Back in May of 2018, two draconian antireligious bills were introduced to the Bulgarian legislature for the third year in a row. After the bills received critical opinions from all the major religious denominations in the country, on October 4 the leading committee in the Bulgarian parliament held a hearing with the participation of the bills' sponsors and these religious representatives. Freedom for All also took part as a human rights and religious freedom group, as well as represented two evangelical-Protestant denominations. Below is the English translation of our report from the meeting.


Meeting of the Parliamentary Commission on Religious Denominations and Human Rights Regarding the Two Draft Amendments and Supplements to the Religious Denominations Act

Last Thursday, October 4, 2018, the leading Committee on Religions and Human Rights held a meeting in the National Assembly on the two draft amendments to the Religious Denominations Act.


Present at the meeting were nine of the regular members of the commission, as well as representatives of most of the religious communities: the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC), the Roman Catholic Church, the Muslim faith, and the United Evangelical Churches. Freedom for All, our human rights and religious freedom group, attended and represented the Protestant-Evangelical Christian denominations of the National Alliance of United Churches of God (NAUCG) and the National Christian Center (NCC), as well as its own position.


Our general assessment is that the fate of these bills is questionable. The Commission ultimately voted for both bills to enter the plenary session and have their first reading before the Parliament. This means that the possibility of a crisis of a constitutional magnitude in which the freedoms of conscience, faith, speech, and other human rights becoming extremely limited by a new law are very real.


Only Freedom for All held the position that the Commission should not allow the proposed laws to be allowed to enter the plenary discussion of the Assembly because of their extreme anti-democratic and anti-constitutional character.


At the beginning of the meeting, the Vice-President of the Commission, Mr. Vassil Antonov, said that the BSP (Bulgarian Socialists) party will not be supporting the bills in the event of a vote, which includes the bill they co-sponsored along with the MRF (Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the “Turkish Party”) and GERB (the largest party, a compilation of socialists, quasi-right wingers, opportunists). A representative of ATAKA, which is part of the United Patriots party, and a sponsor of the second bill, also expressed his general opposition to the bills. 


A representative of the sponsors from the three big parties, Mr. Tsonev from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and representatives of the United Patriots, briefly motivated their bills by offering only cosmetic changes. Both bills continue to overwhelmingly restrict views on freedom of religion.


On the part of the denominations, the opposition and criticism of the bills was almost unified, categorical and on many of the major points, overlapped. Criticisms focused on the fact that national security issues are not resolved by limiting the rights of believers and religions; that donations should not be controlled and limited by the state through extraordinary and/or special laws, but by general laws already in place; that the right to preach cannot be subject to an authorization by the state; that the preparation of preachers and clergymen is absurdly subject to state control agencies that are not competent to grasp the essence of the religious education of a particular religion; and that faith is not a national phenomenon and the state cannot restrict international contacts and communities because of their religious beliefs.


The position of the BOC, considered to be the largest religious denomination in the country, was impressive because it stood against the excessive interference of the "Religions" Directorate in the internal affairs of the church (respectively the denominations), which, even under communism, was not as significant as it is envisaged in these bills. This position is also impressive because to date, in the public discussion of religious (or rather anti-religious) bills, the BOC has not taken a firm position, perhaps because of the state's patronage, which is not the case here. That is, the BOC in its position defended not only its own interests (it relies on state protectionism) but took a stand that is principled and favors Christian religious freedom from excessive state interference.


Of course, it remains unclear to what extent the BOC supports the freedom of religious denominations from having to be registered and the registration of other Orthodox faiths in Bulgaria. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, despite its disagreement with the bills, insisted that the currently registered (179 according to the Committee Chair, Mr. Velchev) denominations are far too many.


The position of Freedom for All and NEAFC and NHS is that bills must not be admitted into the legislation of the country because they are written in a totalitarian and intolerant spirit against all believers, threaten the constitutional order in the country, discriminate based on religion and, if they become law, will be in violation of the Bulgarian Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, international law and the principles of a democratic and free society. We advocate that these bills do not reach the Chamber of Deputies at all because of their incompatibility with Bulgarian traditions of religious tolerance and the principles of democracy. We also took the position that the Bulgarian constitutional state is secular and not atheistic, as the spirit of the two laws implies. The secular state is neutral in terms of faith and ideology, the atheist state promotes atheism and attacks religious views.


Our position, on all the other points, largely coincides with the views and criticisms of other denominations, disagreeing with the position expressed by some attendants and the committee chairman that the number of registered denominations should be limited. Such restrictions are neither necessary nor somehow helpful to the quoted reason for the need for these restrictions, "because the denominations are exempt from taxes", so they have been acting in bad faith as such. This argument is unsubstantiated.


The sponsors of the bills agreed that if there is any draft law on religious denominations and amendments, they should be subjected to a careful and thorough public discussion as it is a complex and delicate matter, which is our position on the approach to religious law in general.


The bills were voted to be considered by the Parliament at this first reading by the Commission under Art. 43 (Rules of the National Assembly). In the discussion there were no opinions about the categorical rejection of the bills so that the projects would not make it to the floor discussion (plenary), which we expected and on which we insisted (as mentioned above). Setting up working groups with the participation of the Commission, to generate discussions on the bills before the second reading, with the hope that such extremely restrictive and dangerous bills could be rebuilt into something good, in our opinion, is an impossible task. Despite the vote to proceed head, the fate of the bills remains unclear because of the extremely restrictive and totalitarian approach to their writing by all religious communities, including the BOC and the disagreement with them even by some of the sponsors (BSP in this case).


In his closing remarks, the Vice-President of the Commission stated that the current Religious Denomination Act, although not perfect, is good and effective in contemporary society and should not be re-written with hasty amendments and additions.


We also believe that writing new laws, especially anti-democratic ones, does not solve problems, but rather creates new ones which we reiterated also in private conversation after the meeting with some members of the Commission.


In view of the outcome of the meeting, we believe that there is still uncertainty about the freedom of belief in Bulgaria. This is due to the present possibility of voting in a draft amendment to the Law on Religions which is contrary to the principles of a free and democratic society.


In this regard Freedom for All and the evangelical-Protestant communities NAOBTS (NAUCG) and NHTS (NCC) and the unregistered religious community Christian Mission Center will continue to monitor the process concerning freedom of belief and expression and its legislative treatment in order to protect basic human rights and freedoms for our communities and for churches and believers throughout the country.


Viktor Kostov, Ph.D.
missiologist, lawyer


* Freedom for All is our human rights, missionary, and publishing group of lawyers and missionaries acting in defense of the Christian faith in the public square.