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CSW (04/27/06) – As the European Parliament debated whether or not Bulgaria and Romania should be granted the right to join the European Union in 2007, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) this week called on the EU to push for guarantees on religious freedom in both countries.

Over the past few months a number of human rights organisations, including CSW, have been actively raising concerns regarding religious freedom in both countries.

In Bulgaria, a major case involving the Bulgarian Orthodox Church continues to be unresolved, calling into question the implementation of reforms meant to ensure the rule of law in that country. In July 2004, the State Prosecutor’s Office sided with a faction of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church ordering church buildings and monasteries to be taken by force. This case is now being considered by the European Court of Human Rights.

Priests, monks, and lay-workers were dragged out of their churches and monasteries as police stormed the buildings under an order from the Prosecutor’s Office; many were beaten and some suffered serious injuries. More than 160 priests and monks found their churches and monasteries confiscated and have had no option but to hold mass and other religious ceremonies in the open air over the past year and a half.

CSW met with representatives of the “Alternate Synod” in Sofia in late March, who expressed hope that the EU would be a positive influence on Bulgaria in the establishment of rule of law and respect for religious freedom.

New legislation in Romania that has the potential to discriminate against smaller religious organisations has caused concern among many in the evangelical community both inside and outside the country. They fear it may be difficult for smaller or newer churches to acquire legal status and thus receive full rights as religious bodies. The draft law, which had been approved by the Senate at the end of December, is now being considered by the Romanian Chamber of Deputies which has yet to issue an opinion.

A number of MEPs, including Robert Evans (Labour for London ) have expressed concern about the Romanian legislation. In March, Evans submitted a formal question on the legislation to the European Commission enquiring whether practical steps had been taken by the Commission to ensure that Romania complies with EU and international standards regarding freedom of religion and respect for minorities.

Alexa Papadouris, Advocacy Director of CSW, said: “It is vital that the EU uses this period of consideration to push both Romania and Bulgaria to bring their laws and practice into line before they join the EU. Both countries should be congratulated for the major reforms they have implemented throughout the accession process, but it is essential that they recognize the importance of safeguarding religious liberty and other human rights.”

BACKGROUND ON ROMANIAN LAW

The draft law divides religious denominations into three categories with different rights: 1) the eighteen state recognised religions, 2) religious associations (denominations with fewer than 22 000 members) and 3) religious groups (less than 300 members). Those falling into the final category cannot call themselves a “church”, are denied legal status and thus, have no legal means to defend themselves against acts of intolerance and violence. This absence of legal protection, which is otherwise guaranteed solely to recognised religions, violates article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)[1] and poses significant problems in a country where some Orthodox clergy and local authorities have reportedly obstructed the activities of some minority religious groups.

The law would also prevent unrecognised religious groups from acquiring property and building churches. Recognition by the government would only be granted if the religious association’s “activities and number of members offer guarantees of durability, stability and public interest”. The religious association must have been active on the territory for at least 12 years.

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[1] Article 26: All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.