Last Updated 28 October 2020

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”.

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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”.1http://www.parliament.bg/en/const

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”.2legirel.cnrs.fr/spip.php?article540&lang=fr; biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/rss/33-4_315.pdf

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”. In addition to the annual funding allocations, in 2018 the government allotted 25.77 million levs ($14.8 million) to the BOC and the Muslim community in accordance with legislation that passed in 2018 and entered into force during the year stipulating religious groups would receive 10 levs ($6) per follower identified in the 2011 census if the overall number of followers of that religion exceeded 1 percent of the country’s population.3religiousfreedom.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=198&Itemid=29

In 2016, Bulgaria imposed a nationwide ban on the wearing of face veils in public, including the burqa and the niqab. Women who do not comply with the ban face fines as well as the suspension of social benefits.4https://www.reuters.com/article/us-religion-burqa-bulgaria/bulgaria-bans-full-face-veils-in-public-places-idUSKCN1201FV

A populist president

Bulgaria’s president, 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.5novinite.com/articles/170996/Bulgaria+Should+Not+Let+More+Migrants+In,+Orthodox+Church+Says

Education and children’s rights

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.

Sex education is not mandatory, and according to research just 10 percent of schools teach sex education.

Family, community and society

Gender Equality

Bulgaria has not ratified the Istanbul Convention. Following a sustained campaign by far-right groups a 2018 Constitutional Court issued a damaging ruling declaring the Convention to be unconstitutional.6https://balkaninsight.com/2018/07/27/bulgaria-s-constitutional-court-says-istanbul-convention-not-in-line-with-basic-law-07-27-2018/ In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women stressed that the campaign against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention had led to the creation of an “anti-gender movement” that resulted in attacks on women and on all those providing services to victims of violence.

Of all 28 EU member states, Bulgaria fared worst in a 2017 European Institute for Gender Equality analysis of the prevalence, severity, and under-reporting of violence against women. Over 30 percent of Bulgarian women in a 2016 study reported experiencing domestic or other gender violence.7https://balkaninsight.com/2016/09/28/gender-based-violence-in-bulgaria-widespread-underreported-experts-warn-09-27-2016/

LGBTQ+ Rights

In its ruling on the Istanbul Convention, the Bulgarian Constitutional Court found that the Istanbul Convention’s use of “gender” as a social construct contravened Bulgaria’s Constitution, which specifies a binary understanding of “sex”– male and female – that is “determined at birth.”8https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/10/10/speak-out-protect-bulgarias-women

Bulgaria does not recognise same-sex relationships and same-sex marriages are banned. In 2012, in reference to the planning of an LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ parades have been marred and disrupted by violence and threats to violence.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Bulgaria has the lowest standards of press freedom in Europe, according to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.9https://rsf.org/en/bulgaria Pro-government news outlets dominate the media landscape. When independent Bulgarian journalists are subject to harassment and threats, critics say that the government does not strongly condemn or curtail these attacks, creating a climate of impunity.

Corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs is widespread. The Bulgarian press has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of one man: Delyan Peevski. Reporters Without Borders believes that Peevski controls roughly 80% of Bulgaria’s media market. Peevski is also a member of parliament for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and has close ties to Prime Minister Boyko Borrisov.

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