After eight street protests in the last two months, Evangelical Christians gathered in front of Bulgaria’s Parliament praying for God’s intervention in the legislative process voted on December 21st. On its last work day for the year, the National Assembly of Bulgaria voted amendments in the nation’s Religious Denominations Act effective January 1, 2019. A number of problematic provisions were pulled out of the draft following local protests and international pressure. The final draft voted in excluded most of the original amendments pushed at first reading in early October allowing the government to interfere in heavy ways into church affairs.
Those problematic articles are now dropped from the law! They included a number of disconcerting restrictions, including
- impeding clergy training;
- strict filtering of international donations to churches;
- limitations on sermon content;
- restraining liturgy to designated buildings;
- obstructing non-Bulgarians’ ministry;
- membership of 3,000 for legal registration;
- and allowing special privileges to religious groups over one percent of the population.
After the seventh rally, held on a snowy Sunday, December 16th, Bulgarian Christians assumed voting would be postponed until after New Year, and called off the protests for Christmas. A sudden push by the Parliament, however, moved the vote date to December 20, 2018 right after a letter by Fredrik Sundberg Principal Administrator of the Department for the Execution of Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, who reminded Bulgarian politicians that:
“Having examined the different version of the draft Bill […] the Department considers that certain provisions could, if adopted, undermine the execution of the above mentioned judgements which are currently under the supervision of the Committee of Ministers; thus, placing them in a situation at odds with the obligations of Bulgaria under Articles 9 and 11 of the Convention.”
As a result, during the meeting of the parliament’s Committee of Religious Denominations and Human Rights, its chairman Krasimir Velchev unexpectedly changed his mind and pushed a decision to scratch off the 3,000 members requirement for judicial registration of a religious group. Even though the Committee had expressed an unyielding determination to promote this provision, the correspondence from the Council of Europe quickly changed their mind. A day later, the Religion Denominations Act was presented for deliberations on the floor of the House. A few articles were voted in on Thursday, and the rest on Friday, December 21st. Almost all of the provisions that were protested against were dropped to include the following into the new legislation that is now effectively operational as follows:
(1) Each church is to maintain and submit to the government a detail list of all ministers operating within its government registration. It is unclear how churches, which refuse government registration, will continue to operate
(2) Buildings owned and used for religious purposes (liturgy, worship service) must be registered into a national registry before receiving any tax deductions
(3) It is unclear if and how will churches with rented auditoriums, which account for roughly some 70% of the Bulgarian congregations, will report to the goverment or use any tax deductions
(4) Worship services allowed outside of designated building are limited on the use of loudspeakers and PA systems
(5) Foreigners can hold services only after informing the state Directorate of Religious Affairs about their activity in Bulgaria
The final draft of the Religion Denominations Act envisages state subsidy for officially registered denominations on the basis of the number of self-identified followers in the most recent census. The state also assumes paying salaries to their active ministers using taxpayers money. Based on this, the Orthodox Church will receive annually between $10-25 million and the Muslim confession about $350,000. At this time, subsidizing Evangelical churches is not included in the government budget.
By accepting state subsidy, the two largest religious groups in Bulgaria are entering a season of dependence on secular government. No state should ever interfere with church affairs. No religious community should ever be placed in a state of financial dependency under the authority of the secular state. Will the Eastern Orthodox denomination and the Muslim religion be able to shake off political influences? Will they have the courage to stand up for justice and speak up for the truth?