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Septembre 2023: The Russian Church in Sofia: from a spy scandal to contested property
In September 2023, the Bulgarian state accused of espionage activities the three foreign clerics serving (...)

  • Septembre 2023: The Russian Church in Sofia: from a spy scandal to contested property

In September 2023, the Bulgarian state accused of espionage activities the three foreign clerics serving at the Russian church St Nicholas the Miracle Doer in Sofia. One of them was from Russia, while the other two were from Belarus. Their deportation provoked the outrage of the Russian ambassador to Bulgaria, who locked down the small church.

This act provoked intensive debates in Bulgarian society. While some supported the behaviour of the Bulgarian government, others accused it of serving Western interests, betraying Orthodoxy, and restricting the religious rights of Bulgarians. Amidst the dispute, Bulgarian media published a copy of a notary act of 1997, which recognised the Russian Embassy in Sofia as the owner of St Nicholas Church. The new information redirected public interest from the political to the legal aspects of the case. Two questions emerged. The first was about the legal validity of the Russian Embassy ownership rights, while the second was about the canonical jurisdiction over St Nicholas Church.

As the church was originally built as part of the Russian imperial embassy in Sofia, one could assume that it belongs to the present Russian embassy. Yet, this reasoning fails to take into account the interrupted diplomatic relations between Russia and Bulgaria after the Bolshevik revolution. Besides, when Bulgaria entered into diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1934, the Kremlin Commissars did not consider themselves as heirs of the Russian Empire. Moreover, during the 1934 Istanbul negotiations between the Soviet and Bulgarian diplomats, the former did not claim property rights over the old Russian ambassadorial church. In this regard, their only condition regarding the temple was to stop its functioning as a religious centre of the Russian White Guard migrants who had found asylum in Bulgaria after 1917. It was fulfilled. As the temple was in the diocese of the Metropolitan of Sofia, he took care of it. In parallel, he offered another temple, also dedicated to St Nicholas, to the Russian migrants.

The situation changed in the last months of the Second World War II when Bulgaria found itself under Soviet occupation. The Soviets then initiated the reopening of the Russian church in Sofia as a podvorie, i.e. a representative church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Bulgaria. In parallel, the Kremlin organised the establishment of a similar podvorie of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church at the Moscow Patriarchate in one of the Orthodox churches reopened and renovated in the Soviet capital after the war. These podvories were to strengthen the ties between the two churches and guarantee the submission of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to the guidance of the major religious institution in the Soviet Union. As a rule, the clerics who served in the Bulgarian podvorie in Moscow received key church offices upon their return home. One of them was the late Patriarch Maxim, who held the leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church between 1971 and 2012.

Meanwhile, the closure of the Russian church in Sofia in September raised two important questions. The first was in the realm of canon law, which forbids a bishop to have a parish in the diocese of another bishop. It was provoked by the inability of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to provide a clear answer as to the jurisdiction of the so-called Russian church in Sofia. On this occasion, the Bulgarian patriarch even wrote a letter to Patriarch Cyril of Moscow. On October 11, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church appointed a new cleric for the podvorie in Sofia.
The second question concerns the property issue. The above-mentioned notary act confirmed the ownership rights of the Russian church only on the grounds of a nineteenth-century act of property, presuming that the present Russian embassy is an heir of the Russian imperial one. For this reason, the Bulgarian government referred to legal experts. They have to find out who is the owner of the Russian church in Sofia.

Additional Sources:
 Antoaneta Rissou, “Bulgaria Kicks out Russian Church Boss,” Politico, 21 September 2023.
 “Bulgaria expels Russian church cleric, two others, on national security grounds,” Sofia Globe, 21 September 2023.
 “Tussle over ‘Russian Church’ in Bulgaria’s capital after ‘clergy’ expelled as threat to national security,” Sofia Globe, 26 September 2023.
 “The fate of the Russian Church: Holy Synod meets on the subject, but cannot solve the problem,” Bulgarian National Television, 3 October 2023.
 “Ruskata tsarkva opredeli nov predstoyatel na ruskoto podvorie v Sofia” [The Russian Church appointed an new administrator of the Russian podvorie in Sofia],, 11 October 2023.

D 24 October 2023    ADaniela Kalkandjieva


November 2020: Reactions of the Grand Mufti to the events in France
The murder of the French teacher Samuel Paty and the following events in France led the Grand Mufti’s administration in (...)

  • November 2020: Reactions of the Grand Mufti to the events in France

The murder of the French teacher Samuel Paty and the following events in France led the Grand Mufti’s administration in Bulgaria to issue several condemning declarations. The first of them, published on 27 October 2020, condemned the brutal murder of Samuel Paty and expressed sincere condolences to his family and relatives. At the same time, it stressed that the freedom of speech as a universal human right is accompanied by special responsibilities and duties. In particular, the authors of the document referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. In this regard they stressed that the exercise of human rights also includes “special responsibilities and duties” and thus it can be “an object of certain restrictions” in order for “the rights and reputation of the other people” to be respected. In this regard, the Muslim community in Bulgaria and its religious administration found unacceptable the statements made by President Emmanuel Macron. In their view, the political leaders should make statements that facilitate the unity, tolerance, equality and peace in society. On behalf of the Muslim community in Bulgaria, its religious leadership expressed their strong concerns about the rising islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric of the French president and other political leaders whose messages de facto work against the European Union.

The second declaration followed the publication of cartoons on the cover of the following issue of Charlie Hebdo. This was condemned as an act of shameless and vulgar disrespect to human rights and dignity. According to the declaration, this provocation was inspired by the behavior of President Macron. It was stressed that Charlie Hebdo after desecrating Muhammad, the Messenger of God, had now targeted its attacks against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey. On this ground, the leadership of the Muslim community in Bulgaria accused the magazine of spreading racism and hatred. It also called for an alignment of the freedom of speech and media with human ethics and responsibility, for the non-violation of the other people’s rights and freedoms.

The third document was issued in response to the terrorist attack in Nice. It strongly condemned the brutal murder of innocent people and expressed deep condolence to the relatives of the victims of this monstrous act. The leadership of the Muslim community in Bulgaria pointed out that its religion respects human life and condemned all forms of violence and the religiously and ethnically-motivated persecution of people. At the same time, it expressed worries that the terrorist attack took place in a moment of rising islamophobia and tensions caused by the desecration of Islamic shrines. Thus, the adherents of Islam in Bulgaria were called not to succumb to provocations, to remain calm, to be tolerant and to respect all people, regardless of religious, ethnic or racial affiliation.

 Osaditelna deklaratsiya na Myusyulmanskoto izpovedanie po powod nadigashtata se Islyamofobiya vav Frantsiya [Condemning declaration by the Muslim Religious Administration in Bulgaria on the occasion of the rise of Islamophobia in France], 27 October 2020.
 Osaditelna deklaratsiya otnosno poslednite publikatsii na spisanie Sharli Ebdo [Condemning declaration concerning the last publications in Charlie Hebdo], 28 October 2020.
 Osaditelna deklaratsiya po povod teroristi`noto napadenie v grad Nitsa, Frantsiya [Condemning declaration on the occasion the terrorist attack in the city of Nice, France] 29 October 2020.

  • March 2020: Religion and COVID-19 in Bulgaria

On 13 March 2020, the Bulgarian government introduced a series of emergencies measures aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the country. The requirement of physical distancing challenged the traditional ways in which the local religious communities profess their faith. In particular, they had to secure a 2-meter distance between each of their believers as well as to ensure the regular disinfection of their temples and prayer houses. On this occasion, the corresponding religious leaderships took special measures.

Patriarch Neofit of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) reacted two days after the registration of the first cases of infection with the new disease. On 10 March, as diocesan hierarch of the Sofia Diocese, he issued an instruction to the local clergy and believers. A day later, Neofit issued another appeal addressed to his peers – the metropolitans of the other dioceses of his Church. Both documents called for physical distancing between the believers while in the church. The churches had to be kept open and regularly disinfected, including all objects of veneration inside. Meanwhile, believers who felt sick were to stay and pray at home.

In addition to these general measures, Neofit also issued a set of specific ones. In particular, he appealed to all members of the Church to receive communion. According to the Patriarch, the holy sacraments cannot transmit diseases but are a cure for any spiritual and physical illness. Thus, the clergy was obliged to not decline the requests of parishioners for communion under the pretext of fear of contamination with the coronavirus. Those of the believers who are sick but wish to receive communion are able to do so. For this reason, their priest had to visit them personally. As the corona-crisis has coincided with the Orthodox Lent, Patriarch Neofit invited the BOC’s members to intensify their fasting and prayers. The main innovation was the permission given to believers to ask blessing by making obeisance to their religious fathers, instead of the traditional custom of kissing the cleric’s hand. In the next few days, other Orthodox metropolitans issued their encyclical letters addressed to the clergy and believers in their dioceses. In general, they repeated the patriarch’s recommendations.

When the emergency state was announced by the government, many citizens launched sharp criticism against the BOC’s position on the corona-crisis and called for the closure of churches as this has happened in the neighbour Orthodox countries, especially Greece. At the same time, the other religious communities complied with the anti-epidemic measures imposed by the secular authorities. As the BOC, they introduced new rules about hygiene in their temples and prayer houses as well as about the distance between their adherents during the religious services. At the same time, they took some further steps. The Grand Mufti’s Office cancelled the Friday collective prayers and invited Muslims to pray at home. Still, mosques have remained open for individual believers who need to visit them. The Muslim leadership also issued an official statement in which the proposed changes were supported by references to the Quran and hadiths. The Protestant denominations also called for physical distancing and stopped the religious services at their churches but left the buildings open. Meanwhile, the Catholic and Armenian churches began to perform their services at closed doors and to transmit them online.

Meanwhile, the new circumstances did not bring about significant changes in the BOC’s position. Still, they motivated the Holy Synod to introduce special prayers against the COVID-19 pandemic and to issue another encyclical to clergy and laity. Some metropolitans did the same for their dioceses. This time, however, the encyclicals contained references to the Holy Scriptures, which is a new development in the communication of the Orthodox episcopate with their flock as the previous ones did not include such texts, e.g. the Synod’s statement on the refugee crisis of 2015. In this regard, Metropolitan Gavriil of Lovech compared the corona-crisis with a “fiery ordeal”, while his peer, Metropolitan Yoan of Varna, searched its roots in the secularization of the world. In their turn, the two hierarchs responsible for the Orthodox Bulgarians abroad, which parochial churches throughout Europe, the two Americas and Australia had to be closed, called their clerics and laymen to turn their homes into family churches.

In parallel, some diocesan administrations introduced additional measures, e.g., parish educational centres were closed down, free telephone lines for psychological support were opened at some metropolitan’s offices, church bells started ringing at selected hours, etc. Meanwhile, some Orthodox believers were not satisfied with these initiatives. Some objected to the distribution of communion by the same spoon and called for changes. Some of them referred to some ancient practices that were more secure, while others refer to the decision of the Russian Orthodox Church to use individual plastic spoons for this purpose. The debate has intensified with the growing proximity of Palm Sunday and Orthodox Easter. On this occasion, the representatives of the government had two meetings with the BOC’s Holy Synod – on 30 March and on 9 April. The first did not lead to significant changes in the Church’s position. It was followed by a new Synodal encyclical that added new details such as the requirement for clerics and lay believers to use medical masks. There was one more measure included about the funeral rite which now had to take place in the open air and to be attended by a minimal number of relatives. Another novelty concerns the Synod’s expression of gratitude to the medical personnel, policemen and civilians involved in the struggle with the disease.

Regarding the custom of distribution of willow and flowers on Palm Sunday, the Synod decided to do this outside the churches, thus allowing people to stay at a safe distance from each other. After the second meeting with the government on 9 April, however, the BOC’s hierarches changed their minds and decided to cancel this ritual. They also agreed to start their Easter liturgies outside the temples, as their first hours are the most attended ones. They also decided not to send a church delegation to Jerusalem to receive the so-called Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but to use the one preserved from the previous Easter. They also donated the money saved from the cancelled trip to fight the pandemic.

Sources: official websites of the BOC, Grand Mufti’s Office, the Catholic Episcopal Conference in Bulgaria, and Orthodox e-media, and

D 17 November 2020    ADaniela Kalkandjieva


20 November 2018: Proposal to subsidize theology in university education
The Ministry of Education and Science proposed the students in some fields of studies not to pay university taxes. (...)

  • 20 November 2018: Proposal to subsidize theology in university education

The Ministry of Education and Science proposed the students in some fields of studies not to pay university taxes. These fields are Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Educational Studies, and Theology. If the choice of the first four is determined by the shortage of professionals in these spheres, the motives for the last one are not clearly stated. In addition, the universities in Bulgaria offer only programs in Orthodox Theology. The other religions in Bulgaria have no university level theological training recognized by the state authorities.

Source: “The Ministry of Education and Science proposes the state to subsidize the university education in the field of Theology” [Vissheto obrazovanie po teologiya da stane bezplatno, predlaga Ministerstvoto na obrazovanieto], published by on 17 October 2017 (in Bulgarian).

  • 13 November 2018: Amendments of the religious denominations act in Bulgaria: discussion (May-October 2018)

In the beginning of May 2018, two religion-related draft laws were registered in the Bulgarian Parliament. The first of them (No. 854-01-34/04.05.2018) is supported by the political party GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria), i.e. the currently leading political force in the country, as well as by two parties in opposition, namely the BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party) and DPS (the Movement for Rights and Freedom). The second one (No. 854-01-35/09.05.2018) is proposed by the Patriotic Front – an alliance of three small nationalist formations that became a key partner in the present ruling coalition in Bulgaria. It consists of the NFSB (National Front for the Rescue of Bulgaria), VMRO (a political party named after the historical Internal Revolutionary Macedonian Organization that fought for the liberation of Macedonia between 1893 and 1944), and “Ataka” (a party that used to demonstrate aggressive behavior towards the Muslims in Bulgaria and launched sharp criticism against the EU policy of defense of the rights of homosexual citizens).

Both projects aim to tighten the state control over the participation of foreign religious ministers in the administration and activities of the religious denominations in Bulgaria, the foreign donations to the local faith communities, the (mis)use of religion for political ends, the management of the finances of religious communities, the rules for the registration of new religious organizations, the procedures for opening religious schools, etc. In this regard, the first draft law envisions more moderate measures and sanctions than those of the draft authored by the Patriotic Front. Another difference is the Patriotic Front’s reference to the so-called “religious radicalism”. According to its draft law, religious radicalism embraces “activities, sermons, texts, statements or appeals of religious organizations that

a. refute the secular character of the state, put under question the rule of law, replace civil law with an alternative one or give priority to a different type of law [i.e. religious one];
b. contradict the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and associated international acts;
c. set people against each other on grounds of religion or faith [but the difference between religion and faith is not clarified];
d. preach, promote, or justify religious terrorism and religious war(s);
e. use symbols or signs of terrorist organizations, and cooperate with them”.

The Patriotic Front also regards the proposed amendments as steps against the “politicization of religion”, defined as “an infringement of the principle of separation between the political power and religion that endangers the national security, and as a misuse of any religious denomination, its ruling bodies, churches and prayer houses, traditions and rites for political ends by a religious institution or a political organization”.
Elaborated without consulting the local religious denominations and their central administrations, both documents provoked a wave of criticism. From late May to early October, the central administrations of the faith communities in Bulgaria lodged a series of complaints against both draft laws. All of them agreed that the proposed amendments

  contradict the principle of separation of the religious institutions and the state (Bulgarian Constitution, Art. 13.2);
  infringe the constitutionally protected freedom of religion (Art. 37); and
  fail to take into consideration the judgments of the Bulgarian Constitutional Court, interpreting the religion-related constitutional texts (No. 5 of 11 June 1922; No. 2 of 18 February 1998).

In addition, the religious leaderships stressed that many of the proposed amendments had already been addressed in other special laws, e.g. the Criminal Codex, the Law on Counteraction to Terrorism, the Law on the Measures against the Financing of Terrorism; the Law on the Governance and Functioning of the National Security Defense System, the Law on the National Security State Agency, the Law on the Intelligence Service State Agency, the Law on the Measures Preventing Money Laundering, Law on the Limiting of Cash Payments, etc.

It was also pointed out that some of these ‘innovations’ present a return to normative acts and practices from the communist times which had been removed from the Bulgarian legislation after the fall of communism, e.g. the communist ban on the contacts of the local religious denominations with organizations abroad without the permission of the State authorities (1949 Law on Religious Denominations, Art. 22).

At the same time, the different religious communities placed the focus of their criticism on different texts in the proposed draft-laws.

The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, representing the majority religion in the country, emphasized the immunity/inviolability of its properties on the grounds of canons created in the first centuries of Christianity. It claimed that everything it has received through donations, inheritance, testaments, etc. has become the Church’s eternal property and that no secular institution has the right to take away these possessions. At the same time, it also demonstrated a selective attitude to the proposed changes in the State financial policy to religious organizations. The Synod agreed with the audit of the expenditure of the subsidies from the state budget, but refused to submit any accounts about the Church’s incomes from its own properties. In this regard, it is important to mention that the Church’s incomes from own resources used to be audited by the State before the communist regime. Besides, after the fall of communism, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has received back all its economic assets that were nationalized by the atheist state. As a result, the Church became the second biggest owner (after the State) of arable lands and forests in the country. It also restored its property rights over the Church candle industry and many office buildings, situated in the centre of Bulgarian cities. Besides, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church protested over the State control over donations from abroad. Yet, until nowadays, there is no public register of the Orthodox Church’s properties, neither does it present public accounts of its incomes and the corresponding expenditures. Furthermore, in the case of the amendments regarding the donations to religious communities, it is important to mention that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church can receive such donations not only from its communities in diaspora, but also from other Orthodox Churches, e.g. the Russian Orthodox Church started making such donations upon the establishment of the communist regime in Bulgaria. Finally, the Holy Synod welcomed the idea of Orthodox priests being paid by the State budget, but was discontent with the proposed upper limit of the State subsidy.

According to it, under this rule the Orthodox Church will receive less money per capita than the other religious denominations eligible for such subsidies.
In its turn, the Chief Mufti’s office paid special attention to the use of the phrase “religious radicalism” and pointed to the lack of such term and definition in the international acts relating to religion. It also protested against the planned amendments as ones that endanger the future existence of the Higher Institute for Islamic Studies in Bulgaria, e.g. the Chief Muftiate disagrees with the envisioned new competence of the State Directorate on Religious Denomination to certify the diplomas issued by religious schools.

Finally, all religious minorities, except the Muslim one, criticized the introduction of a new criterion for the eligibility of religious communities to receive state subsidies. According to it, only the religious denominations which have a number of adherents higher than 1% of the Bulgarian population will receive financial support from the State. In this regard, they also commented that during the 2011 census, the Bulgarian citizens were not obliged to declare their religious affiliation, mother tongue, and ethnic self-identification, therefore, the religious communities had no idea that the census data would be used for the estimation of the corresponding State subsidy.

On 11 October 2018, during the first parliamentary discussion of the two draft-laws, the parliament took decision to have them mechanically unified into a new draft law. Registered under No. 853-14-10, it will be the subject of further debates in the Bulgarian Parliament.

Used Sources:
1. Draft Law proposed by deputies from the Political Party “Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria” (GERB), the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). Registered under No. 854-01-34 on 4 May 2018. The webpage also contains links to the statements of the different religious communities on this draft law.
2. Draft Law proposed by deputies from the United Patriotic Front consisting of the National Font for the Rescue of Bulgaria (NFSB), VMRO (a political party named after the historical Internal Revolutionary Macedonian Organization that fought for the liberation of Macedonia between 1893 and 1944), and the Political Party “Ataka”. Registered under No. 854-01-35 on 9 May 2018. The webpage also contains links to the statements of the different religious communities on this draft law.
3. United Draft Law on the amendment of the Religious Denominations Act. Registered under No. 853-14-10 on 19 October 2018.

D 13 November 2018    ADaniela Kalkandjieva


March 2017: Catholic Priest Leaves Bulgaria after Protests against the Church Sheltering a Syrian Refugee Family
The migrant crisis during the last year provoked different reactions in (...)

  • March 2017: Catholic Priest Leaves Bulgaria after Protests against the Church Sheltering a Syrian Refugee Family

The migrant crisis during the last year provoked different reactions in Bulgarian society. Some towns and villages met the refugees with hospitality, e.g. the Banya village near the town of Nova Zagora, but there were also places where the population did not allow the newcomers to settle and to send their children in the local schools (e.g. the village of Kalishte or the towns of Elin Pelin and Belene). According to the latter, all migrants, even those who have legalized their status, present a serious threat for the communities where they are going to settle. Some majors even refuse to register such refugees. One of the last examples of such acts of rejection took place in the Danube town of Belene, famous for its community of Roman Catholics who have lived here for centuries.

In the beginning of March 2017, the Bulgarian State Refugee Agency referred to Father Paolo Cortese, who was in charge of the Roman Catholic parish in Belene, and who had volunteered to house refugees, following the call of the Pope. He was invited to accommodate in his house a Syrian family with two children, who had been granted legal humanitarian status. The newcomers were welcomed by the local parish. Nevertheless, one of the municipal councillors initiated protests against the accommodation of the refugees, claiming that the priest had not asked the permission of the municipality (see Sofia Globe, 10 March 2017). He was supported by a group of about 30 like-minded people who claimed that the refugees would endanger the local society. After this campaign, the refugees left the town. At the same time, Father Paolo was recalled from Belen due to the death threats he had received from the anti-refugee camp. Before leaving, he gave an interview reminding about the events of March 1943, when the then acting leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood against the planned deportation of Bulgarian Jews and rescued their lives. He said:

“I did not succeed to protect one peaceful family. Today Syrians are refugees. Seventy years ago, the refugees in Europe were Jews. Tomorrow it could be us.” (Sofia Globe, 12 March 2017)

On this occasion, the foundation “Truth and Remembrance” initiated a petition in support of Father Paolo Cortese. In addition, a group of supporters of Father Paolo Cortese organized a peaceful protest in front of the office of the President of Bulgaria, but received no answer (Nova Television, 12 March 2017). The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, however, reacted by confirming again its statement on the refugees issue of 2015 (in Bulgarian, see also the English version) (reissued in 2016).

D 20 March 2017    ADaniela Kalkandjieva


November 2016
On 26 November, 2016, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) issued an Exclusive Address on the Refugee Crisis, expressing fear that refugees from the areas of (...)

  • November 2016

On 26 November, 2016, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) issued an Exclusive Address on the Refugee Crisis, expressing fear that refugees from the areas of military conflict in the Middle East and Northern Africa would imperil the existence of the Bulgarian state. Among other things, the document signifies that the mass migration of non-indigenous people presents a serious challenge, not only to such secular bodies such as many European national governments and the European Commission, but also to some Christian churches. It also points out the difficulty of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s hierarchy to deal with democracy when religious pluralism is at stake.

At the outset of its Address, the Holy Synod refutes the widespread public criticism public of the BOC’s passive stand on the refugee crisis. The hierarchs starts their defense with arguments that relate to the Orthodox Church in general. More specifically, they remind that this Church neither takes hasty decisions, nor does she pander to populist opinions or to views that serve those in power. Then, they shift the focus on the duties of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to her flock. Correspondingly, the Address speaks about “our flock … entrusted to our caring by the Lord Jesus Christ”. In the next sentences, the Synod explicitly points that the “crowds coming” will question the stability and existence of the Bulgarian state, and endanger “the ethnical balance existing on the territory of our fatherland Bulgaria”. On these grounds, the Synod appeals to the national government not to “admit any more refugees to our country”. Going further, the Synod turns a blind eye to the constitutional separation of religion and the state in Bulgaria, and refers to its executive authority “as the government of an Orthodox state”. More specifically, the BOC’s hierarchs ask the government to work internationally for the immediate cessation of the wars in the Middle East and North Africa as a means by which to prove its engagement with philanthropy and the European norms of humanities. In addition, the Synod “most categorically” demands that the state representatives at various international forums launch an inquiry to establish whether Christianity in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, etc. has become the subject of a religiously motivated genocide, and what measures have been undertaken to safeguard the religious and ethnic tolerance there. In this regard, the Synod gives concrete policy recommendations to the Bulgarian government, saying among others that it:
 “should concentrate its foreign policy resources upon … the cessation of military hostilities rather than just manifesting solidarity with the consequences of their endless continuation”;
 “should provide for and take into consideration that it would be much better if the refugees … (were) to be people who would fit well our environment” (i.e. they “would not take as moral impediment … the fact that they would be cared for by members of an Orthodox Christian community”).

The Synod closes its Address with a warning that the government should expect even graver problems if they fail to meet the second condition.

The Bulgarian original of the Address and its official translation are published at the website of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. In this regard, however, it is worthy to mention both texts are not fully identical. While the Bulgarian text speaks only about “refugees”, its translated version makes use of the more vague term “migrant” that does not distinguish between those who have left their countries to avoid the perils of war or political and religious persecution, and those who have left their countries in search of better economic and social conditions of life. A no less important difference is the assertive tone of the Bulgarian text and the modality of expression in its official translation, e.g. the Bulgarian “must” becomes “would like” in English.

  • September 2016: New Bulgarian law bans face-covering

On September 30, 2016, the Bulgarian Parliament passed a bill forbidding the partial and full coverage of the face in public areas (Art. 2). The new law allows such coverage to be used for health or professional reasons as well as in cases of sportive, cultural, or educational events that envision temporary coverage of the faces of participants (Art. 3.1). At the same time, believers are free to cover their faces in prayer houses of the registered religious denominations (Art. 3.2). This law defines the coverage of the mouth, nose OR the eyes as a partial coverage of face (Art. 4.1). It also foresees fees for those who break the new rules (Art. 6).

In general, the Bulgarian bill is in tune with similar restrictions adopted by other EU member states. It was initiated by the Patriotic Front’s members of the Bulgarian parliament in April 2016. According to them, face-covering contradicts the secular nature of the Bulgarian state and hides a risk of terrorist attacks similar to those in France and Belgium. In their view, the spread of full face-covering is not the result of a religiously motivated behavior but a demonstration of Islamic radicalism sponsored by Middle East countries, which pursues purely political aims. They stressed that the fashion of full face-covering has been imported from the Arab world and differs from the traditions of the local Muslim population, who have inhabited the Bulgarian lands for centuries. Their first draft included a ban on ear-covering (see the Bulgarian text of the draft laws). Voting it would mean to forbid the traditional Muslim headscarf. Later on, in the course of the parliamentary debates this restriction was dropped. As a result, the voted version of the bill does not impose such ban.

It is interesting that the discussed law was preceded by the decisions of several municipal councils who banned face-covering for the local citizens. The first of them was the city council of Pazardzhik, where, in the span of a few years, many Muslim Roma women adopted the custom to fully cover their bodies and faces. According to representatives of the municipality administration and local political structures, these women have received money to adopt this dress code. Therefore, they imposed a fine of 300 Bulgarian levs (about 150 EUR) in order to eliminate the economic motives behind this behavior. The example of Pazardzhik was followed by other Bulgarian cities despite the fact that their administrations have not registered any burka cases. This move was justified as a preventive measure against the spread of radical Islam.

See also:
 Siobhan Fenton, “Bulgaria imposes burqa ban – and will cut benefits of women who defy it”, Independent, 1 October 2016;
 Kristina Beck, “Bulgarians ban the veil, echoing European trend”, The Christian Science Monitor, 1 October 2016.

  • April 2016: Amendments tabled to the Bulgarian Religious Denomination Act

Two draft laws, proposing amendments to the current Religious Denominations Act, were put down in the Bulgarian parliament in March 2016. The first of them was initiated by Georgi Kadiev, a former MP member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and the second by his former colleagues from the BSP’s parliamentary group. Both documents call for increased state control on the citizenship and vocational training of religious ministers, as well as on the origins of the financial resources of religious denominations in Bulgaria. While Kadiev’s draft law addresses the threat of a radicalization of religious communities in general, the BSP’s project is more specific. The latter is motivated by recently registered “tendencies towards the spread of foreign faith traditions and the propaganda of religions and confessional teachings of questionable, even aggressive nature” in Bulgarian society. More specifically, the authors of the BSP’s draft law point to the propaganda of “radical Islam in some places in the country.” They also warn about the activities of foreign religions, with no court registration, which “rites, customs, and particularities are not simply alien to the Bulgarians, but present a flagrant interference in the domestic peace and threat to Bulgaria’s national security.”

The discussed documents share many similarities. In particular, they promote the principle that religious denominations in Bulgaria should be “Bulgarian religious denominations”. According to it, only faith structures registered by the Bulgarian court are eligible to conduct religious activities. Furthermore, only Bulgarian and EU citizens should be allowed to function as clerics or religious ministers inside the country. The religious ministers who come from outside the EU will be allowed to do so only after having informed the Directorate of Religious Affairs at the Council of Ministers (and having presented a set of documents, according to the BSP’s proposal), and for no more than 2 (in the BSP’s project) or 3 (in Kadiev’s project) months.

Kadiev’s draft law also envisions the Directorate of Religious Denominations maintaining a register with the personal details of all religious ministers. Another important amendment in this document concerns the diplomas received from foreign institutions for religious education. In this regard, Georgi Kadiev proposes to set up a list of religious education institutions recognized by the Bulgarian state. Only the alumni of these institutions will have the right to act as religious ministers in Bulgaria. In their turn, the socialist MPs put the emphasis on “national security”. In their motives to the proposed amendments, they declare that the freedom of religion is incompatible with any preaching against the territorial unity and the national sovereignty of Bulgaria, or against the country’s constitutional order. In addition, the socialist project imposes a ban on the establishment of parallel religious denominations. This gives no chance of registering to bodies that de facto repeat the religious teaching and principles of an already legally registered religious denomination. Most probably, this amendment pursues to prevent the re-establishment of structures such as the alternative chief Mufti’s office or the alternative Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the eventual complications that such religious structures may bring, e.g. the case of Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria or the case of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (Metropolitan Inokentii).

The last set of changes proposed by Georgi Kadiev and his colleagues from the Socialist Party envisions a series of measures for securing the transparency of the financial affairs of the religious denominations in Bulgaria – something that has been omitted by the authors of the 2002 Religious Denominations Act. The drafts contain requirements for annual reports of the religious bodies on their financial activities. Interestingly, these financial reports are addressed to the Directorate of Religious Denominations and not directly to the corresponding state authorities. Under these rules, the Directorate will decide whether there are some problems and indecencies in the submitted reports, and should then undertake the necessary steps for their solution. In this regard, the socialist draft law envisions all reports to be public and published on the internet webpage of the State Gazette. Finally, both draft laws propose a serious increase of the fines for violations of the Religious Denominations Act.


  • Draft Law on the amendment and supplement to the Religious Denominational Law, proposed by the independent parliament member Georgi Kadiev, registered under No. 654-01-26 on 1 March 2016 (in Bulgarian).
  • Draf Law on the amendment and supplement to the Religious Denominational Law, proposed by a group of parliament members from the Bulgarian Socialist Party independent parliament member Georgi Kadiev, registered under No. 654-01-32 on 14 March 2016 (in Bulgarian).

See also: "Proposed changes to laws on religions in Bulgaria spark ire”, Sofia Globe, 30 March 2016.

D 12 October 2016    ADaniela Kalkandjieva


The Terrorist Attack against Charlie Hebdo: Public Debates in Bulgaria
The terrorist attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris provoked an immediate reaction in Bulgarian society. (...)

  • The Terrorist Attack against Charlie Hebdo: Public Debates in Bulgaria

The terrorist attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris provoked an immediate reaction in Bulgarian society. Receiving the tragic news, journalists were the first who condemned this act. They also organized demonstrations of solidarity under the slogan "Je suis Charlie" holding a minute of silence in tribute to their French colleagues who had lost their life in this dreadful event. Their example was followed by politicians, academics, ordinary citizens… Religious leaders also joined. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church read special prayers for the victims of the terrorist attack. The Chief Muftiate issued a declaration defining the assault on the French journalists as one directed against all Muslims. According to it, the terrorists not only violated God’s law, but also imposed the threat of segregation the Muslim community in the country and worldwide (see the declaration of the Grand Muftiate, 7 January 2015). Bulgarian Jews also held a commemoration ceremony dedicated to the Paris victims.

Furthermore, the attack against Charlie Hebdo provoked a series of discussions in Bulgarian media. While unanimously condemning the murder of journalists as an act against humanity, their participants split over the question of freedom of speech. The majority perceived it as an absolute value and defended the rights of journalists and cartoon painters to express their attitudes to religion(s), even if that could mean hurting the feelings of believers. There were also opposing voices. Many practicing Orthodox Christians and Muslims found the Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons on religious subjects extremely humiliating. According to them, there should be some ethical norms or limits on the freedom of expression when religious issues are at stake. Otherwise, there are no guarantees against future cases of religiously inspired terrorism. On these grounds, one of the major satiric Bulgarian newspapers "Starshel" [Hornet] decided not to publish the Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. It is interesting that there was a similar division in Bulgarian media in 2005, during the worldwide controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo, however, has had a stronger effect on media and society in Bulgaria. It went beyond the question of cartoons. Some journalists questioned the appropriacy of the slogan "Je suis Charlie" in Bulgarian context. They asked whether it would be supported if the name was a Muslim one, e.g. "Je suis Mustafa" or why the murder of Christians in the Middle East did not trigger the same type of reaction (Ahmed Ahmedov, “The Freedom of speech between two extremes”, website of the Grand Muftiate).

Public debates were also initiated by scholars and theologians. The problem of balance between the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion provoked the most heated discussions. Muslim theologians especially depicted the violent death of the French journalists and painters as an act that contradicts the spirit of Islam as a religion of peace (see the Grand Muftiate’s website). They also stated that believers and atheists perceive the freedom of religion in different ways. Likewise, Orthodox theologians and believers considered that the freedom of speech cannot justify blasphemy (See Teodora Dimova, “Liberty on autopilot” and the interview with Prof. Kalin Yanakiev, 9 January 2015). In parallel, an Orthodoxy-oriented website published a collection of Orthodox cartoons to demonstrate an alternative satire that spares believers’ self-esteem (see the Orthodox website "Dveri", 11 January 2015).

In their turn, scholars offered a different perspective to the Paris event. The philosopher, Prof. Vladimir Gradev, promoted the view that there should not be limits for the freedom of expression. According to him, the message of cartoons is a question of the personal consciousness of their authors while their final judgment is in the hands of society. Yet, terrorist attacks as that against Charlie Hebdo raise also questions among Christians about their own tradition, identity and role in the contemporary world. The increased identity sensitivity as a follow-up effect of the terrorist attack was also analyzed by Anna Krasteva, professor in political sciences. She discussed the case in the context of the choice of contemporary society between fanaticism and secularity. In her view, the international demonstration of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo does not mean acceptance of the message of their cartoons, but support for the freedom of speech and protest against terrorism (See the public debate „Religious Fantasms under Control?!”, organized by the Red House – Sofia (held on 2 February 2015), 25 February 2015 and available on Youtube). In his turn, Arif Abdullah paid attention to the threats for secularism and pluralism in the contemporary world. He pointed that there is a war going on against terrorism and not against religion, and affirmed that classes on Islam in the Bulgarian public schools, taught by well-trained teachers, would help prevent a radicalization of Islam in Bulgaria. Simeon Evstatiev, who teaches Arabic studies in Sofia University, pointed that not all Muslims accept Western values as universal. Finally, Kalin Yanakiev, professor in cultural anthropology at the same university, shared his view that Charlie Hebdo is itself an example of militant secularism and thus the slogan "Je suis Charlie" is misleading. According to him, there is a danger for people who refuse to support this slogan of being identified with Putin’s proponents, or perceived as a kind of religious fundamentalist.

D 18 March 2015    ADaniela Kalkandjieva


The status of properties of religious denominations in Bulgaria
On 16 July 2013, a group of deputies from the newly established 42nd Bulgarian National Assembly proposed several amendments of (...)

  • The status of properties of religious denominations in Bulgaria

On 16 July 2013, a group of deputies from the newly established 42nd Bulgarian National Assembly proposed several amendments of laws which concern the restitution of properties to religious denominations in Bulgaria as well as the exemption of taxes for such assets, the labour conditions of clerics and religious ministers as well as their retirement and health insurance.

On 7 November 2013, the Bulgarian National Assembly voted one of the proposed amendments. More specifically, it changed the text of Article 24 § 9 of the Local Taxes and Fees Act. Its previous version used to exempt “the houses of worship which belong to lawfully registered religious denominations in their country” of local taxes. The new one exempts not only these particular buildings, but also "the landed property [pozemleni imoti in Bulgarian] where they have been built", i.e. estates which also belong to lawfully registered religious denominations.

Meanwhile, the amendments which concern the labour conditions, retirement and social insurance of clergy did not provoke any public debate. Having in mind that the Orthodox diocesan hierarchs used to pay the salaries of their priests in candles, it seems strange that the latter keep silence on this issue. Moreover, in 2010, the Podrepa Trade Union announced that the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church owed about € 1,75 Million to the National Pension Fund and Health Insurance Fund. Since then, however, this issue has disappeared from the public scene and today, the society does not know who pays the health insurance and pensions of this professional group. It is also unclear whether this is a specific problem of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which represents the religious majority in the country, or if it also concerns the other religious denominations in the country.

The amendment that has provoked the most heated disputes in Bulgarian society, however, concerns the property claims of religious denominations over urban buildings (mostly in the Muslim case) and archeological excavations (mostly in the case of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church). In fact, the draft law of 16 July 2013 initiates a second wave of restitution of such properties in Bulgaria. The first wave, which started with the restitution laws of 1991 and 1992 and ended in 2012, aimed at the return of arable lands, forests, industries, urban estates and other assets confiscated by the communist regime. As a result, the Orthodox Church received back 120,000 hectares of arable lands and forests, and the Muslims 80,000 hectares (see the article of S. Stoykov, in Bulgarian). In addition, these two religious denominations restored their properties rights on many office and residential buildings (temples not included). At present, however, there still is no register of the returned tangible and intangible assets. In this regard, it is important to note that no public information is given as to whether the two largest religious denominations, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Muslim administration, have ever paid any taxes for their properties and incomes. This first wave of restitution, however, did not rouse any debate in the society. The major concerns were at the time provoked by publication by the media about their misuse. People were especially annoyed by the luxury demonstrated by some metropolitans. Therefore, they are very critical of the lack of transparency on the management of church properties, and on the expenditure of the incomes these properties provide.

The situation changed after the announcement of the draft law of July 2013. It proposed to add a new paragraph (§ 3) to Article 21 of the 2002 Religious Denominations Act which reads: “the monasteries, temples and prayer houses that have existed at the time of enforcement of this law and that have been designated as places of worship, together with the landed estates where they are built, are property of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church - Bulgarian Patriarchate or correspondingly to other registered religious denominations and their local branches”. The authors justify this amendment as a guarantee for the freedom of religion in accordance with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 10), the Bulgarian Constitution (Articles 13.1 and 37.1) and the 2002 Religious Denominations Act (Article 4.2). In their view, the separation of religious institutions from the state requires a specific treatment of the ownership of places of worship. In their motives, the authors of the draft law point that the churches, monasteries and prayer houses constitute res sacrae and thus that this special category of immovable property needs to be excluded from the civil realm. This means that the houses of worships, together with the various estates of religious denominations, must be exempted from state and municipal taxes.

This particular proposal, however, provoked heated disputes in the society, and even brought about open conflicts which threaten the religious and ethnic peace in Bulgaria. The major criticism was directed against the restitution of religious property. The reason roots in the unrestricted retroactive force of the amendments. According to the Motives to the Draft Law, the restitution has effect over the period from the Baptism of the Bulgarians (864) to nowadays. On the one hand, this approach allows the administrations of religious denominations, such as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, to claim ownership even over archeological excavations. On the other hand, many temples have seen their purpose change several times during the discussed period (Orthodox churches were converted to mosques during the age of the Ottoman rule; mosques were converted into churches after the liberation of Bulgarian in 1878; religious buildings were turned into public ones under communism). As a result, more than one religious community can claim property rights over the same building. Moreover, such a situation also involves the interests of non-religious groups, e.g. archeologists oppose the claims of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church over some excavations. Finally, the tensions in society are additionally fueled by lawsuits filed by the Chief Mufti’s Office which claims ownership over urban buildings. The most problematic cases concern towns with almost no Muslim population, and with buildings that have never been mosques or have ceased to function as such before the communist takeover.

To reduce the tensions over the restitution of religion properties, a group of deputies in the 42nd National Assembly proposed a new draft law, registered on 9 December 2013. It excluded the buildings which currently function as museums, galleries, or archeological exhibitions, and have the status of public state or municipal property. The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, however, protested against this proposal as it impedes the arrangement of its ownership over certain buildings. Meanwhile, protests against the lawsuits filed by the Chief Mufti’s Office continue. On 14 February 2014, protests took place before the Plovdiv regional court and resulted in wounded and arrested people. The nationalist party Ataka made use of this event and on 19 February 2014, registered its own draft law aimed at preventing further restitutions of properties to religious denominations by the means of court judgment.

Draft Law 354-01-40/16 July 2013 (in Bulgarian), Draft Law 354-01-91/9 December 2013 (in Bulgarian), Draft Law No. 454-01-22 /19 February 2014 (in Bulgarian).

Stefan Stoykov, lawyer, ‘If the New Law on religions enters in force: The Mufitiate and the Synod take back 1,000,000 hectares’, [newspaper] Pressa Daily, 18 September 2013.

Daniela Kalkandjieva, "The Bulgarian Draft Law on Religious Properties", available in Orthopuzzle.

D 7 August 2013    ADaniela Kalkandjieva

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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