failure to declare or update the list of donors within 14 days of the receipt of a donation would mean a fine of 3000 to 5000 leva, rising to 5000 to 20 000 leva in the case of a second or further offence.

In an explanatory memorandum appended to the bill, Kadiev said that the bill increased the level of transparency about funding religious activities.

The bill was based on the notion that no matter what the faith, religious activities in the country “should for the most part be carried out by Bulgarian citizens and aimed at Bulgarian citizens”.

Kadiev said that the bill increased the powers of the religious affairs directorate, transforming it from simply a body recording the activities of religious groups, to enable it “in case it notices worrying trends, to signal and provide the necessary information to the authorities responsible for financial transparency and security in the country”.

The bill, he said, provides for religious communities in Bulgaria to avoid being dependent on foreign funding, “which would place doubt on the independence of the actions of the clergy”. The BSP’s bill, tabled on March 14, said that updates were necessary because the Religious Denominations Act of 2002 had “gaps and deficiencies”.

There were new circumstances including, according to the BSP sponsors of the amendments, an influx of “foreign religions” (considering that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all arose in the Middle East, it was not immediately obvious which religions the BSP might consider as indigenous to Bulgaria), the preaching of dubious religious teachings, the preaching of radical Islam and the entry of foreign religions not registered in the country “and their rituals, customs and specifics are not only alien to Bulgarians, but also are gross interference in the domestic peace in the country and are a threat to national security”.

Faith groups not registered by the court would be banned by law from holding meetings, setting up or maintaining charitable or humanitarian institutions and “writing, issuing or disseminating” religious publications. They also would be banned from setting up institutions to collect and receive donations.

Religions also would be required to provide information on the grants they receive, property and other fundraising activities, in detail.

In an interview with Bulgarian-language media, the BSP’s Antonov said that, “we must recognise the realities, we live in times when faith turns into fanaticism that kills innocent people”.

The bill introduced additional safeguards to protect national security, including through the strict regulation that citizens of countries outside the EU could perform religious rites in the country only as an exception.

The problems with the current law was that it was “too liberal,” Antonov said. It failed, he said, to set an explicit requirement for the number of members of a religious community for it to acquire the status of a religion.

Very often, an application for registration is filed by a new religious division of an already-registered religious community. Such examples exist in (the towns of) Sliven, Shoumen, Lovech and Stara Zagora. It has got to the paradox where there now exist seven Baptist denominations registered at one address,” Antonov said.

He denied that the amendments ran against Bulgaria’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. “Their goal is to create regulation regarding the terms and conditions of registration of emerging religions, and hence to ensure the state’s role in observing the human rights and fundamental freedoms of citizens.”

Antonov called on other parties represented in Parliament – where the BSP is the second-largest, by some distance, party – to support the amendments.

The Kadiev and BSP bills came under stinging attack on the svobodazavseki (freedom for all) website, with protest declarations saying that if approved, the bill would be the end of religious freedom in Bulgaria.

If the bill becomes law, the Christian church will need to go underground in order to function as such,” the declaration said.

It said that the bill was the “worst of all previous attempts over the years” to restore a Marxist-Leninist attitude towards Christianity and freedom of religion. It added that the bill was unconstitutional.

The declaration said that the bill would prohibit faith in God and preaching without state registration, would limit donations to churches and ban funding from foreign sources, ban worship by citizens of non-EU countries (“including the US, Australia and other friendly countries) and, among other objections, “Christians would not be able to preach and criticse the ‘socio-economic order or social norms and relationships’ in the country, nor make any political comments”.

In Bulgaria, a large majority of the population declare themselves to be Bulgarian Orthodox Christians. Among Christians in the country, there is a small Protestant minority – about 64 400 out of a population of 7.1 million people – and an even smaller Roman Catholic minority, of just less than 49 000, if the 2011 census figures are correct.

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