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Briefing: Bulgaria’s Muslims: From Communist assimilation to tentative recognition

07 July 2003

With the ascendancy of the communist regime in 1946 and its reign until 1990, Bulgaria’s various Muslim ethnic groups witnessed harsh repression and forced assimilation campaigns.

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Islamic Human Rights Commission

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07 July 2003

Briefing: Bulgaria’s Muslims: From Communist assimilation to tentative recognition


Treatment of Muslims under Communism

With the ascendancy of the communist regime in 1946 and its reign until 1990, Bulgaria’s various Muslim ethnic groups witnessed harsh repression and forced assimilation campaigns. The explicit official goal was the pursuit of a homogenous, ethnically-pure Bulgaria, disrupted by the presence of Islam and Muslims, a hated remnant of Bulgaria’s Ottoman legacy. State animosity towards Bulgaria’s Muslims led a senior Bulgarian government official to proclaim in 1985: “The Bulgarian nation has no parts of other peoples and nations”.

Bulgaria’s Muslim ethnic groups

A 1998 study held Bulgaria’ s Muslim to constitute 13% of the total population, although this figure is contested by Muslim leaders who claim the true figure is nearer 20%. Bulgaria’s Muslims fall mainly into four ethnic groups: Turks, Tartars (a Turkic group), ethnic Bulgarian Muslims or Pomaks and Roma or Gypsies (it is estimated that up to 39% of Bulgaria’s Roma are Muslim).

Geographically, Pomaks, Turkish Muslims and Roma Muslims are concentrated in The Rhodpe Mountains, the southern boarder region with Greece. Other significant populations of Turkish Muslims and Roma Muslims are to be found in the north-east of Bulgaria and along the Black Sea Coast.

Izselvane (re-settlement) and Vazroditelen (re-birth process)

Izselvane and Vazroditelen formed the basis of state policy towards Bulgaria’s Muslims. In 1949 and 1950-51, the Bulgarian government removed Pomaks from their traditional southern regions. The vazroditelen stage launched forced assimilation, in which Pomaks were forced to change their Muslim names to Slavic-Christian names. This was conceived as an attempt to coerce the Pomaks to abandon Islam and re-gain their ‘true’ identity. Pomaks were denied the right to practice Islam or use their Islamic names, exposed to constant harassment and persecution by the police and security services. The Pomaks, as ethnic Bulgarian Muslims, particularly invoked state ire on their account as Slav Christians who embraced Islam during Ottoman times. This earned Pomaks the denigrated status of outcasts and traitors within Bulgarian society.

From 1984 izselvane and vazroditelen was extended to the Turkish Muslim, Tartar Muslim and Roma Muslim populations. This campaign saw thousands of Muslims killed, sent to forces labour camps or deported en mass.

Under communist rule ethnic Turks and Tartars existed as second-class citizens, with attempts to eradicate their cultural and religious identity. In 1949 and 1951 an estimated 155,000 Turks were expelled form Bulgaria. In 1984 Turks were not recognised as a national minority based on the state claim that all Muslims in Bulgaria descended from Bulgarians forced to convert to Islam under Ottoman rule. From May to August 1984, an estimated 310,000 ethnic Turks fled Bulgaria, with mosques closed and traditional dress banned. As part of the vazroditelen a failure to repudiate their Muslim names lead to a forfeit of salary, pension rights and bank withdrawals. An estimated 1,500 ethnic Turks were killed.

The Roma in modern Bulgaria

Roma Muslims, like Turkish Muslims, face double discrimination on account of both their ethnicity and religious identity. The position of all Roma, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in both Bulgaria and wider Europe is dire. The Roma are one of Europe’s most hated and disenfranchised group. Faced with rampant societal intolerance, 2002 and 2003 saw an increase in alienation and discrimination against Bulgaria’s Roma population.

Throughout 2002 and 2003 Roma populations have been faced with forced expulsions from areas of their residencies by ethnic Bulgarians, epidemic police violence and harassment, including the deaths of a number of Romanies, discrimination in the provision of social welfare and housing, societal violence which saw the deaths of many Roma at the hands of racist and neo-Nazi gangs as well as media hysteria directed at the Roma. Several Bulgarian cities, including the capital Sofia, saw state schools refuse to admit Roma children. Roma areas have been punished with mass electricity cuts and enforced segregation, with attempts in some Bulgarian towns to construct four-metre walls around Roma areas. Many Roma areas preside in third-world poverty conditions.

Concerns over religious tolerance in contemporary Bulgaria: The ‘Denominations Act’

Despite the Bulgarian constitution affirming the right to freedom of religious practice, nevertheless it holds Eastern Orthodox Christianity as Bulgaria’s “traditional religion”. This does raise concerns as to Bulgaria’s commitment to religious pluralism, especially in light of the Bulgarian government’s 2002 decision to bring into effect the new restrictive and discriminatory ‘Denominations Act’, which contains discriminatory clauses that violate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as well as other international treaties to which Bulgaria is signatory to. This act drew criticism from the Council of Europe and opposition from various human rights and religious organisations within Bulgaria.

The new ‘Denominations Act’ originally arose in response to the emergence of factionalism within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC). The Bulgarian government stood behind one of the factions, Patriarch Maksim’s synod. The ‘Denominations Act’ gave the Patriarch Maksim-led BOC a privileged position vis--vis the law, awarding it the status of a legal entity with the force of law and exemption form legal registration. Whilst other religious organisations, including Muslim organisations, must apply for the status of legal entity with the Sofia Municipal Court, who can revoke their registration.

Other restrictive aspects in the ‘Denominations Act’ are not intended for use against non-religious organisations, nor are present in existing international conventions. These include:

• ban on the use of religious ideology to further political goals
• disciplinary measures to restrict religious activity in the event of violation of articles of the act. These include a ban on publishing activities, the distribution of existing religious materials and the prohibition of all activities by a certain period
• resurrection of the communist-era requirement that local branches of religious groups register with local mayors
• a state organ of control over religious groups in the form of the Council of Ministers’ Religious Directorate. With wide ranging powers, the Directorate can instigate a case against a religious group in the Sofia Municipal Court and advise the latter on the suitability of a religion/religious group in the process of registration. The Directorate further has the power to permit or ban foreign religious activists from Bulgaria, as well as investigate claims of individuals abusing the right to religious freedom. Thus, the Directorate is a de facto religious police force.

Law on Foreign Persons: Further concerns

Along with the implications that the ‘Denominations Act’ bear for Bulgaria’s religious tolerance, May 2002 amendments to the ‘Law on Foreign Persons’ also hold concerns for religious freedom. The amendments present problems for foreign national religious workers and missionaries in that no explicit visa category applies to them. Furthermore, the ‘Law on Foreign Persons’ permits the cancellation of residence status on national security grounds. This was utilised in 2000 to justify the expulsion of Ahmad Musa, a Palestinian resident in Bulgaria for 15 years, for “preaching non-traditional Islam”.

Musa’s expulsion was followed in January 2001 by the expulsion of six Muslim preachers under the Denominations Act (1949) for preaching without a permit. These expulsions came despite a 1992 ruling by Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court that the specific articles under the Denominations Act (1949) were unconstitutional. In the Al Nashif v. Bulgaria case the European Court of Human Rights ruled in June 2002 that Bulgaria’s expulsions violated article 13 of the ECHR.

Other incidences and concerns for Bulgaria’s Muslims

By 2003 discrimination, harassment and general intolerance towards religious minorities still remains a serious problem for Bulgarian society.

The Muslim community has complained that the government, even 13 years after the fall of communism, have not returned at least 17 properties confiscated by the former Communist regime. Also, with military conscription compulsory in Bulgaria, Muslims are not allowed to participate in regular military units, but are assigned to labour units hired out to the private sector. This is a violation of the International Labour Organisation accords.

Throughout 2002 Muslim communities throughout Bulgaria reported numerous national and local state refusals to give permission to build new mosques. An example is in March 2002 when the council of Banite refused the construction of a mosque. The Muslim community also complained that Ministry of Education textbooks on religion were biased towards the BOC. Turkish Muslims and Pomaks further complained that the procedures for restoring their Islamic names are excessively burdensome and difficult to accomplish.

In November 2000 vandals sprayed anti-Turkish and anti-Roma graffiti on a mosque in Silistra.

Bulgaria’s entry to the European Union (EU)

IHRC firmly believes that Bulgaria’s application for EU membership has to be conditional, dependent on the Bulgarian government’s ability and willingness to achieve certain goals pertaining to general human rights and specifically total religious freedom for Bulgaria’s substantial Muslim population.
IHRC calls for the return of all Muslim property confiscated under Communist rule and a repeal of crucial discriminatory articles in the Denominations Act and Law on Foreign Persons.

IHRC further calls for the protection of the Roma population, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and a crackdown on proliferating neo-Nazi and racist groups.

For more information please contact:

Islamic Human Rights Commission
PO Box 598
Wembley
HA9 7XH
United Kingdom

Telephone (+44) 20 8902 0888
Fax (+44) 20 8902 0889
Email info@ihrc.org
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