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Forum18 (03/17/06) – Four years after a controversial new Religion Law and nearly two years after prosecutor’s office and police officers forcibly expelled followers of the “Alternative” Orthodox Synod led by Metropolitan Inokenty from the churches they had been using for more than a decade, religious freedom in Bulgaria remains troubled. The Alternative Orthodox have complained to Forum 18 News Service that the July 2004 expulsions were never legally grounded and are still challenging the expulsions through the European Court of Human Rights. They – and many other religious minorities – resent the privileged position in law and practice of the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate, the country’s largest faith and complain of some restrictions on their activity in some parts of Bulgaria.

The 2002 Religion Law controversially granted official status to the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate in Article 11, and granted it automatic registration, while all other faiths wanting legal status must register in a Sofia court or local courts. Article 9 allowed the courts to punish religious organisations for a variety of alleged offences by banning their activities for up to six months, banning the publication or distribution of religious publications or cancelling an organisation’s registration. Punishments for religious activity prescribed in the law include fines of up to 5,000 leva (21,466 Norwegian kroner, 2,570 Euros or 2,912 US Dollars). Article 38 punishes “any person carrying out religious activity in the name of a religion without representational authority”, with second offences attracting a fine of up to 1000 leva.

A challenge to the Religion Law (which had also been criticised by the Council of Europe) failed in the Constitutional Court in July 2003, despite the fact that six judges opposed the Law while only five supported it (see F18News 21 July 2003

Although some of the worst aspects of the Law have not been deployed, many members of religious minorities remain unhappy at what they regard as its inadequacies. “The current Law has many missing elements and its provisions are not clear,” Pastor Lyudmil Arsov of the Church of Friends , an Assemblies of God congregation in the capital Sofia , told Forum 18 on 15 March. “When churches go to state agencies – for example over buying or renting property, and working in hospitals, schools and prisons – they are refused permission to do what they want because the law is unclear.”

But one change brought in by the new law – the transfer of registration from the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate (which is under the Council of Ministers) to the courts – has been broadly welcomed. “Registration through the courts is better,” Arsov noted, a view shared by many faiths. “The courts are proving to take independent decisions,” religious freedom lawyer Lachezar Popov of the Sofia-based Rule of Law Institute told Forum 18 on 1 March.

Religious minorities have also been pleased at the way the courts have on occasion ignored representations by the Religious Affairs Directorate. Courts can request “expert opinions” from the Directorate, as happened when the Ahmadi Muslims lodged their registration application with the court in the south-western town of Blagoevgrad . The Directorate opposed registration and the court rejected the application, but the Ahmadis were able to challenge this successfully. “I am happy to tell you that by the grace of our Lord our jama’at [community] has received registration today,” local Ahmadi leader Muhamad Ashraf told Forum 18 on 9 December 2005.

In the immediate aftermath of the launch of the new system, there were complaints in some areas that local courts were selectively rejecting registration applications from faiths the authorities did not like. Pastor Georgi Yalamov from the southern town of Khaskovo told Forum 18 that one Pentecostal congregation he has oversight of in the nearby town of Kurdzhali lodged its application in 2003. He claims officials removed one document from the application package and the application was then rejected. It was only after the church lodged a challenge through a higher court in Plovdiv that registration was approved, though even then it was not until September 2004, six months after the Plovdiv court ruled in the church’s favour, that the registration certificate was issued.

Such problems have reportedly diminished in the last two years. No religious communities reported any other faiths or congregations that have been denied registration by the courts, although one Protestant pastor told Forum 18 that in the 1990s some Protestant congregations that had been unable to gain registration chose to join larger unions that had registration.

One group that has not applied for registration under the new system is the Alternative Orthodox Synod or its parishes. Under the Religion Law they could not do so under the name “Bulgarian Orthodox Church”, as another denomination with that name is already registered. Alternative Orthodox leaders say they will not apply to register under any other name. However, one of their priests registered his parish successfully under the name ” Ecumenical Church “. The court ignored the negative “expert opinion” of the Religious Affairs Directorate, the Sofia-based lawyer Ivan Gruikin, who has worked on religious freedom cases, told Forum 18.

However, much concern continues over the widespread belief by local officials that religious communities also have to “register” with the local municipality to be able to conduct local religious activity. Although this is nowhere stated in the law, officials often use this to suppress activity they do not like. “This parallel system of court and municipality registration is very strange,” Pastor Nikolai Nikolov of the Evangelical Pentecostal church in the central town of Nova Zagora told Forum 18 on 14 March. “It is a continuing bad habit from the Communist period.”

Even though this local registration is supposed to be “formal” – and responses are supposed to be given within a week – Jehovah’s Witness communities in Dimitrovgrad, Veliko Turnovo and Smolen have been waiting for it for more than two years. “The municipalities just don’t respond or claim they didn’t receive the applications,” Jehovah’s Witness Lubomir Kuchukov told Forum 18 from Sofia on 17 March. “These are just excuses.”

During the 1990s, several municipalities issued local decrees restricting religious activity. Some of these remain in force. But the lawyer Lachezar Popov told Forum 18 that he and his colleagues had successfully challenged a proposed council decision in the Black Sea port of Burgas that would have given the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate priority within 150 metres (yards) of any school in the city.

“The level of freedom at the local level depends on the attitude of local officials,” Pastor Zhivko Tonchev of the Good News Church in Burgas told Forum 18 on 15 March. “City officials’ attitude to Protestants here in Burgas is now positive.” Tonchev, who is also a city councillor, noted that several years ago the Philadelphia Church led by Pastor Stefan Kristev was denied permission to build a church on land it already owned. “He was refused for three years, but when I was elected I was able to convince the council his church was not a dangerous sect. He got permission last year.”…[Go To Full Story]