Honorable Secretary of State Pompeo,
Dear colleagues and friends,
Allow me to express my sincere gratitude to the Department of State of the United States for organizing for a second consecutive time this event dedicated to the advance of religious freedom. It is my great honour to address the participants of this high-level segment of the meeting that will provide a stimulating exchange of thoughts and good practices that will help us renew our determination to effectively promote a value of fundamental importance to all people around the world.
The Republic of Bulgaria places great importance on upholding and protecting the freedom of religion and expression and welcomes all initiatives aimed at spreading these universal values worldwide. The 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington resulted in the Potomac Declaration and Plan of Action, which offer excellent guidelines to ensure equal protection under the law regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. The Republic of Bulgaria has carefully examined the documents and is currently working on implementing its provisions.
From a legal point of view in December 2018, after discussion with competent institutions, civil society and international organizations, including religious organizations, the Religious Denominations Act was amended to incorporate changes in the mechanism for public subsidies of the religious institutions. Now, religious denominations may also be funded from abroad, even if they already receive a state subsidy. They are not obliged to declare their donations to the state.
Additionally, all debts of registered religious denominations have been deferred, in order to avoid any impediment of the exercise of citizens’ freedom of religion and belief.
Bulgaria supports the calls of the Potomac Plan of Action for encouraging the importance of diversity, tolerance and pluralism, as well as respect for everyone’s right to freedom of religion and belief, and the promotion of a general understanding of world religions to reduce harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes.
In this spirit in Apirl 2019, for a second consecutive time the Foreign Minister, hosted a Passover dinner. The event gathered representatives of the Bulgarian Jewish community, leaders of other religious communities, leaders of the Jewish communities in the Balkan countries, civil society representatives, politicians and members of the diplomatic corpus in Sofia, thus turning the initiative into a traditional event of religious tolerance. The gathering of four Balkan Jewish communities is seen as a symbolic step toward building bridges and coalitions.
In addition, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President of Bulgaria also host Iftar dinners for representatives of the religious denominations in Bulgaria and members of diplomatic corps in Bulgaria. The dinners on the occasion of Ramadan promote dialogue and tolerance between different religions in Bulgaria.
In October 2017, the Bulgarian Government took a decision to adopt and apply the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “Working Definition on Antisemitism” and to appoint me as a national coordinator on combating antisemitism. The national coordinator works with relevant ministries and state authorities, as well as with civil society organizations, to coordinate policies and actions for preventing and countering all manifestations of antisemitism and to assure the application of the IHRA working definition. The decision of the Government to appoint a national coordinator aims to further address the needs of the Jewish community with respect to their security and rights of religious freedom.
Through our experience in the last two years and in implementation of the provisions of the Potomac Declaration and its Plan of Action, we are currently discussing the possibility to appoint a Focal Point on Freedom of Religion and Belief on a seignior level within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This effort is aimed at strengthening the capacity of the Bulgarian diplomatic service and the state as a whole to guarantee and defend freedom of religion and belief both within the country, but also internationally.
Many of the positive examples shared with you today are also noted within the annual Report on International Religious Freedom of the Department of State. Nevertheless, Bulgaria acknowledges all recommendations and examples on sporadic religious intolerance or discrimination in the country. The Government and the relevant institutions are working closely with all partners, including the US, in promoting all necessary measures for securing the religious freedom.
In this regard, Bulgaria is pleased to share that a National Council of Religious Communities operates in the state, with representatives of the main religious denominations. I would like to inform you that last week we held a meeting with the Council and discussed the possibility to organize a conference in 2019 of all National Religious Councils of the Balkan countries. The meeting will include representatives of the National Religious Councils of the Republic of North Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Greece and Turkey. We consider this forthcoming event as an excellent continuation of the government’s policies towards the countries of the Western Balkans that would urge a whole region to strengthen its efforts in terms of religious tolerance and understanding.
The meeting in Sofia will present an excellent opportunity for the members of the Religious Councils of the invited Balkan countries to present their activities, exchange good practices and foster beneficial relationships. We expect that this meeting will grow into a sustainable initiative with the creation of a Permanent Forum that would be held annually in different states in the region.
To conclude, I would like to reiterate Bulgaria’s strong support for the work of the State Department in the field of the implementation of the highest international standards aiming at promoting and protecting the freedom of religion and belief. Bulgaria remains committed to continue working jointly with all countries represented at this high-level meeting.