denominations threatened with closure and fines
By: Stefan J. Bos,
Eastern Europe Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
SOFIA/BUDAPEST, (ANS) -- Bulgaria's Protestant churches have urged President Georgi Parvanov to veto a law that would force non-Orthodox Christians and other minority groups to obtain court approval to operate in the Balkan country, reports said Tuesday December 17.
News about the appeal came a day before Bulgaria's Parliament was to resume a debate Wednesday, December 18, on the proposed law aimed at further protecting the traditional Orthodox Church as Bulgaria's traditional faith.
The Keston News Service (KNS), which closely monitors religious persecution, said that the legislation would also deny recognition to breakaway Orthodox clergy opposed to the denomination's leader, Patriarch Maksim.
Pastor Theodor Angelov, a Sofia-based pastor who heads the European Baptist Federation, was quoted as saying by KNS that the law still bears the imprint of Bulgaria's Communist past.
"Officials believe religious activities are something dangerous that should be controlled," he told KNS. "This is the thinking behind this law - and it is this thinking that makes me afraid. We are not satisfied with this draft law. Some provisions are not democratic," he said.
Under the law, courts could punish religious organizations for a variety of alleged offences by stopping their activities for up to six months, as well as banning the publication or distribution of religious publications or canceling an organization's registration.
Pastor Angelov also objected particularly to the punishments for "unauthorized" religious activity prescribed in the bill, with fines of up to 5,000 leva, about $2,620, KNS said.
Deputies began debating the law last weekend after the Committee on Human Rights and Religions submitted the bill to the National Assembly earlier this month, despite street demonstrations over the weekend outside the parliament building in central Sofia.
In what is seen as a show of unity, the protests were led by the Orthodox Synod loyal to Metropolitan Innokenti of Sofia, part of the breakaway Orthodox Church, along with Protestants and other religious groups, KNS reported.
KNS quoted the Sofia paper Standard as saying that some 10 priests and 40 laypeople of the Orthodox Synod took part in the December 15 protest. The Tolerance Foundation - a Sofia-based religious freedom group - said each demonstration attracted about a thousand participants from many faiths.
The controversy comes at a sensitive moment for Bulgaria, which hopes to join the European Union as part of a second wave of enlargement in 2007. Human rights groups have criticized official bodies, including the Committee on Human Rights and Religions, for not sending the bill to the Council of Europe for expert analysis.
"The previous draft was severely criticized by the Council of Europe maybe that is why they don't want to send them this draft," Emil Cohen, president of the Tolerance Foundation, told KNS.
"This law will alter the status of all religious communities," Father Blagovest Vanghelov, vicar general of the diocese, was quoted as saying by the Catholic News Service. "We all have virtually the same objections Catholics, Protestants and Muslims - and have made our views clear in a series of petitions," he noted.