The constitution states freedom of conscience and choice of religion or no religion are inviolable, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the state shall assist in maintaining tolerance and respect among believers of different denominations, as well as between believers and nonbelievers. It states the practice of any religion shall be unrestricted and religious beliefs, institutions, and communities shall not be used for political ends. It restricts freedom of religion to the extent its practice would be detrimental to national security, public order, health, and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. It states no one shall be exempt from obligations established by the constitution or the law on grounds of religious or other convictions. The constitution also stipulates the separation of religious institutions from the state and prohibits the formation of political parties along religious lines, as well as organizations that incite religious animosity. The law does not allow any privilege based on religious identity.
The constitution names Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s traditional religion. The law establishes the BOC as a legal entity, exempting it from the court registration that is mandatory for all other religious groups seeking legal recognition.
The penal code prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for persons attacking individuals or groups based on their religious affiliation. Instigators and leaders of an attack may receive prison sentences of up to six years. Those who obstruct the ability of individuals to profess their faith, carry out their rituals and services, or compel another to participate in religious rituals and services may receive prison sentences of up to one year. Violating a person’s or group’s freedom to acquire or practice a religious belief is subject to a fine of between 100 and 300 levs ($57-$170). If a legal entity commits the infraction, the fine may range from 500 to 5,000 levs ($290-$2,900).
To receive national legal recognition, religious groups other than the BOC must register with the Sofia City Court. Applications must include: the group’s name and official address; a description of the group’s religious beliefs and service practices, organizational structure and bodies, management procedures, bodies, and mandates; a list of official representatives and the processes for their election; procedures for convening meetings and making decisions; and information on finances and property and processes for termination and liquidation of the group. The Directorate for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers provides expert opinions on registration matters upon the court’s request. Applicants must notify the Directorate for Religious Affairs within seven days of receiving a court decision on their registration. Applicants may appeal negative registration decisions to the Sofia Appellate Court and, subsequently, the Supreme Cassation Court. The law does not require the formal registration of local branches of registered groups, only that branches notify the local authorities, and local authorities enter them in a register. Local branches are not required to obtain registration from the local court. The law prohibits registration of different groups with the same name in the same location. The Directorate for Religious Affairs and any prosecutor may request a court revoke a religious group’s registration on the grounds of systematic violations of the law. There are 191 registered religious groups in addition to the BOC.
The law requires the government to provide funding for all registered religious groups based on the number of self-identified followers in the latest census (2011), on a scale of 10 levs ($6) per capita to groups that comprise more than 1 percent of the population, and varying amounts for the rest.
Registered groups have the right to perform religious services; maintain financial accounts; own property such as houses of worship and cemeteries; provide medical, social, and educational services; receive property tax and other exemptions; and participate in commercial ventures.
Unregistered religious groups may engage in religious practice, but they lack privileges granted to registered groups, such as access to government funding and the right to own property, establish financial accounts in their names, operate schools and hospitals, receive property tax exemptions, and sell religious merchandise.
The law restricts the wearing of face-covering garments in public places, imposing a fine of 200 levs ($110) for a first offense and 1,500 levs ($860) for repeat offenses.
The law allows registered groups to publish, import, and distribute religious media; unregistered groups may not do so. The law does not restrict proselytizing by registered or unregistered groups. Some municipal ordinances, however, restrict the activities of unregistered groups to proselytize, including going door-to-door, and require local permits for distribution of religious literature in public places.
By law, public schools at all levels may, but are not required to, teach the historical, philosophical, and cultural aspects of religion and introduce students to the moral values of different religious groups as part of the core curriculum. A school may teach any registered religion in a special course as part of the elective curriculum upon request of at least 13 students, subject to the availability of books and teachers. The Ministry of Education and Science approves the content of and provides books for these special religion courses. If a public school is unable to pay for a religion teacher, it may accept financial sponsorship from a private donor or a teacher from a registered denomination. The law also allows registered religious groups to operate schools and universities, provided they meet government standards for secular education.
The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent government body charged with preventing and protecting against discrimination, including religious discrimination, and ensuring equal opportunity. It functions as a civil litigation court adjudicating discrimination complaints and does not charge for its services. The commission’s decisions may be appealed to administrative courts. If the commission accepts a case, it assigns it to a panel and then reviews it in open session. If it makes a finding of discrimination, the commission may impose a fine of 250 to 2,000 levs ($140-$1,100). The commission may double fines for repeat violations. Regional courts may also try civil cases involving religious discrimination.
The law establishes an independent ombudsman to serve as an advocate for citizens who believe public or municipal administrations or public service providers have violated their rights and freedoms, including those pertaining to religion, through their actions or inaction. The ombudsman may request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals for terminating existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request the Constitutional Court abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.
The penal code provides up to three years’ imprisonment for forming “a political organization on religious grounds” or using a church or religion to spread propaganda against the authority of the state or its activities.
The penal code prohibits the propagation or incitement of religious or other discrimination, violence, or hatred “by speech, press or other media, by electronic information systems or in another manner,” as well as religiously motivated assault or property damage. Either offense is punishable by imprisonment for one to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 10,000 levs ($2,900-$5,700), as well as “public censure.” Desecration of religious symbols or sites, including places of worship or graves, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 to 10,000 levs ($1,700-$5,700).
Registered religious groups must maintain a registry of their clergy and employees, provide the Directorate for Religious Affairs with access to the registry, and issue a certificate to each clerical member, who must carry it as proof of representing the group. Foreign members of registered religious groups may obtain long-term residency permits, but for the foreign member to be allowed to conduct religious services during his or her stay, the group must send advance notice to the Directorate for Religious Affairs.
The law provides for restitution of real estate confiscated during the communist era; courts have also applied the law to Holocaust-related claims.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On December 10, the Pazardjik District Court ruled on a case against 14 Romani Muslims, sentencing their leader, Islamic preacher Ahmed Mussa, to 8.5 years in prison. Twelve defendants received prison sentences ranging from 12 to 42 months, and the only woman in the group received a two-year suspended sentence. The trial against Mussa and his followers began in 2016 on charges of supporting ISIS, assisting foreign fighters, and propagating Salafi Islam, characterized by the government as an antidemocratic ideology, and incitement to war.
In April the Supreme Cassation Court rendered a final judgement in a separate case against 13 Muslim leaders, including Ahmed Mussa, upholding the Plovdiv Appellate Court’s sentences of one year suspended and a 3,000 lev ($1,700) fine for Sarnitsa Imam Said Mutlu; 10 months suspended and a 3,000 lev ($1,700) fine for Pazardjik Mufti Abdullah Salih; and one year in prison for Ahmed Mussa, who will serve four years due to a prior three-year suspended sentence for spreading radical ideology. In its ruling, the court stated that in his Friday sermons, Mussa preached hatred against Christians, Jews, and all other non-Islamic religions. In 2012 the 13 Muslim leaders were charged with spreading Salafi Islam, which the lower court prosecution characterized as an antidemocratic ideology, and for membership in an illegal radical organization. The court levied fines on the other nine defendants ranging from 1,500 to 2,000 levs ($860-$1,100) and found one individual not guilty. In 2016 the Supreme Cassation Court had vacated the guilty verdict against Mussa and rescinded the fines against the 12 other Muslims, ordering the Plovdiv Appellate Court to retry the case.
In August the government granted registration to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, thereby respecting a 2017 judgement by the European Court of Human Rights that the government had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by denying the group’s registration application.
In July the Smolyan Regional Court imposed a one-year suspended sentence, a 5,000 lev ($2,900) fine, and public censure (notice of the punishment published or publicly displayed) on Efrem Mollov for propagating ethnic and religious hatred in his book, Is There Future for Great Bulgaria or Why Pomak History Remains Hidden. The court found the book distorted history by glorifying Pomaks at the expense of other citizens of the country.
In addition to the annual funding allocations, 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. A rival group to the Muslim Denomination, the Muslim Sunni Hanafi Denomination led by Nedim Gendjev, stated that it was entitled to the government subsidy because “Sunni” is part of its name and the majority of Bulgarian Muslims identify as “Sunni.” Evangelical Alliance representatives said Protestants were not treated fairly because even though their overall numbers exceeded 1 percent, they did not receive a matching amount in government subsidies, possibly because they were not represented in a single organization.
The national budget allocated 5.5 million levs ($3.2 million) for the construction and maintenance of religious facilities and related expenses compared with 5 million levs ($2.9 million) in 2018. This included 4.1 million levs ($2.4 million) for the BOC; 460,000 levs ($264,000) for the Muslim community; and 70,000 levs ($40,200) each for the Catholic Church, AAOC, and the Jewish community. The budget allocated 120,000 levs ($68,900) for other registered religious groups that had applied for funds to the Directorate for Religious Affairs, and as of July the directorate had distributed 58,000 levs ($33,300) among seven groups. The government’s budget also allocated 350,000 levs ($201,000) for the maintenance of religious facilities of national importance, 60,000 levs ($34,500) for the publication of religious books and research, and 40,000 levs ($23,000) to support interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and the prevention of discrimination. The budget kept 160,000 levs ($91,900) in reserve.
In March the National Assembly passed legislation allowing religious groups up to 10 years to pay back outstanding revenue obligations incurred before December 31, 2018. This benefitted the Muslim Denomination, which owed 8.1 million levs ($4.7 million), and the BOC, which owed 160,000 levs ($91,900). The ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) Party had proposed completely forgiving the debts, but the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party opposed the move. The amendment specified that state-provided subsidies could not be used to repay the debts.
Jehovah’s Witnesses said the legal requirement for reporting to the government the names and contact information of all clerics violated the freedom of nondeclaration of religious affiliation guaranteed by the constitution.
Minority religious groups reported dozens of municipalities, including the regional cities of Kyustendil, Shumen, and Sliven, continued to have ordinances prohibiting door-to-door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature. Several municipalities, including Kyustendil and Sliven, prohibited unregistered religious groups from conducting any religious activities. During the year, however, the municipalities of Varna and Vratsa revoked their restrictions on unregistered religious groups following a court order, and the Pleven municipality lifted its restrictions voluntarily.
Jehovah’s Witnesses said that, as a result of the group’s pursuing successful lawsuits in the past two years, fewer municipalities had ordinances restricting their religious activities, including preventing them from expressing their religious convictions in public by distributing free printed materials, which the ordinances termed “religious agitation on city streets,” and from visiting individuals at their homes, which the ordinances characterized as “religious propaganda.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses continued, however, to report instances in which police or local government officials fined, threatened, warned, or issued citations to individual Jehovah’s Witnesses for violating these ordinances. They said in some instances municipalities acted as a result of citizen complaints and imposed fines or otherwise restricted Jehovah’s Witnesses’ street activity even though city ordinances did not specifically prohibit the activity. Courts generally annulled these fines when Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed them.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on January 5 in Kyustendil, two police officers approached three Jehovah’s Witnesses while they were talking to others about their faith using a portable literature cart. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the officers asked the group to show its permit for the cart, even though such a permit is not required by law. Because the group did not have a permit, the officers took the cart. The group returned later in the day with another literature cart. A municipal security officer seized the second cart and its contents. After the group filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, the prosecutor concluded the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not committed a criminal offense and ordered the return of the carts and literature.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on April 5, a police officer and three municipal clerks approached three Jehovah’s Witnesses who were sharing their faith with persons on the street in Turgovishte, issued them a notice for violating the regulation banning religious “advertising,” and threatened to fine them if the municipality continued to receive complaints about their activity.
In August the Supreme Administrative Court determined that a Shumen municipality ordinance restricting proselytizing violated the country’s constitution and declared it null and void. As of year’s end, the municipality had not complied with the court decision. The Supreme Administrative Court in 2018 ruled similar ordinances in Stara Zagora and Kyustendil municipalities restricting proselytizing were unconstitutional and revoked them, but these municipalities had not complied with the court’s decision as of year’s end.
In May the government allocated 500,000 levs ($287,000) in funding for construction of a BOC church in Varna, and the Sofia Municipal Council allocated 204,500 levs ($117,000) for repair and construction of three BOC churches and one AAOC church.
In December the Supreme Administrative Court confirmed a lower court’s ruling in favor of the Catholic Church’s appeal of a property tax assessment issued by the Sofia municipality, which had declined to recognize the religious status of two monasteries located in the municipality, treating them instead as taxable residential buildings.
The Office of the Grand Mufti and regional Muslim leaders said several municipalities, including Sofia, Stara Zagora, Razgrad, and Haskovo, had declined on nontransparent grounds Muslim requests to build new or to rehabilitate existing religious facilities. According to Grand Mufti Hadji, local officials in Stara Zagora threatened to bring a court action against the grand mufti’s office if it pursued its plan to build a multipurpose center, including a prayer house, on land purchased by the local Muslim community. According to former Razgrad mayor Valentin Vasilev, the national government provided a 2,374,836 lev ($1.4 million) grant for renovation of the landmark Makbul Ibrahim Pasa Mosque, which in turn justified the local government’s intention to convert the mosque into an Islamic museum and tourist attraction rather than allow it to be a functioning mosque. The mayor stated that constructing a prayer house would provoke local ethnic and political tensions. The Razgrad mufti said he would continue to negotiate with the newly elected mayor to reopen the mosque.
According to media reports, on October 7, parents disrupted classes in schools in Sliven, Topolchane, Karnobat, Yambol, Sungurlare, and Sofia and took their children home to prevent their rumored removal by social services, which the parents said could occur if the government passed a new draft child protection strategy. Critics of the draft law said it could provide the government with more authority to remove children from their families. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Minister of Education Krasimir Valchev accused some evangelical and other Protestant pastors of spreading the false rumor. The Minister of Education said, “We cannot say for certain who was the source of misinformation…. Not all pastors from the region were involved, but we heard reports. We still don’t know if they are Evangelicals or Protestants.” In a public declaration, the United Evangelical Churches (UEC) – a group representing nine individual Protestant churches and three unions of Pentecostal, Baptist, and Congregational Churches – expressed “great bitterness” regarding Prime Minister Borissov’s and Minister Valchev’s statements and deplored any negative aspersions cast on the reputation of any of the nine entities in the UEC. The UEC denied any involvement of its members and said Protestant pastors played a positive role in enhancing the social and educational status of their Roma congregations.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), both members of the United Patriots coalition, did not continue what they said was a negative media campaign against the group, a development which the Jehovah’s Witnesses said was likely due to their successful lawsuits against those political parties. In March the Supreme Cassation Court reversed a lower court judgment and imposed fines on seven IMRO members, including IMRO regional leader Georgi Drakaliev, for instigating and participating in an attack on the Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Burgas in 2011 in which several worshipers were injured.
Souvenirs exhibiting Nazi insignias continued to be widely available in tourist areas around the country. B’nai B’rith stated that local governments lacked political will to deal with the problem.
In May President Rumen Radev and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ekaterina Zaharieva hosted religious leaders representing the six groups on the National Council of Religious Communities, together with politicians, academics, and diplomats, at iftar receptions, where they highlighted tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In April Zaharieva hosted a Passover dinner for local and regional members of the Jewish community, a variety of other religious leaders, civil society representatives, politicians, and diplomats from member countries of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
The national public school elective curriculum continued to provide three religious studies programs: one for Christianity, one for Islam, and one for all religions as ethical systems.
In September the first Jewish school opened in Sofia in more than 20 years, funded by the Ronald S Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The new school builds on the Lauder Foundation’s previous work sponsoring Hebrew and Jewish studies curriculum through the public 134th School Dimcho Debelyanov.
History teachers continued to receive training on the Holocaust, based on a 2016 memorandum between the Ministry of Education and Israel’s Yad Vashem. In February, as part of Sofia municipality’s City of Tolerance and Wisdom program, Shalom, the umbrella organization of Jews in the country, and the NGO Marginalia hosted a workshop on enhanced methods of teaching the Holocaust for 22 history teachers from Sofia schools.
In November the country became a full member of the IHRA. Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev served as the national coordinator for combating anti-Semitism.