Section I. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, however, the Government restricts this right in practice for some non-Orthodox religious groups.
The legal requirement that groups whose activities have a religious element register with the Council of Ministers remained an obstacle to the activity of some religious groups, such as the Unification Church, prior to or in the absence of registration. The lack of registration was an obstacle to the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses early in 1998, prior to the group's registration in October. In some cases, local authorities used the lack of registration as a pretext for interference against some groups and employed arbitrary harassment tactics against others. In 1998 the ability of a small number of religious groups to conduct services freely continued to come under attack, both as a result of action by local government authorities and because of public intolerance. Such reports subsided by 1999.
The Constitution designates Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the "traditional" religion. The Government provides financial support for the Eastern Orthodox Church and other denominations that it considers to be "traditional." Along with the Orthodox Church, the Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Jewish minority religious communities generally are perceived as holding historic places in society and hence benefit from a relatively high degree of tolerance, as well as some government financial support.
Estimates vary on the exact proportion of each religious group, but most agree that the Orthodox majority constitutes 85 or 86 percent of the population, between 10 and 11 percent are Muslims, 1 percent is Catholic, and most of the remainder belong to a variety of Protestant religions. The country's Jewish community, with only a few thousand persons, constitutes less than 1 percent of the population and generally is well accepted and integrated into society.
Some religious minorities are concentrated geographically. The Rhodope Mountains (along the country's southern border with Greece) are home to a large number of Muslims, both ethnic Turks and Pomaks (Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam centuries ago under Ottoman rule). At the western extreme of the Rhodopes, there are greater numbers of Pomaks, and on the eastern end, more ethnic Turks. Muslim ethnic Turks also live 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. There are comparatively large numbers of Roman Catholics in Plovdiv, Assenovgrad, and in cities along the Danube River, as well as eastern rite Catholic communities in Sofia and Smolyan. Many members of the country's small Jewish community live in Sofia, Ruse, and on the Black Sea coast. However, Protestant groups are far more widely dispersed throughout the country.
Although no exact data are available on attendance levels, most observers agree that evangelical Protestants tend to be the most active as a group in terms of participation in religious services. Members of the country's Catholic community also are regarded as more likely than most to attend Mass on a regular basis.
For most registered religious groups there were no restrictions on attendance at religious services or on private religious instruction. A school for imams, a Muslim cultural center, university theological faculties, and religious primary schools operated freely. Bibles and other religious materials in the Bulgarian language were imported freely and printed on most occasions, and Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish publications were published on a regular basis. Nevertheless, police confiscated religious literature during gatherings of Jehovah's Witnesses' in 1998.
Police in Burgas broke up Jehovah's Witnesses gatherings in February 1998 and, according to one report, 154 pounds of religious books and leaflets. According to Human Rights Watch, police also have arrested children and adult members of Jehovah's Witnesses for distributing religious tracts.
In May 1998, police broke up Jehovah's Witnesses gatherings in both Burgas and Kyustendil. Also in May, two members of Jehovah's Witnesses were each fined $280 (Lev 500,000 more than twice the average monthly salary) by local authorities for conducting a religious gathering behind closed doors in Plovdiv. Jehovah's Witnesses were formally registered on October 7, 1998. Two members of Jehovah's Witnesses were detained in Burgas in June 1998 for proselytizing. Although incidents involving police took place throughout the country, official harassment was worst in the cities of Burgas and Plovdiv, where local authorities disregarded the law by arbitrarily denying Mormons the right to proselytize (in Burgas) and to have a legally registered place of residence (in both Burgas and Plovdiv). These incidents lent credence to charges by human rights observers that police were monitoring and interfering with the activities of many religious groups. In March 1998, Varna customs officials confiscated religious materials from Jehovah's Witnesses, claiming them to be of a "religious-sectarian nature." According to Human Rights Watch, in Barges, the municipal council refused to register "dubious religions," including Jehovah's Witnesses, although by law there is no requirement for religious groups to register at the municipal level. In November 1998, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), which was part of the governing coalition, declared that it considered its primary task to be to fight against "foreign" religions. Reportedly, IMRO experts prepared a new draft Denominations Act that would declare Orthodoxy the official religion in the country and would allow for the registration of only those religions that were registered in 1908. Other religious communities would need to undergo a trial period and prove large membership in order to operate legally. This draft and others that have been proposed also would levy high fines for "unregistered" religious activity.
In April 1997, customs officers at the Sofia airport confiscated religious and other literature from a group of U.S. citizen Mormon missionaries entering the country. A group member who later came back to the airport in order to retrieve the confiscated material was arrested on narcotics possession charges. Customs authorities alleged that among the confiscated material, methamphetamines were found in a bottle of over-the-counter dietary supplements. In January 1998, the case was dismissed.
During compulsory military service most Muslims are placed in construction units where they often perform commercial or maintenance work rather than serve in combat-role military units. The mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) political party protested against this practice. In May 1999, the Government announced its intention to reform this practice, but details have not yet been released.
The Ministry of Education initiated a course on religion in the high school curriculum beginning with the 1998/1999 school year. The original plan called for a world religion course that avoided endorsing any particular faith, however, members of other religions, especially ethnic Turkish Muslims, maintain that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church receives privileged coverage in the textbooks. The religion course is optional and is not available at all schools.
At the Department of Theology of Sofia University all students are required to present a certificate of baptism from the Orthodox Church, and married couples must present a marriage certificate from the Church in order to enroll in the Department's classes. In July 1996 two non-Orthodox applicants were denied admission to the Department when they were unable to present such certificates. The applicants then appealed to the local court, which decided in favor of both applicants. However, following the court decision the University changed its requirements in 1998 making an Orthodox birth certificate mandatory, effectively further excluding both students. It remains impossible for non-Orthodox applicants to be admitted to the Department of Theology.
In March 1999, a schoolteacher in Gabrovo who is a member of a Pentecostal church resigned from her job. She claimed that she was intimidated into resigning as a result of her religious beliefs. She is suing the school in court, and her case currently is pending.
There were no indications that the Government discriminated against members of any religious group in making restitution to previous owners of properties that were nationalized during the Communist regime. The Government in general has supported actively property restitution to a group representing the Jewish community, although the return of two lucrative commercial Jewish communal properties in Sofia continues to encounter administrative obstacles and legal challenges.
The Government refused to recognize an alternative Patriarch elected by supporters in 1996, and the schism that opened in the Orthodox Church in 1992 continued, despite the death of this alternative Patriarch in April 1999. The Government nevertheless encouraged the feuding factions to heal their prolonged rift. To date, these efforts have not met with success.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The attitude of the central Government has been increasingly positive in encouraging greater religious tolerance since early 1998, as it generally has sought to promote greater understanding among different faiths. For example, the Government sponsored a religious affairs conference in Burgas. However, while the observance of religious freedom has improved for other "nontraditional" groups in 1998, local authorities in the cities of Plovdiv and especially Burgas recently have harassed the Jehovah's Witnesses and denounced them as an "unregistered sect." The Unification Church claims that the Government has refused most requests for visas and residence permits for foreign missionaries. Mormon missionaries reported several incidents of police harassment in 1998, but there were no reports of such incidents as of June 1999. Although incidents took place throughout the country, official harassment was worst in the cities of Burgas and Plovdiv, where local authorities disregarded the law by arbitrarily denying Mormons the right to proselytize (in Burgas) and to have a legally registered place of residence (in both Burgas and Plovdiv). Some observers note with concern a tendency by certain municipalities to enact regulations that may be used to limit religious freedoms if a perceived need arises. For example, a regulation passed by Sofia municipality in February 1999 forbids references to miracles and healing during religious services, a provision that many fear may be employed as a pretext to ban or interrupt services by charismatic evangelical groups. The regulation cites a Communist-era law dating from 1949, which is technically still in effect, and which forbids foreigners from proselytizing and administering religious services in the country. Other municipalities have enacted similar regulations. The 1949 law also has been criticized in its own right as an outmoded potential impediment to free religious activity. However, despite the law's continued technical validity, foreign missionaries can and do receive permission to proselytize in the country, and many, especially Mormons, have noted a marked improvement in both governmental and societal attitudes since the start of 1998. A new law on religious activity currently is being drafted, but has not yet been moved to the floor of the National Assembly for a vote.
The National Assembly passed a law on alternatives to military service in October 1998, which entered into force on January 1, 1999. Under this new law, alternative service is to be twice as long as military service (military service is 9 months for university graduates and 12 months for others). Passage of this legislation led to the registration of Jehovah's Witnesses in October 1998, although there was no retroactive provision for violations of the law by conscientious objectors that refused to perform military service. Krassimir Nikolov Savov, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to serve in the military, was sentenced to a prison term in April 1998. After an appellate court upheld the conviction in July, he was imprisoned in December 1998. In March 1999, he was released as a result of a presidential pardon. Mr. Savov was the only prisoner who was sentenced and incarcerated as a result of his religious beliefs during 1998 and the first half of 1999. However, according to Human Rights Watch, police also have arrested children and adult members of Jehovah's Witnesses for distributing religious tracts, and detained other members of Jehovah's Witnesses for proselytizing.
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
Relations between religious communities were generally good and were characterized by greater tolerance than in previous years. Most of the country's religious minorities, especially evangelical Protestant denominations, enjoyed greater freedom of worship than during the recent past.
However, discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance of "nontraditional" religious minorities (primarily evangelical Protestant Christian religions) remained a problem, although the number of reported incidents decreased significantly in 1998 and again in 1999. Strongly held suspicion of Evangelical denominations among the Orthodox populace is widespread and pervasive across the political spectrum and has resulted in discrimination. Often cloaked in a veneer of "patriotism," intolerance of the religious beliefs of others enjoys widespread popularity. Such mainstream public pressure for the containment of "foreign religious sects" inevitability influences policymakers. Nevertheless, human rights observers agreed that such discrimination lessened somewhat during 1998 and again in 1999 as society appeared to become more accepting of previously unfamiliar religions.
Certain religions, including both groups denied registration and those officially registered, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, faced discriminatory practices prior to registration in late 1998, as did other groups, which, despite full compliance with the law, were greeted with hostility by the press, segments of the public, and certain government officials.
Non-Orthodox religious groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of God, and the Emmanuel Bible Center, have been affected adversely by societal attitudes. Numerous articles in a broad range of newspapers as well as television documentaries, drew lurid and inaccurate pictures of the activities of non-Orthodox religious groups, attributing the breakup of families and drug abuse by youths to the practices of these groups and alleging that evangelicals were drugging young children. Jehovah's Witnesses were subjected to a particularly negative press campaign in the port city of Burgas in early 1998.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Embassy regularly monitors religious freedom in ongoing contacts with government officials, clergy, lay leaders of minority communities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). Embassy officers have met with Orthodox clergy from both sides of the schism, with the new chief Mufti of the Muslim community, with religious and lay leaders of the Jewish community, and with the Catholic Archbishop of Sofia, as well as with the leaders of numerous Protestant denominations. In addition, the Ambassador and other embassy officers regularly attend conferences dealing with religious tolerance as well as broader human rights issues, express the U.S. Government's interest in religious freedom and to maintain a dialog with observers who offer critical views. The Embassy's democracy commission has administered grants to projects implemented by such NGO's, favoring those proposals that offer maximum impact at a grassroots level.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials became personally involved in one incident involving American citizens from a religious community, which began in 1997 and was concluded in 1998. In April 1997, groups of Mormon missionaries were singled out for extensive searches and had religious and other literature as well as personal belongings confiscated at Sofia airport. At no point did the customs officers cite any law that would have been breached by the importation or possession of the Mormons' literature but insisted that they were acting under orders from their superiors.
When one missionary later was advised that the confiscated items could be retrieved at the airport, he was arrested on trumped-up charges for alleged possession of methamphetamines which, according to customs authorities, were contained in over-the-counter dietary supplements that were removed from another missionary's luggage at the time of confiscation. The Ambassador intervened at the cabinet level and spoke to the Interior Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the President's chief of staff to plead the missionary's case. As a result of this intervention, the missionary was released on bail the following day.
Embassy officers continued to raise the missionary's case in ongoing contacts with government counterparts, and consular officers continued to meet with the prosecutor and the inspector assigned to his case. The Ambassador protested against the callous treatment ordered by the Director of Customs at the airport, who shortly thereafter was dismissed from his post. In January 1998, a new prosecutor was given responsibility for the case, and dismissed all charges as baseless.
Following this incident of harassment by customs officers, the chief of the Embassy's Consular Section was present at Sofia airport to assist and observe another group of U.S. citizen Mormon missionaries on April 10, 1997. In his presence, the inspections were conducted with more courtesy, speed, and fewer confiscations.
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