Changes to the Bulgarian Religious Law as of 01.01.2019: A Step Backwards from Freedom of Religion and Conscience
Written by Viktor Kostov
Protest of evangelical Christians in late December 2018 against the restrictive proposal for changes in the nation’s religious law. The sign reads: The Law on Religions Does Not Guarantee National Security (Photo courtesy of the website: actualno.com).
Law for the Amendment and Supplements on Law on Religions, State Gazette, nos. 108 of 29.12.2018, enacted as of 01.01.2019 – A Step Backwards from Freedom of Religion and Conscience
The Law for the Amendments to the Religious Denominations Act (LASLR, adopted in 2002, last amended and supplemented as of 29.12.2018) was published in the State Gazette and entered into law as of January 1, 2019. A detailed analysis and comments are forthcoming. The law was hastily voted in right before the end of the year by the Bulgarian parliament, after months of opposition, letters of concern by foreign officials, organizations and individuals, and street protests and prayer vigils by protestant-evangelical churches.
Our conclusion, quite briefly, is that the vast majority of the most restrictive, utterly totalitarian texts were not accepted in the final version.* This is an extremely important achievement for free civil society and the human rights activists involved, including the evangelical churches and all the religious denominations. Problematic texts, however, do exist in the newly adopted amendments.
Reasons for concern are the provisions that require religious denominations to maintain a registry of their clergymen and provide this to the public authorities for review. This requirement is reminiscent of the Communist Denominations Act, which required the maintenance of such registers to control and exert pressure on ministers and preachers related to their convictions and sermons.
It is also problematic that the state mandates as to how priests and clergy should legitimize themselves in order to represent the respective religious denominations they serve. The “representative power” is a part of the internal organization of religions and cannot be governed by the State under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Guidelines for the Adoption of Religious Legislation adopted by the Venice Commission and the Office for Democracy and Human Rights at the OSCE.
There is another purely communist-Nazi style approach to control and discriminate against foreign clergymen. This is the requirement to notify the state if a non-Bulgarian clergy member participates in a worship service. Foreign clergymen can participate in the worship service “after the Directorate on Religions has been notified. When “participation” means to be “present during worship,” then only the mere presence of an individual is sufficient to apply this administrative burdensome requirement. Registered religious denominations will first have to notify the state and then admit the foreign clergyman to the worship service. If there is no such notification, in order to comply with this law, the foreign clergyman must listen to the worship service outside of the building where it is held. Such provisions establish unlawful discrimination on multiple grounds and are adopted in violation of the Protection against Discrimination Act (religion and national origin).
The administrative burden for religious denominations has increased giving religious denominations only seven days after their registration to file the decision for registration by the court with the Directorate on Religions. In an age of “e-government”, the seeming inability for communication between the Sofia City Court and the Council of Ministers to provide this information as a part of the internal information exchange between government bodies is only an excuse for further harassment of the religious communities that register as religious denominations.
The strange requirement to not use a sound system in open-air religious activities is formulated in a rather vague and confusing fashion but has managed to be entered into the new law.
Under a typical state-political model, so-called “big denominations” will receive a subsidy by the state. But funding seems to be the smallest problem of all the adopted changes – although it is absurd for taxpayers to be charged a tax to fund religious beliefs that they do not share (as is the practice with political parties).
It is yet to be established what action is to be taken by the denominations and by the Protestant churches in view of the restrictive texts adopted in the LASLR 2018. Despite the victory won for freedom of religion due to exclusion of the most extreme proposals in these amendments by the legislature, the remaining restrictive texts adopted into law are a retreat from the principles of freedom of conscience and religion in a democratic and free society. They are an expression of a totalitarian and discriminatory state attitude towards religion and freedom of expression and are in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
*Note: Our group, Freedom for All, actively opposed the bill, as we were representing 12 evangelical-protestant denominations. Briefly our contribution was that we entered a Declaration on May 28 into parliament, a petition supporting the Declaration of almost 10,000 people worldwide, in November, published a 15-page legal Analysis of the bills, and participated in workgroup meetings at the commission on religions and human rights in parliament, and in a number of TV shows denouncing the philosophy of the bill and its specific restrictive provisions. We also filed an application to request the Venice Commission opinion addressing it to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, on behalf of the 12 denominations; our thanks go to ADF Europe for their excellent counsel and help with the application.