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 except 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 or organizations that incite religious animosity, as well as the use of religious beliefs, institutions, and communities for political ends. 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 ($55 – $165). If a legal entity commits the infraction, the fine may range from 500 to 5,000 levs ($280 – $2,700).
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, 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, 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 country’s highest court. The law does not require the formal registration of local branches of registered groups with the local court, only that branches notify local authorities and local authorities enter them in a register. 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 that a court revoke a religious group’s registration on the grounds of systematic violations of the law. There are 212 registered religious groups in addition to the BOC.
Registered religious groups must maintain a registry of all 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 requires the government to provide funding for all registered religious groups based on the number of self-identified followers in the latest census, at a rate of 10 levs ($5) 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. The law allows registered groups to publish, import, and distribute religious media; it does not address the rights of unregistered groups with regard to such media.
Unregistered religious groups may engage in religious practice, since there is no law prohibiting it, but they lack privileges that the law grants 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 and burial grounds, receive property tax exemptions, and sell religious merchandise.
The law does not restrict proselytizing by registered or unregistered groups. Some local ordinances, however, place restrictions on certain activities of religious groups. Some municipalities, including Kyustendil, Maritsa, Pleven, Razgrad, Sliven, and Varna, prohibit unregistered religious groups from conducting any religious activities. The ordinances in Kyustendil, Maritsa, Pleven, and Shumen prohibit door-to-door proselytizing, and the ones in Kyustendil and Maritsa restrict religious agitation on the street and the distribution of religious literature without a permit. The ordinance in Kyustendil remains in effect despite a 2018 Supreme Administrative Court ruling that it was unconstitutional. Burgas municipality prohibits the wearing of religious dress and symbols of unregistered religious groups.
Some municipalities prohibit religious activities inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children.
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 ($820) for repeat offenses, but officials did not enforce this law.
The law states that every child has “the right to protection from involvement” in religious activities and prescribes that parents or guardians shall determine the religious attitudes of children up to 14 years of age. Between the ages of 14 and 18, youths may determine their religious affiliation or lack thereof by agreement between them and their parents or guardians. If such agreement is not reached, a youth may apply to the relevant regional court to resolve the dispute.
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, provided they meet government standards for secular education, and post-secondary educational institutions that meet the requirements for opening secular higher education institutions.
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. Upon accepting a case, the commission assigns it to a panel that then reviews it in open session. If the commission makes a finding of discrimination, it 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 ombudsperson 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 ombudsperson 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 that 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 ($2,700 – $5,500), as well as “public censure.” The propagation of “fascism or another antidemocratic ideology” is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to 5,000 levs ($2,700). Courts have found that Nazism falls within the purview of “antidemocratic ideology.” 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 ($1,600 – $5,500).
The law provides for restitution of real estate confiscated during the communist era; courts have also applied the law to Holocaust-related claims.
The law allows religious groups to delay, until 2029, paying back outstanding revenue obligations owed to governments, for example, for social insurance payments or garbage collection or other municipal services, incurred before December 31, 2018.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In April, the Supreme Cassation Court, the highest court in the country, overturned the Plovdiv Appellate Court’s 2021 verdict convicting 12 Romani Muslims on charges of supporting ISIS, assisting foreign fighters, propagating Salafi Islam (characterized by the government as an antidemocratic ideology), and incitement to war and returned the case to the Pazardjik District Court for retrial. The Supreme Cassation Court criticized the appellate court for declaratively stating that the defendants had preached religious intolerance to those who do not practice Salafi Islam without specifying and analyzing the expressions they had used that had incited religious hatred as well as for “citing and repeating witness testimony” instead of making a conclusion on the factual situation. In May, the Pazardjik District Court terminated the court proceedings and returned the case to the local prosecution service for correction of procedural flaws.
As of year’s end, a prosecutor at the Sofia District Court was appealing the Samokov Regional Court’s acquittal of Church of God-Bulgaria pastor Nikolay Vasilev, whom authorities charged in 2020 with holding an Easter service in breach of the COVID-19-related ban on public gatherings. Administrative proceedings in the Samokov Regional Court regarding fines imposed on other Church of God-Bulgaria officials relating to the same event were also pending.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that implementation of restrictions on their religious practices by municipalities with discriminatory regulations was uneven. In June, the Pleven Municipality revoked its regulation prohibiting what it referred to as “religious agitation” in public places through the distribution of pamphlets. Jehovah’s Witnesses said a 2021 Supreme Administrative Court decision that a Shumen Municipality ordinance restricting door-to-door proselytizing did not violate the country’s constitution risked subjecting followers to discrimination and aggression. As of year’s end, the group’s November 2021 appeal before the ECHR stating that the ordinance was in direct violation of the European Convention on Human Rights remained undecided.
Following two incident-free years, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a negative campaign against their members in Varna by the Vazrazhdane political party, described by NGOs as ultranationalist, after they resumed their public proselytizing following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. On July 28, four Vazrazhdane members, including Varna municipal council member Georgi Georgiev, approached two Jehovah’s Witnesses sharing religious literature and challenged their right to proselytize. They filmed the incident and posted the content online. On the same day, Georgiev addressed a meeting of the municipal council, expressing doubt about the legality of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and called on the local government to revoke their permits for the use of literature carts on the streets. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that subsequently the city denied their request to renew the expired permits.
In its 2022 annual report issued in November, the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated 44 municipalities had ordinances restricting religious activities. Other sources stated that this determination was based on information that was four to five years old and since that time some municipalities had dropped these restrictions voluntarily or as the result of court action, while others had adopted restrictions since then. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said they were appealing more than 30 citations for violating these municipal ordinances, which were enforced with fines. Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to state that the legal requirement for reporting to the government the names and contact information of all of those in a ministerial capacity violated the freedom of nondeclaration of religious affiliation provided by the constitution as well as EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights.
In December, the ECHR ruled that the government had violated evangelical Christians’ right to religious freedom in 2008 when the Municipality of Burgas issued a circular to school administrators in the city describing evangelical Christians as “dangerous religious cults” that expose their participants to “psychological disorders.” The court ordered the government to pay €2,500 ($2,700) each to the individual plaintiffs and €3,000 ($3,200) each to the plaintiff associations. The government had not made the payments by years’ end.
According to the Office of the Grand Mufti, Sofia Municipality continued to reject, on what the office said were nontransparent grounds, its request to build a new mosque. Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji said he had raised the issue during the year in several meetings with Sofia Mayor Fandakova, including in March and October, but as of year’s end, the mayor’s office had not provided any information on the reasons for the city’s continued rejection of construction applications.
The Office of the Grand Mufti said it was continuing to search for ways to litigate its recognition as the successor to all pre-1949 Muslim religious communities for the purpose of reclaiming properties such as mosques, schools, baths, and a cemetery seized by the former communist government. The issue is complicated by a legal dispute between the Muslim Denomination, led by the Grand Mufti, and the Muslim Sunni Hanafi Denomination regarding the legitimate successor to the organization that had represented Muslims prior to 1949. Pending a decision on the rightful successor to the Muslim religious communities, some courts resumed action on restitution claims by the Office of the Grand Mufti after years of suspension. In August, the Razgrad District Court rejected the Office of the Grand Mufti’s restitution claim regarding the central Ibrahim Pasa Mosque in Razgrad, refusing to recognize the office as the proven successor.
In June, the Office of the Grand Mufti voiced a strong concern about a recent fire at the historic Kursun Mosque in Karlovo, which destroyed its wooden front door. In a press release, the office expressed regret that the local government and the Ministry of Culture took what it said was very poor care of the landmark mosque and reiterated its call for the mosque’s restitution. On December 20, the Plovdiv Appellate Court ruled against the Office of the Grand Mufti’s claim, which had been initiated in 2012 against Karlovo Municipality, regarding ownership of the mosque due to the impossibility of restituting public municipal property. The court, however, recognized that the Muslim group was the rightful successor to the Muslim community that owned the mosque prior to 1944.
In February, the Supreme Cassation Court overturned lower court rulings rejecting a restitution claim by the International Missionary Society Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement regarding a plot of land and part of a house built on it in Sofia. The court, finding that the disputed land had not been properly identified as a unique parcel and that the lower courts had disregarded the group’s claim on the house, returned the case to the Sofia City Court for review.
In February, the Ministry of Justice sent a letter to the Varna municipality submitting an action plan to implement a 2020 ECHR decision that the city of Varna’s obstruction of the construction of a Kingdom Hall contravened the rules of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ruling reversed the decisions of local courts and the municipality denying Jehovah’s Witnesses permission to build a place of worship in Varna. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that as of the end of the year, despite the ministry’s instructions, the local government in Varna continued to obstruct the group’s attempts to start construction work.
The national public school elective curriculum continued to provide for three sets of classes in religious studies at various grade levels: one for Orthodox Christianity, one for Islam, and one for “good morals” (nondenominational) developed by the Protestant NGO Bible League. There were approved official school textbooks for students from first to 12th grade on Orthodox Christianity and Islam and textbooks on nonconfessional religious education from first to fourth grade.
The Office of the Grand Mufti and the Evangelical Alliance continued to express concerns that they would imminently have to close their religious academies because they lacked the resources to meet the legal requirement for bringing the academies up to university standards, such as full-time faculty for at least 70 percent of the courses, suitable facilities, library, and research facilities.
In August, B’nai B’rith Bulgaria issued a declaration protesting the Sofia Municipality’s tentative decision to erect a monument to former mayor of Sofia Ivan Ivanov, who served in that post from 1934 to 1944, citing his record of supporting Nazi Germany and its ideology.
On February 12, minutes before its scheduled start, Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova canceled the so-called Lukov March honoring General Hristo Lukov, the 1940s antisemitic, pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions leader. In cancelling the march, she cited the potential risk to public order due to the march’s scheduled overlap with several sports events. In anticipation of such a development, given that the mayor had cancelled the march in 2021 after it had begun, members of the rally organizer, the Bulgarian National Union-Edelweiss, obtained approval from the municipality for protests against soaring prices at three locations in the city, which they used as starting points for three individual processions, ultimately gathering approximately 450 participants from the three locations at Lukov’s house for a commemorative ceremony. In 2021, approximately 50 participants took part in a similar ceremony at Lukov’s house. Visitors that observers described as right-wing extremists from France, Germany, North Macedonia, and Serbia took part, along with local participants. Both ruling and opposition parties, including We Continue the Change, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Democratic Bulgaria, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions denounced the rally. In April, the Sofia Appellate Court upheld a lower court decision rejecting the prosecutor’s attempt to deregister the rally organizer. The court ruled that the prosecutor failed to provide evidence of incitement of ethnic, racial, and religious hostility or other unconstitutional activity.
Despite the legal ban on the propagation of fascism or other antidemocratic ideologies, authorities rarely enforced the law and souvenirs with Nazi insignias were available in tourist areas around the country. In September, the NGO Shalom posted information on social media, expressing gratitude to the Education Inspectorate in Sofia for its initiative to clean swastikas and offensive graffiti off facades in the Yavorov neighborhood in close proximity to schools and preschools.
In June, the National Assembly approved compensation to the Muslim community for increased electrical power expenses, awarding five million levs ($2.7 million) to the BOC and 800,000 levs ($437,200), but nothing to other registered religious groups.
The national budget allocated 45.64 million levs ($24.9 million) to registered religious groups for current expenses, such as employee and cleric salaries, educational activities, cemetery maintenance, and capital investments, such as construction and maintenance of religious facilities and related expenses, compared with 42.65 million levs ($23.3 million) in 2021. Of the 45.64 million, 39.37 million levs ($21.5 million) went to the BOC; 5.77 million levs ($3.1 million) to the Muslim community; 200,000 levs ($109,300) to the Catholic Church; 160,000 levs ($87,400) to Protestant denominations; and 70,000 levs ($38,300) each to the AAOC and the Jewish community. No other registered religious groups received government funding. Evangelical Alliance representatives again said Protestants did not receive their fair share of government funding, possibly, according to the Religious Affairs Directorate, because they were not represented by a single organization, even though their numbers exceeded 1 percent of the population. Instead of distributing a lump sum to Protestants, the Religious Affairs Directorate held the subsidy allocated for Protestants and allocated portions of it (typically only for construction and repairs) to whichever denomination sent a request.
In April during Ramadan, President Rumen Radev hosted an iftar for multiple religious groups, including the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Muslim Denomination, the Evangelical Alliance, the Catholic Exarchy, the Central Israelite Religious Council, and the AAOC, which he said was a symbol of “good will, mutual understanding, and cooperation among religious groups” and promoted interfaith and interagency dialogue. In April, the President met with Jewish community leaders, which he said highlighted his “respect for the religious traditions of all citizens,” and extended best wishes for Passover.
In April, Shalom expressed “strong concern about antisemitic and anti-Israeli slogans used at a demonstration organized by Vazrazhdane that compared the Star of David to a swastika.
On November 2, the caretaker government passed a decision establishing the national coordinator on combating antisemitism as a permanent position assigned to a deputy minister of foreign affairs designated by the minister. The decision replaced the previous one from 2017, which appointed the coordinator by name, creating periods of vacancy during interim governments. Later that month, the government named Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Velislava Petrova as the new coordinator.
To mark Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the Council of Ministers issued a statement praising society, the Orthodox Church, and politicians for preventing the deportation of local Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Speaker of Parliament Nikola Minchev noted the role of 43 members of parliament in protecting the Jewish community during World War II.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.