The Republic of Bulgaria is a democratic sovereign state in southeastern Europe with a population of 7.5 million and bordered by Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and the Black Sea. The constitution guarantees “the life, dignity and rights of the individual and shall create conditions conducive to the free development of the individual and of civil society”.

Systemic Discrimination
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Free and Equal

Constitution and government

Bulgaria adopted a democratic constitution in 1991 following nearly 50 years of communist rule. Article 13 of the constitution guarantees religious freedom. It declares the state to be secular — “Religious institutions shall be separate from the State” — and that “religious institutions and communities, and religious beliefs shall not be used to political ends”. Within the same article however, Eastern Orthodox Christianity is somewhat ambiguously officiated as the country’s “traditional religion”.

The state and the church

The Religious Denominations Act 2002 is clear in pointing out that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s (BOC) special traditional status cannot be used “as grounds to grant privileges or any advantages”. However  the constitutional text suggests that there is some form of relationship between the BOC and the state. Article 10 of the Religious Denominations Act states that the BOC “has current meaning in [Bulgaria’s] political life”, while Dr. Peter Petkoff of Brunel University wrote in a journal article that “although the law does not suggest what kind of relationship this is, one could imagine that there is a hint that official holidays and state ceremonies with a religious element will have an Eastern Orthodox framework and will be performed by clergy from the BOC”.

The relationship between the state and the BOC is especially problematic when church representatives engage in acts of discrimination. In 2012, in reference to the planning of an LGBT Pride Parade planned to take place in the nation’s capital, Father Evgeni Yanakiev of the BOC was quoted in a national newspaper as saying “Our whole society must, in every possible way, oppose the gay parade that is being planned. For this reason, I appeal to all those who consider themselves Christian and Bulgarians. Throwing stones at gays is an appropriate way”.

On the day of the parade, according to Human Rights Watch three members of parliament were among those “throwing Molotov cocktails and stones”. Previous LGBT parades have been marred and disrupted by violence and threats to violence.

The state and other religions

The state requires religious groups to be registered as legal persons; this affords them the power to decide upon the legitimacy of certain faiths and appears to offer the possibility of state discrimination against religious groups. Dr. John Anderson of Oxford University notes the difficulty in reconciling the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom with the requirement that religions be essentially vetted by the state, a state which maintains a special relationship with one particular Christian denomination. In response to this, the dominant traditional religious institution tends to claim that rather than seeking societal privileges or advantages, they simply desire “recognition of a historical, cultural and religious reality”. Despite these claims, evidence of privilege can be found in the relative allocations of public funds for religious groups. In 2011 the International Coalition for Religious Freedom reported that “of the $1.8million allocated to registered religious groups, $1.4 million is allocated to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church”.

According to the 2013 Human Rights in Bulgaria report by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, there numerous documented examples of discrimination against unofficiated religions, with a particular focus on the activities of Jehova’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). In 2013, a group of Jehova’s Witnesses were prevented from handing out religious brochures as it was seen to be a “threat to national security, health and morale”; the judgement of which was upheld by the Munipal Court.

A populist president

Bulgaria’s president-elect, Rumen Radev, a former Air Force commander with no political experience, is pro-Russian and anti-immigration. He won the apparent support of the Orthodox Church, which itself said that the government should “in no way allow more refugees into our country” on the basis that it wanted to preserve Bulgaria as a God-given country for Orthodox Christians. Though standing as an independent, Radev also won the support of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the demographic base of which leans strongly towards the institutions of the army and the Orthodox Church.

Education and children’s rights

In 2011, former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov spoke during a mass at the St. Prokopiy Varnenski temple and declared support for making Religious Education compulsory in schools. He donated BGN 15,000 (approximately £6000) during the visit, and showed clear bias towards the BOC.

To date public schools offer religious education on an optional basis, with all officially registered religious groups given the option to request that their beliefs be included in the curriculum. Atheist, humanist or other philosophical alternatives are not included.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

In recent times there have been widely documented instances of serious failures concerning the freedoms of expression and the press. According to the World Press Freedom Index 2014, Bulgaria retained its status as the lowest ranked country in the European Union for the consecutive third year. The ranking has likely stemmed from  high levels of political unrest that saw undue political pressure on media outlets, harassment and targeting of individual journalists, and reporters being subject to police violence during protests and demonstrations.

“The [Bulgarian] government has an obligation under human rights law to ensure that media and journalists can operate freely and without interference by the state. Such assaults on journalists put freedom of expression and media freedom at serious risk and require independent investigation and, where appropriate, disciplinary measures against those responsible.”
— Human Rights Watch, July 2013

In response to the widespread publication of leaked files about his business activities in the 1990’s, former Prime Minister Borisov is reported to have threatened:

“What they have done, I can cook it for all of you standing here today. I can order the secret services to launch similar cases for all of you journalists, all of you without exception.”
— Boyko Borisov via Reporters Without Borders, February 2013

According to the 2006 Library of Congress Country Study for Bulgaria, bureaucracy, weak administrative agencies and court backlogs in the registration process were cited as leading to “constitutional protection of defendants’ rights problematic in some instances”.

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