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BULGARIA: Legal problems continue for Ahmadi Muslims and Alternative Orthodox

Bulgaria's Ahmadi Muslim community is still fending off attempts by a regional public prosecutor – supported by the state Religious Affairs Directorate – to strip them of legal status, Forum 18 News Service has been told. A final hearing of the case is due on 6 March. But community member Muhamad Ashraf stressed to Forum 18 that the community's religious work has not been restricted. Also, public prosecutors have failed thus far to convince two courts to convict members of the so-called "Alternative Orthodox" Synod as "impostors". In one of the two November 2006 cases, a definitive court ruling is still awaited and in the other case, prosecutors have yet to announce whether they will appeal against losing their case. Following the state's 2004 violent expulsion of the Alternative Orthodox from their parishes, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has yet to decide whether or not to admit a case brought by the Alternative Orthodox against Bulgaria.

BULGARIA: Protestant Chaplaincy Association gains legal status

A Protestant group, the Bulgarian Chaplaincy Association, has gained legal status. But it remains unclear how armed forces chaplaincy work will be conducted. Lieutenant-Colonel Sevastian Dobrev of the Defence Ministry told Forum 18 News Service that no faith is currently can currently conduct this activity, in a hangover from Communist times, "but military personnel are perfectly free to attend religious events outside their barracks." Metropolitan Grigory of the Orthodox Church told Forum 18 that, unofficially, Orthodox priests are invited to conduct liturgies on holy days and even to build churches in barracks. He would welcome a law establishing a military chaplaincy service, adding that contacts with Catholics, Protestants and Muslims had begin about this. But a Justice Ministry official attempted to interfere with the founding of the Chaplaincy Association, and Lt.-Col. Dobrev stated that the state Religious Affairs Directorate will decide who will take part in chaplaincy work. "They have a list of which faiths are recognised and which are banned."

BULGARIA: Ahmadis barred "because it is against the religions that people follow here"

Bulgaria's small Ahmadi Muslim community is concerned by persistent attempts by a local prosecutor and the national state Religious Affairs Directorate to strip it of its legal status, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. One of the grounds of official Bulgarian hostility is that other countries – such as Pakistan – also attack the religious freedom of Ahmadis, who are considered to be heretical by many Muslims. Public Prosecutor Maria Zoteva told Forum 18 that the community must be closed "because it is against the religions that people follow here," but could not provide any examples of laws broken by the Ahmadi community or its members. Ivan Jelev, head of the state Religious Affairs Directorate, told Forum 18 – wrongly - that the community had misrepresented itself and also that his office had unspecified "documents" requiring it to view the Ahmadis negatively. "All we want is to be free to meet, talk and pray together," Ahmadi leader Muhamad Ashraf told Forum 18.

BULGARIA: Massive fines for bishops charged as "impostors"?

Metropolitan Inokenty (Petrov) of the Orthodox "Alternative Synod" has been warned he faces a fine of more than 90,000 US dollars if found guilty under the Criminal Code of describing himself as deputy head of the Holy Synod and Metropolitan of Sofia. Prosecutors assert that only bishops of the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate can claim to be Orthodox bishops and any others are impostors. Inokenty's criminal trial was postponed on 22 March until 5 June because he was ill. The trial on identical charges of Metropolitan Gavriil (Galev) began in Blagoevgrad on 28 March but was adjourned until 19 May. The lawyer for the two, Ivan Gruikin, has denounced these criminal prosecutions as a "scandal", telling Forum 18 News Service they violate the separation of church and state. The government has in recent years favoured the Patriarchate over the rival Alternative Synod which emerged in the wake of a split in the Church in 1992.

BULGARIA: Religious freedom survey, March 2006

Four years after the controversial Bulgarian Religion Law and nearly two years after prosecutor's office and police officers forcibly expelled followers of the "Alternative" Orthodox Synod, Forum 18 News Service's survey analysis of religious freedom in Bulgaria shows that the situation remains troubled. The July 2004 Alternative Orthodox expulsions had no legal foundation and are being challenged through the European Court of Human Rights. The Alternative Orthodox - and other religious minorities including Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses – are concerned by religious freedom abuses such as the expulsions, which flow from the privileged position in law and practice of the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate. Religious minorities also complain of restrictions on their activity in parts of Bulgaria. Amongst concerns Forum 18 has found is a widespread belief by local municipal officials that religious communities have to "register" with them to conduct religious activity.

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: OSCE Conference on Intolerance regional survey

As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.

MACEDONIA: Serbian Orthodox "will never get registration"

The Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia has again submitted a registration application, but this is unlikely to succeed. Such communities "will never get registration", Cane Mojanovski, head of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Communities and Religious Groups, told Forum 18 News Service, as only the Macedonian Orthodox Church can exist in the country. He said the Religion Law allows only one organisation for any one faith. He could not explain why Orthodox Christians could not freely choose their faith. Metropolitan Jovan (Vranisskovski), who heads the Serbian Church in the country, has been convicted of inciting religious hatred, while religious sites have been raided. He complains the state is "in league" with the rival Macedonian Church. "They do not let us perform services, they harass me with these trials, and they do not let foreign Orthodox priests enter or travel through Macedonia," he told Forum 18. An Interior Ministry blacklist reportedly lists more than 20 Serbian Orthodox bishops banned from entering Macedonia.

OSCE COMMITMENTS: OSCE CONFERENCE ON DISCRIMINATION – A REGIONAL SURVEY

Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org surveys some of the more serious discriminatory actions against religious believers that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration. Forum 18 believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.

BULGARIA: Police expulsion of Alternative Orthodox a dangerous precedent?

Fears have been expressed to Forum 18 News Service that the police expulsion of the "Alternative Synod" of the Orthodox Church from some 250 churches sets a dangerous precedent for attacks on other religious communities. Latchezar Popov of the Rule of Law Institute in Sofia told Forum 18 that other minority communities "see themselves in the same position." He also noted that "when the Sofia city prosecutor issued his order to storm churches in the capital, he had not even seen the file prepared by the chief prosecutor." Amongst churches seized are thought to have been several built by the Alternative Synod itself. Some priests of the Orthodox Church under Patriarch Maksim, which has now acquired the disputed churches, share the concerns of religious minorities. "This has damaged the image of the Church of Christ," Fr Petar Gramatikov of Plovdiv told Forum 18. "The government decided to end the church schism, but this was not the way to do it. Resolving church problems with the police is not the way."

BULGARIA: Police raid Orthodox churches

Bulgarian police have forcibly expelled members of the alternative Orthodox synod from some 250 churches they have been using for over 10 years, causing deep concern in Bulgaria, although one government official has defended the expulsions to Forum 18 News Service. The police raids follow a long-standing split in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and a controversial religion law favouring one side in the split. Baptist pastor Theodor Angelov, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, was blunt in his support for the ousted Orthodox parishes. "We have full sympathy for our Orthodox brothers and sisters. This is a very difficult moment for all the Churches and the whole population of Bulgaria." He told Forum 18 that he condemned what he regarded as communist-style methods not seen in Bulgaria since the end of the communist period. "Using violence in a time that pretends to be democratic is unacceptable."

MACEDONIA: Who attacked, armed with machine guns, an Orthodox monastery?

Metropolitan Jovan (Vranisskovski) of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, has accused Macedonian state officials of attacking a monastery loyal to his archdiocese. The "infamous Lions, a paramilitary state security unit, which was established in FYR Macedonia under supervision of former Milosevic paramilitary instructors", has been accused of responsibility by the Kosovo diocese. During the attack, five masked men armed with machine guns men broke in, smashed most of the religious items, stole a dozen icons, poured petrol on the furniture and set it alight. They also attacked two nuns, Renata Mizhimakovska and Dana Stojanovska, cutting their hair. The perpetrators escaped into the dark. The attack follows numerous legal cases brought by the Macedonian authorities in recent months against clergy and nuns of the church, including an accusation that Metropolitan Jovan is a spy of a foreign state. Metropolitan Jovan denies all the accusations.

BULGARIA: Jehovah's Witness centre to be destroyed?

Reported new powers by the city authorities in Burgas to allow the destruction of new places of worship near schools could see a Jehovah's Witness centre now being built in the city be destroyed. The Burgas authorities "believe such places will influence children," Jehovah's Witness leader Peter Mischler told Forum 18 News Service. "This is ridiculous." But the deputy mayor responsible for religious affairs, Marusya Lyubcheva, told Forum 18 the Jehovah's Witnesses cannot build the centre because they do not have local registration and admitted there is popular opposition to the new centre. "Civil society has a problem with this building."

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