The communist regimes of the twentieth century were renowned for the restrictions they placed on religious freedom. Many churches and religious believers were driven underground as the state tightened its grip on people’s fundamental freedoms. Recent developments in Bulgaria demonstrate that these days are not entirely behind us.
Some members of Bulgaria’s Parliament have made moves to exert state control over people’s religious freedom once again. Georgi Kadiev, a socialist MP, submitted a draft law on 1 March aimed at amending the Denominations Act (sometimes known as the Law on Religious Confessions). Just two weeks later, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) – the party that ruled Bulgaria during the communist regime – submitted an almost identical bill.
The draft laws are quite explicit in their demands for complete state control over the Church. If accepted, the proposals would turn the clock back to a time when the state ruthlessly trampled on fundamental human rights. These proposals would also abrogate associated freedoms such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
Churches that refuse to register with the government would be forced to go underground and meet in secret. Even those churches that are willing to register may not be able to do so – registration of churches would be limited to those “familiar to Bulgaria”.
Churches’ finances would also be limited and closely monitored. They would have to submit records to the government of all donors who give more than the national minimum salary. On top of this, donations would be restricted to those from local church members and government subsidies. Donations from all other sources would be banned.
The stand for freedom
Churches that refuse to register with the government would be forced to go underground and meet in secret
Understandably, Christians in Bulgaria are greatly concerned about this threat to religious freedom. Viktor Kostov, an ADF International allied lawyer, has worked hard to rally support from evangelical denominations, churches, and leaders. Opposition to the proposals is gaining momentum. 70 representatives of evangelical denominations and organizations met in Sofia on 18 March to adopt a declaration in protest against the draft laws. They submitted the declaration to the Bulgarian Parliament and other European institutions. Since then a coordinating committee consisting of Viktor and two denominational leaders has been formed, which has collected the support of 350 churches, organizations, and individuals so far.
ADF International has supported Viktor in his efforts and submitted a legal memo to the National Assembly of Bulgaria. The memo examines a wealth of ECtHR case-law and makes it clear that the proposed amendments contravene both Article 9 and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
A fundamental right
Freedom of religion is a fundamental right, with the court describing it as “one of the foundations of a democratic society” and “one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life.” What’s more, freedom of religion extends collectively to religious communities and associations. As the ECtHR explains, without protection for religious communities, any protection for the individuals who comprise those communities becomes threatened.
In light of all this, any national legislation that falls foul of the ECtHR’s high standards will result in violations of the convention, not to mention other international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
For the good of all
The proposals of Georgi Kadiev and the BSP are a threat to the freedom of all Bulgarians, not just to churches. The ECtHR has elevated the rights guaranteed by Article 9 as being one of the cornerstones of a democratic society and one of the vital elements that make up the identity of believers and their conception of life. In a truly free society, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and freedom of association must be preserved. ADF International will continue to stand with courageous individuals like Viktor Kostov to ensure that these priceless freedoms are preserved for the good of all.
This commentary was also published in italian on ACI Prensa.