HRWF (27.06.2017) – On 22-23 June, the “Muslim Denomination in Bulgaria” (The Office of the Grand Mufti in Bulgaria) participated in the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting about Freedom of Religion or Belief in Vienna and made a statement about their problems in Bulgaria. The full text is available is http://www.osce.org/odihr/325336?download=true . See excerpt below:
For years, the Muslims’ religious institution in Bulgaria has been stifled by the strong political grip of various political circles and the complete indifference of governments that remain deaf to the problems of Muslims. Schools for the preparation of clergy suffer from a chronic lack of funding by the Bulgarian state, the block of attempts to develop a cultural-religious center or to regain property ownership of waqf properties, the uncovering of the junction of lawsuits and a heavy legacy from the management of the former leaders of the Muslim community of totalitarian times. We are witnessing an unsanctioned spread of hostile speech, populism and anti-Muslim speech, which, during election campaigns, were at their peak. We even witnessed attempts to prevent voters from voting because of their ethnic-religious affiliation during the last parliamentary election. When we add to this all the new global challenges such as the refugee crisis, the war-torn Middle East and the fatal ideology of DAESH, the results are extremely sour for the Muslim communities, especially in Bulgaria. I will present in this report fresh examples from this year, which roots are of course from the past:
Discriminative and Islamophobic amendments in Penal Code
In 2016, a number of discriminatory and Islamophobic laws were introduced in parliament by the “patriotic” and extreme nationalist parties, many of which were not accepted because the parliament ended its work due to early elections. About eleven months ago elections took place, resulting in the same importers of the bills in question to now be in the country’s government.
On May 26, 2017, the newly-elected parliament, and in particular the “patriots” and extreme nationalists, proposed discriminative amendments to the Penal Code (1) to criminalize Islam in the country. The proposers’ statement states that terrorism is due to radical Islam and that “radical Islamic ideology” is preached when it comes to ideas such as “the creation of an Islamic state (caliphate)”, the propaganda of jihad, and so on. At the same time, the definition of “Islam” is equated to ideologies such as fascism and anti-democracy.
Generally the Muslim community in Bulgaria is against all kinds of terrorism and radicalism and predominantly supports anti-terror laws and codes, which are necessary for the security and protection of the whole society. But at the same time, this law allows for the abuse of religious freedoms and opens doors for arbitrariness and human rights violations through casual, illogical and unreasonable interpretations of the term “radical Islam”. There is no clear definition nor unified expert opinion on the formulation of “radical Islam,” which is the basis of unique legislative decisions for Europe.
Although widely used in the public domain and media, the term “radical Islam” is very controversial. It is hardly subject to scientific definition because of the impossibility to establish where, when and at what doctrinal or conceptual point the “moderate” becomes “radical”. Therefore, such bills risk being inconsistent with fundamental principles such as freedom of religion, which is part of the values of European societies.
If this bill were adopted, it would be extremely inefficient and would have negative consequences for the whole of society. Instead of helping to combat phenomena that legislators would most likely want to pursue with good intentions, defending society and democratic values, they will rather complicate the situation. It is pointless to adopt a law that will not solve the problems in society, but more likely to deepen them. Problems in society must be viewed objectively in order to find adequate solutions to the related dynamic social problems.
In addition to these legislative changes, extreme nationalists in parliament are also preparing some other changes in the Law of the Religions, which stipulate that preaching in temples should only be in the Bulgarian language, and other corrections, such as a ban on the financing of religions from abroad. These amendments, however, only impose restrictions on the freedom of religion, but offer no alternatives.
Problems with the financial donations of the denomination
In this sense, a serious problem that can be qualified as a violation of religious freedoms is the suspension of donations to the Muslim denomination. About three months ago, the Interim Government in Bulgaria, which was committed to holding parliamentary elections in the country, cancelled the donation treaty with the Republic of Turkey.
On this issue, the Office of the Grand Mufti has repeatedly been blamed by the media and representatives of some political circles for receiving financial and staff support from the Turkish governmental Directorate of Religious Affairs. Turkey’s financial support is in fact a partial sponsorship of the three religious high schools and the Higher Institute of Islamic Studies in Sofia. It is the result of a treaty, which was signed between the Governments of Bulgaria and Turkey as early as 1998, regulating financial assistance, the sending of teachers to the spiritual schools, and guest-imams and lecturers from the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate. This treaty was signed because of Bulgaria’s inability to support its religious institutions in the post-totalitarian period. Also an agreement between was signed between the Office of the Grand Mufti and the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate in 2002, which is without limitation.
Separately, according to the Law of the Religions, denominations have the right to invite religious officials from abroad with the permission of the ”Directorate for Religious Affairs” with the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria. At present, there are 15 imams in Bulgaria who are seconded from Turkey and preach in Bulgarian mosques. Of course, this practice exists not only with Muslims. Catholics, Protestants, Jewish and Armenian communities invite priests and religious officials to Bulgaria and that is so normal.
Nevertheless, the media and politicians do not comment on why it is necessary for Bulgarian Muslim schools to be funded by another state. The answer is simple– because the Bulgarian state does not have such a financial possibility. At present, the annual subsidy that the Office of the Grand Mufti receives from the State amounts to 360,000 leva (about 180,000 euros), intended for the renovation of old mosques.
When the Interim Government cancelled the treaty unilaterally, it did not inform the representatives of the Office of the Grand Mufti for three months. The result of this is that the staff and teachers had resigned for salaries not paid. At the moment, the Muslim denomination is in an extremely difficult situation as they are unable to meet the needs of the denomination because of insufficient income that it cannot yet restitute from waqf property foundations following the democratic changes. For this reason, the institution has been incapacitated for two months in paying the salaries of the imams and teachers in the country.
The Office of the Grand Mufti has always stood for the Muslim community to be supported by the Bulgarian state and we have insisted over the years to make a commitment. This is the most natural and normal state of affairs. Excluding donations without offering another alternative is not a solution to the question.
Selling of Property Belonging to the Muslim Community
Meanwhile to the suspension of donations from Turkey, the Interim Government initiated a public auction sale of the land of 27 decares belonging to the Muslim community, for which the Office of the Grand Mufti has been struggling for years to obtain permission to build its cultural and religious center in Sofia. The permission to design the plot, which the mufti’s office has had since 2002, is maturing unanswered in the administration of the chief architect of Sofia since 2008, when the Office of the Grand Mufti applied for a visa for construction at Sofia Municipality.
Three months ago the Interim Government announced the sale of the property. The official reason for the announcement of the plot for public sale was the run up of tax liabilities of the Office of the Grand Mufti to the National Revenue Agency, despite previous assurances from the Mufti’s office to repay this debt every month. These debts have been primarily accumulated during the period of contests and lawsuits initiated against the institution by former state security agent Nedim Gendzhev, who claimed leadership of the Muslim community, for which we have submitted a reports before the ODIHR/OSCE.
The building in which the institute is housed is currently ineligible for accreditation of a higher education institution, hindering the development of students and lecturers to seek realization in secular universities and majors.
Anti-Muslim hate incidents
Muslim community in Bulgaria increasingly concerned about the hate motivated incidents perpetrated against Muslims and holy sides, while acts of vandalism against mosques and sides for worship have become all too frequent.
Recently the Office of the Grand mufti recorded hate crime incidents towards Muslim religious places, one of which was committed in May 2017 against the mosque in Plovdiv and its windows were broken.
On the night of February 7, a new vandal attack was made against the mosque in the town of Silistra by unknown perpetrator. The perpetrators fired a 5.5-millimeter air rifle into the security cameras and lighting fixtures of the mosque. Traces of bursts are noticed on the facade of the mosque. The Board of Trustees of the mosque filed a complaint with the police in Silistra.
On May 28, the second day of Holy month of Ramadan, football fans attacked and vandalized the Sofia mosque with beer bottles and garbage cans. Passing by the mosque, they made rough and insulting expressions against Muslims, Turks and Islamic religion, and measured the mosque with full beer bottles. The nearby policemen refused to react despite the requested help.
Unfortunately, these are not the only examples of Islamophobic attacks and hostility against Muslims. It has become increasingly common to openly express hostility against Muslims, to negatively stereotype Muslims and Islam, and to generally use intolerant language against Muslims. Relatively, few of these incidents were revealed or resulted in prosecutions. Although the Criminal Code contains hate crimes, these are rarely applied in practice. Public understanding of issues such as social marginalization of minority groups and victims of hate speech and crime, remains very limited. Many Muslim individuals are unaware that islamophobia and discrimination against them might be illegal. Moreover, even more people are not aware of any organization in their country that could help them if they are being victim of biased act and discrimination.
Appointment of the leaders of the extreme nationalist party as the Deputy Prime Minister for Demographic Policy
The appointment of Mr. Valeri Simeonov, one of the leaders of the extreme nationalist coalition party “United Patriots,” (which is recognized as pro-fascist party in European Union) as the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic and Demographic Policy and the President of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues with the Council of Ministries, is particularly disturbing for Muslims in the country. As such, he will be in charge of supervising the development and implementation of the state policy on minority integration.
In his public appearances regarding minorities in Bulgaria, the leader of the nationalist formation, and now also the Deputy Prime Minister of Economic and Demographic Policy, manifested himself in the whole spectrum of the inadmissibility– from absurdly inappropriate jokes through a hazy speech of hatred to outright hooliganism.
During the election campaign three months ago, Mr. Simeonov physically assaulted an elderly woman of Turkish and Muslim origin, who had come to exercise one’s right to vote (this was covered by the national media).
The Deputy Prime Minister told the media he has taken “funny” pictures as a young man, when visited Buchenwald Concentration Camp, in which more than 56,000 Jews were killed. He also made horrifying insults from the parliamentary tribune to Muslims, Roma and other minorities, which can be checked by plenary minutes. Valeri Simeonov has shown in his speech not only extreme positions, but sometimes also vulgar ones that do not correspond to the profile of a politician from a European state. Now he will be responsible for the ethnic and integration policies of the government.
(1) Proposed amendments, National Assembly, 26 May 2017 – http://www.parliament.bg/bills/44/754-01-11.pdf
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