MINELRES: Tolerance Foundation: Annual Report on Religious Human Rights in Bulgaria in 2004

MINELRES moderator minelres@lists.microlink.lv
Sun May 8 19:43:41 2005

Original sender: Emil Cohen <e.cohen@online.bg>

Dear friends,

The Bulgarian Tolerance Foundation resumes its tradition to publish
press releases and reports on the state of the religious human rights in
Bulgaria. Below the public can read the Annual Report of Bulgarian
Tolerance Foundation on the State of the Religious Human Rights of the
Bulgarian Citizens in 2004.  In a closest future Tolerance Foundation
and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee will publish a Special Joint Report
on the same topic. It will be much more detailed than this one. Please,
find below and as an attached file the full text of the Report. 


An associated member of the 'Human Rights without Frontiers



Sofia,  April 28, 2005 – There were no changes to the regulation of
religious activity in Bulgaria in 2004. On December 16, 2004, the
European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgment in the case of the
Supreme Holy Council of the Muslim Community v. Bulgaria, in which it
found, for the second time since 2000, a violation of Article 9 of the
European Convention on Human Rights and ordered that the government pay
compensation, this time to former Chief Mufti Nedim Gendzhev and his
group. As in the 2000 case of Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria, the
government was found at fault for unacceptable interference in the
internal affairs of a religious community, expressed in its lack of
neutrality in a dispute between rival groups, and favoring one of them.

The Bulgarian government did not, however, place any importance on these
serious problems with the legislative apparatus and administration of
justice and in 2004 again committed grave violations of the right to
freedom of religion. The event that could be categorized as the most
serious human rights violation of 2004 and the most serious violation of
religious freedom since 1989, was the massive police purge on July 20 of
the churches and priests of metropolitan Inokentiy’s so-called
“alternative Synod”, in which they attempted by force the unification of
the divided Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) under the leadership of
Patriarch Maxim’s group, the one favored by the government. In the
course of this repressive campaign, the scale of which had not been seen
before, some priests and laypeople were beaten, and some were arrested
only because they protested the police violence. The Tolerance
Foundation and the BHC established a special group to gather information
during this action and after it, and will publicize its findings in a
special report.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has been divided into two factions since
1992. Bulgaria’s various governments have alternately tolerated first
one of them, then the other. On October 18, 2000, the Supreme
Administrative Court decreed that “…there are two religious communities
in the Republic of Bulgaria that are called the Bulgarian Orthodox
Church… Since there are citizens in the Republic of Bulgaria who do not
wish to be in a church relationship with Patriarch Maxim, they have the
sovereign right to separate themselves from the religious community led
by that patriarch, and to found an independent church, as a religious
community having its own bylaws and organs of leadership.” In the end,
by the time of the present government’s coming to power the two factions
had established a relatively peaceful mutual co-existence and had
divided the churches in Bulgaria between themselves, albeit informally.
>From the very moment of its taking office in 2001, the new government
openly took the side of Maxim’s synod. In December 2002, it drove
through a new Denominations Act,[1] Art. 10 of which gave Maxim’s group
the status of a juridical entity ex lege, while all other faiths were
required to register with the court. In §3 of the transitional and final
provisions, the law stipulates that “… persons who, at the time of this
law’s coming into force, have separated themselves from a registered
religious community in violation of bylaws established according to the
prescribed order, may not use an identical name, nor use or occupy its
property.” This was the legal “grounds” for the accusation of taking the
law into their own hands. Thus the priests and laypeople who had united
around the synod of Metropolitan Inokentiy were faced with the choice of
either relinquishing their claims to the name “Bulgarian Orthodox
Church” or keeping it, on the condition that they first hand over all
churches and other property to Maxim’s group and essentially give up all
religious activity. 

There were warning signs before the campaign of July 20. In 2002 and
2003, Maxim’s priests made several attempts to take over churches in
which priests belonging to the other synod were serving, in Pomorie,
Dobrich, Varna and the village of Osikovitsa in the Botevgrad region.
The forcible takeover of a church in Dobrinishte by representatives of
Maxim’s synod on July 21, 2002, resulted in one fatality, when one
priest and one sexton belonging to Maxim’s group beat to death 65-year
old Father Stefan Kamberov, of Inokentiy’s synod. In each of these
incidents the police were either silent witnesses or direct participants
in the church raids, and prosecutors did not react to the ensuing

During the campaign on the night of July 20-21, 2004, the police burst
into at least 94 churches and other buildings all over the country,
threw out the priests serving in them, sealed the churches and installed
new priests appointed by Maxim’s synod. Several priests and lay citizens
were arrested, and there were reports that at least two priests (Kamen
Barakov and Hristo Pisarov) and one layperson (Liliyana Shtereva) were
beaten. In some locations the takeover lasted until late into the night
of July 21, truly becoming a siege, because the priests and the citizens
supporting them stood and resisted the police.

The church raids constituted a campaign that had been planned and
coordinated in advance. They were foreshadowed by the Supreme Cassation
Prosecutor’s Office Circular Letter No. 12173, of July 8, 2004, the text
of which was subsequently reproduced in the regional prosecutors’
orders. These orders characterized the expulsion of priests belonging to
the “alternative Synod” from the churches as the “restoration, in urgent
and pressing cases, of rights violated through taking the law in one’s
own hands.” According to Art. 118 of the Judiciary Act, which is a
provision left over from the legal doctrine of the totalitarian regime,
the prosecutor’s office has the authority to interfere in such cases,
when those affected did not have access to the courts. This provision
was applied in July 2004, even regarding some priests who had been
serving in their churches for more than ten years. Such was the case,
for example, with Father Zapryan Pisanov, who had served as a church
priest in the village of Graf Ignatievo, in the Plovdiv region, for 19
years; with Kamen Barakov of Sofia, who had served in one church for 15
years; Father Dimitar Sheyev from Razlog, who had served in his church
for over 40 years; and many others. Even some churches built after the
schism in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were raided, as well as
newly-built churches (two in Sofia, for example) that could not possibly
have “taken the law in one’s own hands” – such an accusation would be
absurd, since nobody was even occupying them or serving in them yet.

A number of grave human rights violations were committed before and
during the campaign of July 20-21. These can be summarized as the
distortion of facts, erroneous interpretation of the law and the
enforcement of outdated domestic legal norms contradictory to
international law. The Bulgarian Constitution was also violated. More

1. With its claims that the occupation by priests from Inokentiy’s synod
of their churches constituted “taking the law in one’s own hands”, the
prosecutor’s office grossly distorted the facts. Art. 323, Para. 1 of
the Bulgarian Penal Code defines as taking the law in one’s own hands
actions in which a person “willfully, not by the legally established
order, exercises his own or someone else’s real or presumed right, which
is disputed by someone else.” As long ago as 1968, the Supreme Court
stated in a special decision that in order for a crime of taking the law
in one’s own hands to have taken place, it is “necessary in an objective
and subjective sense for the perpetrator to have made an unlawful change
in the existing factual situation, willfully, on the pretext that he is
exercising a right that is disputed by someone else.” It thus becomes
clear that the claim of taking the law in one’s own hands in cases where
priests had occupied their positions for many years and nobody else had
served in their place, is ludicrous.

2. By interpreting the civil-law consequences of the Denominations Act,
the prosecutor’s office was in effect administering justice, which is a
grave violation of the Constitution, since that is exclusively the work
of the courts. There has been a dispute in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church
as to who its legitimate leadership is for 13 years. This argument
cannot be resolved by Art. 10 of the new law, because nowhere in it is
Maxim named as a legal representative of the BOC. In the same way, §3 of
the law’s transitional and final provisions does not in any way state
exactly who the people are, who have separated from “a registered
religious community” – whether one or the other group in the BOC. Just
who separated from whom has been the subject of an ongoing legal dispute
for years, and the prosecutor is not the one to resolve it.

With its campaign of July 20-21, 2004, the Bulgarian government also
violated a number of provisions of the European Convention on Human
Rights and Fundamental Freedoms:

1. In two consecutive judgments[2] – the second of them very recent,
from December 16, 2004 – on similar Bulgarian incidents, the European
Court stated that Bulgaria had violated the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion because the government had not maintained
neutrality in a dispute between rival factions of one divided religious
community and had taken sides rather than serving as an intermediary in
negotiations for resolving the issue, and had used administrative means
to favor one of the two rival groups. This is how the Court summarized
its conclusions in Paragraph 78 of its judgment in the case of Hasan and
Chaush v. Bulgaria: “State action favoring one leader of a divided
religious community or undertaken with the purpose of forcing the
community to come together under a single leadership against its own
wishes would likewise constitute an interference with freedom of
religion. In democratic societies the State does not need to take
measures to ensure that religious communities are brought under a
unified leadership.” The Court’s judgment in the case of the Supreme
Holy Council of the Muslim Community v. Bulgaria used almost exactly the
same words. The pogrom of July 20-21 was a violation of enormous
proportions, because tens of thousands of believers were deprived of
their right to a relationship with a priest they had chosen for

2. The prosecutor’s actions essentially constituted the forced
resolution of a civil dispute over property, which could only be
resolved by the courts. The Strasbourg Court has stated on more than one
occasion that property disputes fall under the purview of Art. 6.1[3] of
the Convention and there is an established precedent[4] that such cases
must always be resolved in court. The prosecutor’s office use of its
authority to restore taking the law in one’s own hands violated rights,
in cases in which there is no court oversight, is a gross violation of
the Convention on this point.

3. The right to peaceful use of one’s own property is also closely bound
to the right to have access to the courts for the resolution of civil
disputes, in accordance with the First Protocol to the Convention. In
accordance with European Court practice, the terms “property” and
“ownership” are broadly defined. It is sufficient for someone to have
factually possessed a given piece of real or non-real property – or even
to have “possessed” abstract things like rights and interests – over the
course of a long time-period, in order to have the right to the peaceful
use of his own possessions.

4. Finally, according to Art. 13 of the Convention, everyone should have
the right to effective legal means of protection when his or her human
rights have been violated. In this situation, when the orders of the
prosecutors’ offices constituted a de facto pogrom against dozens of
Orthodox churches that could not object in court, there was obviously a
violation of the right to effective domestic legal means of protection
against violations of the Convention. This was also remarked upon in the
judgment in the case of Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria, in Paragraph 104
of which the court stated that Fikri Hasan and his group could not
effectively dispute the unlawful state interference in the internal
affairs of their religious community, and thus fight for their right to
organizational autonomy, which is guaranteed by Art. 9.

The right to freedom of religion was also violated in Bulgaria in
connection with other incidents in 2004. At the beginning of November,
the Pazardzhik Regional Court sentenced Muslim cleric Ahmed Musa Ahmed
to three years imprisonment and a 1,000-lev (500 Euro) fine, for his
peaceful preaching of “radical Islam”. The charges were that he had
preached antidemocratic ideology and the violent overthrow of the
established state structure, desecrated the Bulgarian flag and preached
racial and national, as well as religious, enmity and hatred. Articles
162 and 164 of the Penal Code, which define crimes against “national and
racial equality”, were “put into use” for the first time since 1989.
After Ahmed Musa Ahmed’s return from Germany, where the indictment
alleges he came into contact with radical Islamists, during the period
of 2001-2003 he allegedly preached the Muslim religion with a particular
fervor, was unusually strict in his adherence to Islam and emphasized
the necessity of establishing a Caliphate in his sermons. In addition to
this he distributed aid, meat and clothing to the poor Roma Muslims of
Pazardzhik, Nova Zagora, Karlovo and other places. 

The indictment in this case was based solely on the existence of some
religious literature in Arabic, which is not spoken in Bulgaria, as well
as videotapes of Musa’s sermons. In these he speaks of “jihad” and the
coming to power of a Caliphate state, and waves the green flag of the
Muslims. In his testimony during the trial, which the Tolerance
Foundation and BHC (Bulgarian Helsinki Committee) observed, Ahmed Musa
claimed that the “jihad” he spoke of is an internal war that everyone
must wage against evil and sin in his own soul, and that the Caliphate
is the spiritual empire of the true Islam, and in no way a real state.
In addition, nowhere and in no way did he ever call for the violent
overthrow of the constitutionally-established order. Musa’s conviction
resembles discrimination, as viewed against the background of the
increasing number of virulent racist statements made against Bulgarian
Roma, and to a lesser degree against Jews, in Bulgarian Internet forums,
several of which are also repeated in the press. No state organ has ever
investigated these statements or prosecuted those who have made them. 

Another serious problem this past year was the situation with the Muslim
religion in Bulgaria, which has also been split for many years. The
reason for the continued split is that the state, acting under pressure
from interested political players (mainly the MRF), has not managed to
maintain neutrality in the dispute between the different factions of
this religious community.

On December 29, 2003, a conference of the Muslims in Bulgaria was held.
Due to insurmountable differences the leadership of the group of Muslim
conferences split in two, and thus at the end of 2003 two Muslim forums
elected two Supreme Muslim Spiritual Councils and two Chief Muftis –
Fikri Hasan and Ali Hadjisaduk. Both leadership structures applied for
registration with the Sofia City Court. Meanwhile, Nedim Gendzhev,
elected as the leader of the Muslim faith at the 1996 conference,
attacked the legitimacy and decisions of the conferences of 1997 and
2000 in the Bulgarian courts, as well as the European Court in
Strasbourg. In 2004, the Supreme Appellate Court ruled on Nedim
Gendzhev’s complaints that those forums had been illegitimate and their
decisions invalid. This interrupted the registration procedures
regarding the decisions that resulted from the two conferences held at
the end of 2003.

In July 2004, the Chief Justice of the Sofia City Court “referred the
matter to himself” and appointed a temporary official leadership of the
Muslim religion, headed by Fikri Hasan, who had been chosen at one of
the two conferences and whose choice had the approval of the MRF. This
constituted gross interference in the internal affairs of that religious
community, and additionally was a judicial absurdity, because the court
has no right to undertake such activity and was thus in grave violation
of the Denominations Act, as well as other relevant laws. Later both the
Appellate Court and the Supreme Court of Cassation (on January 20, 2005)
ruled that the decision by the Chief Justice of the Sofia City Court had
been invalid. Thus, only Nedim Gendzhev, as the chairman of the Supreme
Muslim Council elected in 1996, and the Chief Mufti, Ali Uzunov, were
ruled legitimate.

The Sofia City Court should then have carried out the judgment of the
Supreme Appellate Court and registered Gendzhev, Uzunov and their
Supreme Council in the register of religious organizations. Instead, at
the end of January 2005 it issued a certificate of Current Legal Status
to Fikri Hasan. According to that document, he and his council
constitute the leadership of the Muslim faith. In addition, the
prosecutor required the original incorporation documents, and thus there
is no way that any registration can take place, partly including that of
Gendzhev and Uzunov.

Thus, a series of unlawful and apparently biased actions by the Sofia
City Court and the prosecutor’s office in favor of the candidate
supported by the MRF created the unprecedented situation of a deeply
divided Muslim faith with no officially recognized leadership. This
constitutes a gross violation of the rights of regular Muslims to choose
their own leaders and spiritual teachers.

Several unpopular religious communities, such as the Jehovah’s
Witnesses, also experienced difficulties in their activity in 2004. For
example, that faith’s local branch in Burgas has now essentially been
operating illegally for six years, because the local authorities have
refused to register them, in apparent violation of the law. Its branches
in the cities of Veliko Turnovo, Dimitrovgrad, Smolyan and Stamboliyski
are also in the same situation. This greatly hampers the work of this
religious organization, because the local authorities in the cities
mentioned, as well as in other places, check up on the activity of the
preachers who go door to door, and when they can not present a local
registration, the authorities create problems for them. On June 19,
2004, in Pernik, locally known hooligans beat up two preachers, Georgi
and Snezhana Stavrev, for being members of a “cult”. Eight months after
the beating, despite the Stavrevs’ having filed a complaint with the
prosecutor’s office, there is no evidence of the prosecutor having
undertaken any action whatsoever against the perpetrators. 

On December 3, 2003, the Turgovishte Regional Court upheld the District
Court decision in the divorce case of Violeta Tacheva Tsvetkova, who was
deprived of custody over her children, aged 9 and 12, and her former
husband given full custody. The grounds for this were that the mother,
due to her membership in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, could not raise her
children properly, because “she, as a parent, has to a large extent
violated the rights of her children, as well as other constitutional
principles.” In addition, the court considered that “with regard to this
indicator [ability to raise one’s own children], the father has an
exceptionally large advantage, because he is capable of giving the
children the opportunity both to be informed, and to develop their own
abilities in a different direction”, while the mother had “restricted
[their] rights”. That restriction consisted of her strong desire for the
children to receive a religious upbringing, in the spirit of the
teachings of the religion to which she belongs. In December 2004, the
Supreme Administrative Court upheld the ruling of the Turgovishte
Regional Court.


[1] For a more detailed analysis of the law, see: Human Rights in
Bulgaria in 2002, Annual Report of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee,
February 2003, posted at: www.bghelsinki.org. 

[2] See Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria, Appl. No. 30985/96, as well as the
Supreme Holy Council of the Muslim Community v. Bulgaria, Appl. No.
39023/97, available on the Internet at: 
http://cmiskp.echr.coe.int/tkp197/search.asp?skin=hudoc-en . 

[3] Art. 6.1 of the Convention states: “In the determination of his
civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him,
everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable
time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.”

[4] See the following cases: Editions Periscope v. France, 1992, Appl.
No. 11760/85, Beaumartin v. France, 1994, Appl. No. 15287/89, Procola v.
Luxembourg, 1995, Appl. No. 14570/89, and many others, available on the
Internet at: 
http://cmiskp.echr.coe.int/tkp197/search.asp?skin=hudoc-en . 

On behalf of Tolerance Foundation:

Emil Cohen, 

*The TOLERANCE FOUNDATION is a human rights group monitoring the freedom
of conscience and the religious freedom practices in Bulgaria, providing
legal assistance to victims of discrimination based on religion, as well
as propagating the idea of tolerance towards religious and other
The group was founded in 1994. 

Mr. Emil Cohen is President of the Tolerance Foundation. 
Atanas Krusteff, Krassimir Kanev and Tzanko Mitev are members of the
Board of the organization. 

Since April 2001 the organization has been an associate member of 'Human
Rights without Frontiers International'. 

Address: 1000 Sofia, 4 Dobrudja St, 
Phone/fax: Phone: (+359 2) 980 94 05; 
and a cellular phone: (+359)088335707 
E-mail: e.cohen@online.bg and emil.cohen@gmail.com