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On its last work day of 2018, the Bulgarian Parliament voted amendments in the nation’s Religious Denominations Act. A number of problematic provisions were pulled out of draft following local protests and international pressure.
On its last work day of 2018, the National Assembly of Bulgaria voted amendments in the nation’s Religious Denominations Act. This became fact after five hours of deliberations on Friday, December 21.
A number of problematic provisions were pulled out of the draft following local protests and international pressure. Local Evangelicals experience a mix of enthusiasm and premonition of new issues round the corner.
DRAFTED RESTRICTIONS THREATENED BASIC FREEDOMS
The original form of the amendments pushed at first reading in early October, included a number of restrictions that alarmed all faith groups in the country and triggered statements of protest from various international institutions. Initially, the lawmakers planned installing provisions that allowed the government to interfere in heavy ways into church affairs.
The problematic articles included a number of disconcerting restrictions, including impeding clergy training; strict filtering of international donations to churches; limitations on sermon content; restraining liturgy to designated buildings; obstructing non-Bulgarians’ ministry; membership of 3,000 for legal registration; allowing special privileges to religious groups over one percent of the population.
The parliamentarian initiative triggered a massive outcry among Evangelical Christians. Every faith group in Bulgaria issued a statement of objection. The Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance (BEA) and communities like Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists and many Evangelical denominations mobilized church members for seven public protests in November and December. The vigils were called “prayer rallies” and were held in various towns. Many faith groups also underlined that it was not appropriate to try to address national security issues by rewriting a law on religions.
PRE-CHRISTMAS RUSH TO PUSH LAW ON RELIGIONS
After the seventh rally, held in on a snowy Sunday, December 16, Bulgarian Christians assumed that the law voting would be postponed until after New Year, and called off the protests for Christmas. Little were they expecting that only a few days later all the noise would come to a crescendo and the nation’s Denominations Act would be viewed in parliamentary Committee of Religious Denominations and Human Rights and then pushed into plenary session in the National Assembly.
Numerous changes to the amendments were negotiated with various religious groups in the light of legal objections. The final meeting of the Committee was on Wednesday, December 19. It voted unanimously to pull most of the problematic provisions that had triggered disagreements and protests.
A turning point was reached after the Committee received a December 10 letter by Fredrik Sundberg Principal Administrator of the Department for the Execution of Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. The correspondence reminded our politicians of two cases that Bulgaria had lost in the ECHR in 2017: “Genov v. Bulgaria”, and “Metodiev and others v. Bulgaria”.
“Having examined the different version of the draft Bill […] the Department considers that certain provisions could, if adopted, undermine the execution of the above mentioned judgements which are currently under the supervision of the Committee of Ministers.”
After commenting on some issues of the draft, the correspondence concludes, “It therefore appears that if the draft provisions discussed above are accepted, they will make it impossible for small communities to obtain legal personality, this placing them in a situation at odds with the obligations of Bulgaria under Articles 9 and 11 of the Convention.”
The Department for the Execution of Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights advises and assists the Committee of Ministers in its function of supervision of the implementation of the Court’s judgments. It also provides support to the member States to achieve full, effective and prompt execution of judgments. The organization set up a special round table on December 18, only a day prior to the Bulgarian Committee’s work on finalizing the draft act.
Apparently, this negative attention created a sense of uneasiness among Bulgarian politicians. During the meeting of the parliament’s Committee of Religious Denominations and Human Rights, its chairman Krasimir Velchev unexpectedly changed his mind and pushed a decision to scratch off the 3,000 members requirement for judicial registration of a religious group. Even though the Committee had expressed an unyielding determination to promote this provision, the correspondence from the Council of Europe quickly changed their mind.
Only a day later, the Religion Denominations Act was presented for deliberations on the floor of the House. A few articles were voted in on Thursday, and most of it was viewed on Friday, December 21.
During the plenary session, about 200 Evangelical Christians gathered in front of the National Assembly to pray for freedom of faith and to claim fundamental rights. For the eight time this fall, Evangelical pastors spoke and required the MPs to pull out the whole document. The crowd prayed fervently for God’s interference over the deliberations. For the coming Christmas holidays, they also gave Bibles to every MP with a personal note.
MPS PULLED OUT DISCRIMINATIONS AND RESTRICTIONS
While the Christians were rallying out on the snow in freezing temperatures, inside the legislative House the parliamentarians were voting out many of the arguable points. Every single decision was reported in real time on the Facebook page of the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance to inform the protesters outside about the developments and to help them pray with a better understanding what was happening.
After several hours of work, all deliberations in the National Assembly finished with a final voting of the Act. The new amendments will come in effect on January 1, 2019. Almost all of the provisions that were protested against were dropped.
Whether due to the piled up international pressure, or because of the eight Evangelical street protests, or maybe due to the thousands of prayers spoken against the amendments – the lawmakers dropped every single restrictive provision of the original version.
- No minimum requirement membership for registration of a religious group. (In various versions of the law this figure was 300 or 3,000 members.)
- No ban for religious schools of minor religions. International theological certificates will be recognized. (According to the original intent of the lawmakers, only faith groups over one percent of the population could train their clergy.)
- No filter for international donations. (The preliminary provisions restricted religious donations from outside Bulgaria only for buildings and social work, and only via permission from the state Religious Denominations Directorate.)
- Worship services are allowed outside of designated buildings. There are some limitations as to the loudspeakers. (In the first draft, no liturgy was to be allowed outside of churches and temples.)
- Foreigners are allowed to hold services without special permission. They will only need to inform the state Directorate of Religious Affairs about their activity. (Originally, the plan was to limit their ministry only after written permission by the state Directorate, and only accompanied by a Bulgarian ordained minister.)
- Limitations on sermon content were not accepted. Faith groups will be allowed to publish and distribute their own literature according to their own teachings. (The first draft installed a ban over preaching doctrine or distributing literature that might cause disagreements.)
- Buildings that are designated for religious purposes (liturgy, worship service) can be registered into a national registry. This is not mandatory. If they are registered, they are eligible for tax deductions. (In the first draft, there was an obligatory requirement for every single denominational property to be registered.)
- The Religious Denominations Directorate will not be responsible to review faith groups for possible radical teachings. (Originally, the document had piled up a tremendous responsibility on this governmental group consisting of a handful of experts to monitor sermon content, literature and doctrine for possible terrorist threats. There were no planned competencies for the Directorate how to do all this work.)
STATE SUBSIDY VOTED FOR MAIN RELIGIONS
Among the most contentious issues was the method of calculating eligibility for state funding for religious groups. The initial version set the bar at a level that enabled the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Muslim religion to receive state subsidy.
The final draft of the Religion Denominations Act envisages state subsidy for officially registered denominations on the basis of the number of self-identified followers in the most recent census, at 10 leva a person. At least 7.5M Euro will be provided on an annual basis for the two main religious groups. About a third of this amount will be given to the Muslim religion, and the nation’s Eastern Orthodox Church will receive the rest of the subsidy. If the state budget can afford it, more money will be given to the Orthodox. This will be estimated every fall in the state Budget Act.
The debate on this particular issue saw a walkout by the United Patriots, a coalition of nationalist and far-right parties, and minority partner in the current government. Their ambition was to push about five times more money for the Eastern Orthodox Church.
On this backdrop, Protestant churches vehemently claimed that they were not interested in being funded from the government. The reason they challenged the one-percent differentiation between religions was not in order to qualify for state subsidy, but because it was discriminative.
Dividing religions into important (over one percent) and unimportant (under one percent) it is a sign of favoritism and prejudice. This issue of discrimination was contested by global denominational families as well as legal rights groups from all over the world.
ONE VICTORY IN A LONGER WARFARE
At this point, Evangelical Christians are taking the victory. The Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance sent a letter to its member denominations expressing joy over the strong Christian reflex for justice and freedom of belief. As a result, we have enjoyed:
1. A Church that is alert;
2. Union between pastors from various denominations;
3. Times of prayer and fasting for freedom of speech, of belief and of assembly;
4. Bibles given out to every Bulgarian MP;
5. Getting recognized by the authorities after our participation in Parliamentary work groups;
6. A mighty support from global Christian community and international institutions;
7. Diplomatic support expressed in pressure over our politicians;
8. Invitations to make our case on screens and media outlets.
Only a few days before Christmas Eve, Bulgaria’s Evangelicals are taking a breath of fresh air. Many express their gratitude to the Lord for His provision and interference. The social networks are buzzing with expressions of relief, cheer and contentment. Prayer groups are sharing enthusiastic exclamations, and preachers are considering victory talks for next Sunday.
At the same time, however, there are points of concern that cannot be ignored. For one thing, there is the fact that only a couple of months ago politicians from the whole spectrum voted a completely different draft. Lack of consideration or instinct of totalitarian control? What was driving six out of the seven political parties to coin out so many restrictions depriving basic human and religious rights?
By accepting state subsidy, the two main religions in Bulgaria are entering a season of dependence from secular government. This is a position of moral haphazard. No state should ever interfere with church affairs. No religious community should ever be placed in a state of financial dependency from the authorities in a secular state. Instead, the Church, ever since its conception twenty centuries ago, has been called to be the moral conscience of its surrounding society. Will the Eastern Orthodox denomination and the Muslim religion be able to shake off political influences? Will they have the courage to stand up for justice and speak up for the truth?
It is a very bad image for Bulgaria to enter the global news streams as a country considering such dark measures. In a globalized world heading towards more freedoms, in a European Union based on fundamental human rights, it is an embarrassing and awkward position for our politicians to be bombarded with tons of diplomatic correspondence full of objections and reminders.
The fact that today Evangelical Christians are taking the win, does not mean they are blind to the blood-chilling tendency that the government has totalitarian instincts. New issues lurk around the corner, and the church will soon be called in a position to respond with firmness, unity and a renewed commitment to social justice and Biblical righteousness.