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FOR HOW LONG WILL THE BULGARIAN STATE TREAT FAITH IN GOD AS AN OFFENSE?

 

 

According to statistics from the European Court of Human Rights Bulgaria holds second place in losing cases based on complaints of violations of Art. 9 of the European Convention. Art. 9 protects freedom of religion and conscience. With an 83% rate of cases lost, Bulgaria ranks behind Turkey and Russia. The conclusion can only be that the state and its officials have no intention of learning and beginning to respect one of the most basic human rights, the one that sustains democracy -- freedom of religion and conscience.

 
Immediately after the success of GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) and BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party, former communists) in the early elections, held at the end of March, there was yet another attack by Bulgarians authorities against the fundamental rights and freedoms of believers. The tenacity with which Bulgarian rulers want to eliminate the free functioning of basic human rights in the country is remarkable.

 
Exactly one year ago we had the ill-fated bills by Kadiev and BSP amending the Law on Religious Confession (LRC), which had the intent to practically eradicate freedom of religion in Bulgaria. About two weeks ago we had a new prosed bill that could have been a copy-pasted version of the bills of 2016! On April 3, 2017, the Ministry of Justice (MJ) published on its website a Draft Law on the Law on Bulgarian Citizenship (formerly downloadable from the website of the Ministry of Justice here, in Bulgarian).

 
This time, however, to avoid the charge of the political and ideological motivation of the project, the proposed draconian restriction of basic human rights in the sphere of faith, expression, association, and assembly came from the Ministry of Justice rather than a socialist or another political faction. It later became clear that the bill was proposed by the newly elected president of the republic of Bulgaria – Rumen Radev (Fall of 2016). The Bulgarian president is a rather ceremonial position, as the country follows the parliamentary republic model of government. Thus, the president has no legislative initiative under the constitution. However, Mr. Radev had no reservations about circumventing his lack of powers and putting the Ministry of Justice as a front for his project. It comes as no surprise that Mr. Radev, and independent presidential candidate during the campaign was endorsed and supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

 
The draft for amendments of the LRC was covertly introduced as a part of a Draft Law for Amends on the Law on Bulgarian Citizenship. The public outcry came after the draft law was published on the MJ website. However, the negative reaction came from the Bulgarian voters who live abroad that to whom the bill effectively denies the right to vote. The media picked up the scandal and the bill was hastily pulled from the internet. A mid-level government lawyer was fired for posting the draft law on the web. He spoke to the media and told in detail how the president of Bulgaria had a meeting with MJ officials and insisted that the law would be introduced without delay.

 
In an article the Wall Street Journal[1] claims that President Radev was the choice of Mr. Vladimir Putin for a Bulgarian president. Radev’s campaign for the presidency was supported by Kornelia Ninova, the chairwoman of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, formerly the communist party. She had met with a former KGB officer to discuss Radev’s candidacy for the position of president, states the WSJ article. When exposed to Bulgarian media she first lied about meeting the Russian negotiator, then when she was faced with the facts, stated that nothing important had been discussed at the meeting. Radev was elected president soon after these events which unfolded in the summer of 2016.

 
Then we have an attempt of the new president to legislate by introducing a draft law which almost verbatim repeated the anti-religious bills of 2016. One may even argue that under Art. 103 of the Bulgarian Constitution Radev has violated his constitutional duties by acting as a legislative agent.


Analysis of the Presidential/Ministry of Justice Bill Limiting Freedom of Religion

 
Here we address the violations of only those changes in the LRC. If you are aware of the Kadiev and BSP bills we fought last year, you’d be aware of the problems of this current proposal. The official website of the Ministry even has a brief exposé, which argued that (all relevant documents were pulled from the website of the MJ after the scandal erupted):

 

The new provisions in the Law on Religions are consistent with the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and with Art. 63 in conjunction with Art. 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. They introduce an explicit ban on anonymous donations exceeding 1,000 lev, contributions from political parties, and the receipt of funds and assets [by churches and religious organizations] from foreign organizations and individuals included in the list of persons, groups and entities subject to freezing of their financial assets and enhanced measures in the field of police and judicial cooperation under Regulation № 2580/2001 of the Council of the European Union.

 
The above-quoted statements do not correspond to reality. Since the proposed amendments in LRC are the regurgitated and only partially mitigated proposals of Kadiev and BSP of March 2016, the problems identified in the previous bills apply to the current proposal.

 
The draft changes in the LRC introduce a number of restrictions on the fundamental right to freedom of religion and conscience, as defined in Art. 9 of the ECHR. Some suggestions are:


1.  Limitation of the practice of religious confession (religion) by introducing a mandatory registration before the state of the community of believers in the as a "legal person" (this is the same legal technique used by the state to impose control over the consciences of men). This is a renewed introduction of a "state license to believe." Eliminated is the more liberal interpretation so far in the LRC that a religious community can have its registered institution be a "legal person", but this is not a prerequisite for its existence and the exercise of the rights of individuals in the community.

 
2.  Control of the financing of registered (i.e. all) religions -  a register of all donations over 1,000 leva is introduced (here the new proposal is slightly more liberal than that of Kadiev from 2016 who wanted the threshold for registration of donations and donors to be the minimum wage).

 
From the above quote from the website of MJ someone can be left with the wrong impression that as if Art. 17 and Art. 63 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU provide for such an option [government financial control of churches] and that the Bulgarian government is simply applying these requited conditions. Art. 17 TFEU states only that local jurisdictions of member states can decide how to manage their relations with churches and religious communities, and art. 63 prohibits restrictions on the movement of capital and finances between member states.

 
Introduced is a registry of the names of the donor and the purpose of the donation. These donations are to be reported to the state government annually or upon request by the Directorate "Religious Confessions" within three days. It also introduces mandatory financial reporting of all revenues and expenditures of registered religious groups to the Directorate "Religious Confessions" each year. The specious pretext of the proponent of the bill is that such a practice would allow for greater transparency and help to better allocate state subsidies. Of course, no mention is made of churches and denominations who neither receive nor have ever wanted to receive state money.

 
3. There is a renewed attempt to "nationalize" the faith. Imposed are restrictions on the ability of foreigners to represent registered in Bulgaria religious communities. Only those who provide evidence to the Directorate on Religions that they are fluent in the Bulgarian language will have the right to lead worship in our dear fatherland. Translators are redundant. 

 
To illustrate the overly restrictive, anti-religious, and discriminatory nature of this proposal, we will point out that no restrictions are introduced for representatives and managers of trading companies registered in Bulgaria. Managers of trading companies do not have to be only Bulgarian citizens either must they present evidence before the Trading Company Registry Agency that they are fluent in the Bulgarian language.

 
4.  An increase of fines for violations to the LRC, which were initiated by Kadiev, is also introduced – at 1000%, that is tenfold.

 
5. Restrictions on freedom of religion imposed include the restriction of political rights of citizens understood by the state as "abuse" of such categories as "political activity based on religion" and use of religion against "national security." Such limitations are not included in the exhaustive list of Art. 9, par. 2 of the European Convention which refers to cases of possible restrictions on freedom of religion.

 
6. The suggested changes in the preamble of LRC openly declares the proponents’ extremely negative, oppressive, and discriminatory view of religion and freedom of religion. The author of the bill has decided that it must be explicitly emphasized in a declarative style that religious communities have a duty to respect the constitutional order and to not undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Bulgaria. Only the legislator’s opinion that the faith of believers is aimed specifically at undermining the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the republic could motivate such a meaningless statement.

 
7. The bill introduces other restrictions of freedom of religion and related basic human rights like freedom of association and freedom of speech.

 
Conclusion

 
Overall, the new project aims to curb human rights in the sphere of freedom of religion, conscience, expression, and association and is not very different than the draconian neo-Marxist bills introduced by G. Kadiev and the BSP last year.

 
The new approach and the new presentation – through the Bill for Amends of the Law on Bulgarian Citizenship, and the introduction of some modifications to the text of the explanatory notes to the bill, cannot disguise the constantly reviving negative attitude of those in power toward faith, believers, and the free exercise of religion. This bill is unworthy of consideration in a truly free and democratic society. We hope that this bill will have the same fate as proposals Kadiev and BSP – that it will not be considered and will be rejected because of its extreme reactionary nature and its antireligious and anti-democratic character.[2]  

 



[1] Parkinson, J and Kantchev, G. Wall Street Journal. Document: Russia Uses Rigged Polls, Fake News to Sway Foreign Elections. Bulgarian officials say a former Russian spy advised pro-Moscow party on how to manipulate voters as part of Kremlin’s effort to regain influence in Eastern Europe; a 30-page dossier. https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-does-russia-meddle-in-elections-look-at-bulgaria-1490282352.  Last access: April 13, 2017. 

[2] These conclusive remarks were written before the situation with the scandalous nature of the bill's introduction transpired in the media. Our hopes came true rather quickly.