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Date: Wed, 10 Dec 97 22:40:41 CST
From: (by way of Greek Helsinki Monitor)
Subject: Bulgaria wants to keep political control over religions

Bulgarian authorities do not intend to give up political control over religions

From the Tolerance Foundation, 10 December 1997

On November 9, 1997, at a seminar on "Religion and Society in Bulgaria: Factors of Change", Mr Lyubomir Mladenov, Director of the Directorate of Denominations at the Council of Ministers, presented the views of the Directorate on what should be the new Denominations Act. According to Mr Mladenov, the currently valid Act, passed in 1949, is not appropriate because, although the Constitutional Court has repaired its weaknesses (by Decision No. 5 of 11 June 1992 which gave mandatory interpretations of Art. 13 and Art. 37 of the Constitution which refer to citizens' religious rights in Bulgaria), it only created rights but no obligations to denominations. Mr Mladenov also added: " I would not qualify the Denominations Act as an openly communist repressive law. In fact, the officials of the former Committee for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Religious Cults used to create the actual rules."

According to Mr Mladenov, religious life in Bulgaria needs a new regulation, since "the Act we have does not answer clearly to the questions what the state can, cannot, and must do in the sphere of religions. The current Act, said he, is an obstacle with its inability to regulate the activity of the new religious movements." After stressing that "the procedure of creating a juridical person is the cardinal question", Mr Mladenov stated that the state "should have a policy in the field of religion. If we let religious organizations be registered solely in a judicial way [i.e. like the other non-profit organizations], this would mean that the state will abdicate from its obligation to protect the rights of the citizens and will give up the implementation of a state policy in the religious sphere."

According to the requirements of the future Act, for a religious organization to be registered, it will have, according to Mr Mladenov, a) to have a "clear confession" distinct from those of others; b) to present a statement of its "practical activity - sacraments, ritual, cult, moral principles"; c) to supply data about its influence in society and its territorial structure.

The religious communities wishing to receive official recognition under the future Act will have to undergo a test period of six to twelve months. During this period, they will be allowed to perform some activities and prohibited from performing others. After this, a committee composed of representatives "of a number of institutions" [it was not stated which institutions] will decide definitively whether or not the religious organization in question is to be recognized. In case of refusal, this decision will be appealable before the Supreme Administrative Court.

According to the speaker, it is necessary to preserve the Directorate of Denominations as an administrative body subordinated directly to the Council of Ministers. The current legislation allows for the existence of religious organizations also under the form of associations or foundations, under Art. 133A of the Persons and Family Act. According to Mr Mladenov, this opportunity should be abolished and associations with religious activity should be able to exist only as "assistant bodies to registered denominations".

"There should not be", said the Director of the Directorate of Denominations, "any other punishments than fines in the future Act." On September 24, 1997 the Directorate of Denominations submitted proposals for amendments in the current Act by which the fines imposed under its Art. 29 are proposed to reach up to $300-400. (For comparison, the minimum monthly wages in Bulgaria currently are about $25).

According to the speaker, there must be in the future Act text guaranteeing the preservation of the unity of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. (The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is the largest Bulgarian religious organization. According to Art. 13 of the Constitution it is "the traditional denomination in the republic of Bulgaria".)

After the speech of Mr Mladenov, pastor Teodor Angelov, Chairman of the Union of Evangelical Baptist Churches, declared that he could not accept "the philosophy of the proposals made" and Prof. Spetter of the Osnabr ck Institute for the Study of the Church-State Relations (Germany) asked in public whether Mr Mladenov knew that Bulgaria has signed and ratified the European Convention of Human Rights and Basic Freedoms.

The Tolerance Foundation holds the opinion that the statements of the highest state official responsible for the relations between the religions and the state should be viewed as official plans of the Government for a reform in the religious legislation. In our view, certain conclusions may be drawn from these statements:

1. The Government does not intend to give up the system of political control over religious activity which it has inherited from previous regimes. This is proved by the intention to preserve a special regime for the recognition of religious organizations by the state, i.e. for the acquiring of the status of a juridical person. For all other non-profit organization there is a judicial way of registration which is adopted and acting. Only the religious ones are to have a "testing period" in order to decide whether they deserve registration or not. It is only about them that it was said that the court is not competent to decide over their conformity to the laws.

2. The administrative evaluation of the doctrinal similarities and dissimilarities between religious organizations, embodied in the principle "one doctrine - one organisation", can lead to their forceful lumping together if it be decided that the differences between some religious groups are neglectably small. As it is known, the differences between religious groups are almost imperceivable for an external eye but are very important for their self-identity.

3. The abolition of the opportunity for religious organizations to exist as foundations and asociations can mean in practice the impossibility of the legal existence of the new religious groups. When they are small and/or new, they prefer to start their activity as foundations or associations.

4. Due to their size which is excessive for Bulgaria, the plannes sanctions such as fines, if judged about on the basis of the above quoted proposals of the Directorate of Denominations, could be a stronger means of administrative, respectively political, control than the purely administrative or police measures.

The Tolerance Foundation has insisted and insists on the abolition of the Denominations Act that has been inherited from totalitarianism, on the legalization of all the religious foundations and associations (over 50) that were denied in the summer of 1994 the right to perform legal activity, according to the infamous amendment to the Persons and Family Act (Art. 133A), on the passing of a new democratic Denominations Act in conformity with the requirements of Art. 18 of the International Pact of Political and Civil Freedoms and Art. 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Basic Freedoms, on putting an end to police violence and to the confiscations of imported religious literature. (For more detail see The State of Religious Freedom in Bulgaria, Report by the Tolerance Foundation, February 1997.) Wer want religious organizations to be treated like all other non-profit organiszations and the state to stop the interference with their internal affairs.

However, we are afraid that if the ideas stated by Mr Mladenov turn into an Act, there will be no real democratization of the social relacions in the sphere of religions. Our fears are gdounded also on the adoption of a number of legal amd administrative measures against the freedom of religion in other former socialist countries, such as Armenia, Romania, Latvia, Macedonia, and Russia. (For more detail see Willy Fautr , Overview of Regisious Freedom in Eastern Europe, Face to Face, newsletter of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, and Droits de l'Homme sans Fronti res, Sofia, September 1997; see the same article also in: Tolerance Towards You, newsletter of the Tolerance Foundation, Sofia, June-September 1997.)

We appeal to the Government to stop ignoring the opinion of the minority religious groups and of the human rights organizations in preparing the draft of a nes Denominations Act. On its own part, the Tolerance Foundation is ready to take on the role of organizer and intermediary of a debate dedicated to the furute religious legislation, and in the nearest future it will propose, jointly with other human rights organizations, concrete initiatives in this respect.

We hope that the international human rights community will support our effort directed to the betterment of the situation of the religious human rights of Bulgarian citizens.

Emile Cohen, president of the Tolerance Foundation

The Tolerance Foundation is a human rights group monitoring the freedom of conscience and the religious freedom practices in Bulgaria, providing legal assistance to victims of religion-based discrimination, and propagating the idea of tolerance to religions and other convictions.

The groups was founded in 1994.


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