“The Catholic Church in Bulgaria is deeply worried about the draft law on religions that would put our community in a very difficult situation”, Msgr. Christo Proykov, Apostolic Exarch, President of the Bulgarian Bishops, told SIR. In his view the amendments are “discriminatory and place some confessions in a privileged position to the detriment of others, which are left without vital financial support, especially donations from abroad.” “The legislative proposal is a sad reminder of a bygone Communist past, which we believed would no longer return”, the prelate remarked with sadness. The amendments are “dangerous and infelicitious”, he pointed out.
Funding only to the Orthodox and Muslim communities. The draft law provides for State subsidies to confessions representing over 1% of the population with a contribution of approximately €5 per individual believer. Under the new regulations, external financing is forbidden for all confessions unless previously authorized by the Directorate of Religious Affairs. However, only the Orthodox Church and the Muslim community meet the requirements, the former representing 60% of believers and 8% the latter, according to the latest national census. Catholics account for 0.66% of the population and Protestants 0.87%. “This means that Catholics and Protestants will not be receiving any funding nor are they allowed to receive donations from abroad”, said the President of Bulgarian bishops.
The particularities of each confession. For the prelate,
“the text of the draft law on religious communities has many controversial aspects that fail to take into account the particularities of each confession.
”His view is shared by numerous experts, such as Atanas Slavov, Professor of Law at the University of Sofia, interviewed by “Dnennik” newspaper. “How can one limit donations from abroad to confessions that form part of international structures such as the Catholic Church and the Protestant communities, whose activities largely depend on these revenues?”, he said.
A measure for national security? The purpose of the amendments filed by GERB parliamentary group with members of the opposition , the Socialists and the Turkish minority party – which sparked off controversies within the government coalition – is to “prevent interference of foreign countries, institutions and persons into religions and religious affairs, that could go against national security”, notably radicalised Islam, that is trying to worm its way through regions in southern Bulgaria. However, for Professor Slavov, “if the intent is to curb donations by radical Islamic foundations to Muslims in Bulgaria, placing all confessions under the same common denominator is an act of discrimination.”
The opinion of other confessions. All faith communities are bewildered by the legislative proposal, also because they were not consulted when the amendments were being drawn up. FatherNikolay Georgiev, spokesperson of the Holy Synod, said that the draft-law is due to create administrative obstacles also for the Orthodox clergy, and expressed doubts on the fact that the Directorate of Religious Affairs, a dicastery with limited staff, will be able to process all the papers regarding donations. Fr Georgiev does not exclude the possibility of supporting the needs of other Christian denominations and non-Christian religionsbecause, although the Orthodox Church is the least affected by the law, “we cannot strip a confession of its rights just because it represents a minority.”The Council of the Islamic Community of Bulgaria declared that “the proposed changes will put us in a difficult situation” because currently, according to an agreement with Turkey, Muslims receive donations from Ankara to pay the salaries of imams.
Foreign clergy barred from religious service. The controversial aspects of the draft-law are not limited to changes in funding. Accordingly, only Bulgarian citizens can perform priestly service, while foreigners are allowed to celebrate religious functions only after authorization by the Directorate of Religious Affairs; the academic titles of presbyters must be obtained in Bulgaria, unless the competent dicastery decides otherwise. “This further complicates the situation, as the majority of Catholic priests in Bulgaria are not Bulgarian citizens – Msgr. Proykov said- and all priests, including Bulgarians, have completed their academic studies abroad because in Bulgaria there are no faculties of Catholic theology.”
Freedom of worship at risk. “Politicians ought to reflect before taking final decisions. Reaching a balance between national security and religious rights requires serious dialogue” Slavov pointed out.
If not, Bulgarian authorities “will be exposed to major risks, especially now that Bulgaria holds the rotating presidency of EU Council of Ministers.
As a matter of fact, during the recent meeting with a delegation of the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), “on the occasion of the Bulgarian presidency, the President of Bulgarian bishops conveyed his concerns to Foreign Minister Esteri Ekaterina Zaharieva and informed the Directorate for Religious Affairs. He hopes that the Catholic Church will be taken into consideration during parliamentary procedures, “thereby ensuring that the Law will not affect her activity.”