The US State Dept. Report on Religious Freedom

[this article was written in 2000 and reflects the US SD report of that year]

2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom: Bulgaria
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000


The US State Department publishes annual reports on the state of human rights in the countries of the world. The recommendations of the reports are later incorporated in the policy making process of the United States government in the respective countries. In this respect the reports are providing suggestions for the priorities of the American policy in the field of human rights and potentially can influence important aspects of the social life in certain countries, especially in the ones with pro-American orientation.

The latest available report on Bulgaria has a section dealing with issues of religious freedom, which raises a number of questions, challenging the approach of its authors to the subject, their methodology and conclusions.

Philosophy and Approach

The report is organized around a certain idea, and that is the perception of an “ideal state of things” in the field of religious rights, from which the facts and processes observed in the county constitute a deviation. The language, the structure and the comments in the report imply a certain universal validity and exclusiveness of the American liberal approach to the issue of religious rights and freedoms. The existing alternative models, both theoretical and legislative, accepted in many (especially European) democratic countries, are not taken into account. The report severely lacks flexibility and sense of multi-cultural acceptance. The syndrome of adjusting all available data to the requirements and the measuring tape of American realities, inevitably leads to judgmentalism, opinionated conclusions and selectiveness in working with the field information.

Certain marginal groups and their problems with the authorities are given absolute priority in the report. The document suggests in plain terms that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unification Church (of the Korean Rev. Moon), the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and some others are being persecuted in Bulgaria.

The reports suggests in a manipulative way (even at a language level) the opposition of the local Christian Orthodox Church to the promotion of religious rights in the country. To generalize the (supposedly) persecuted new religious movements (a.k.a. cults, sects) with the term “non-Orthodox” is a direct suggestion that forms at least three misperceptions: 1) the juxtaposition “Orthodox vs. non-Orthodox” is a social and cultural reality in Bulgaria; 2) the new religious movements (NRM) suffer persecution because they are not Orthodox in an Orthodox-dominated country, and thus are a subject to xenophobic attitudes; 3) the Orthodox Church is of an intrinsically totalitarian character.

Handy as they might be for the interpretation of the religious reality in Bulgaria, these lines of thought, resulting in statements, conclusions and recommendations, contribute little to the understanding of the local reality.

Selectiveness

The selective approach in the report is manifested in the very first line:

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in practice for some non-Orthodox religious groups.

Further, there are several examples of violations of religious rights of certain groups. However, I find it hard to agree with the statement in this first sentence, which influences my overall perception of the report.

The fact that the report is so mysteriously omitting, is that the last democratic government (of the Union of Democratic Forces) has designed and implemented an unprecedented persecution of the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria. Without at least mentioning this fact, the report remains of highly questionable value.

Starting with the first government of the UDF prime minister Philip Dimitrov in the early 90s, the UDF has confronted the Orthodox Church and its legitimate leadership with unproven accusations of collaboration with the former communists. This was the underlying stanza in the actions that followed and that led to a schism in the Church. Inspired and carried out by the UDF parliament deputy and functioneer, Hristophor Sabev, the policy of the government towards the Church provided for seize of property, physical violence and other acts of hostility.

The process of the unlawful appropriation of church property is perhaps the least explored aspect of the privatization process in Bulgaria. The newly formed elite could not accept the reality that the Orthodox Church could potentially become the second largest owner of real estate after the state, if its property, taken by the communists, was returned according to the restitution laws. And while in the field of industrial privatization the shift of property from public to private has been backed up with convincing arguments, in the field of church property there was a need for a radical crisis of the image and legitimacy of the Church, in order for the newly-formed elite to achieve these economic goals.

It would be very good for the quality of future reports on religious freedom in Bulgaria, that the whole picture be presented, and not only the pieces which fit well into some preliminary defined and ideologically backed-up scheme. The concern for the instances of violation of the rights of the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be much more respecting and impressive if it extended to sensitivity to the rights of other groups as well.

The report defines the registration process for non-traditional religious groups as “selective”. Bound to the ultra-liberal American understanding for the regulation of these issues, this statement raises a number of questions. There have been a number of instances in the last years in Bulgaria and in many other countries of serious crimes and unacceptable behaviour by some “non-traditional” groups. The Aum sect (originally established in the United States) gas-poisoned dozens of people in the Tokyo subway. The Koresh Branch sect organized a mass suicide of its members several years ago. There have been instances of suicides, murders, sexual harassment and other crimes, performed by members of such groups under the direct influence and inspiration from their leaders, and in relation with the fundamental beliefs of these groups. Under these circumstances, it is a matter of national security and elementary common sense to scrutinize carefully all groups applying for registration and planning to develop their activities.

The personal rights (including the religious) have their natural limits and these are the rights of other people. One cannot refer to his/her religious rights if their exercising constitutes a violation of the constitutional order in the country and puts the life and health of other citizens in danger. These are fundamental issues, which have also to be taken into account both in the legislation process and during the monitoring of these freedoms by international observers.

To summarize, a “selective” process for registration does not necessarily imply negative aspects and if such suspicions occur, each case has to be treated and examined individually. One of the weak points in the Bulgarian legislative system in the treatment of new-coming religious groups is the lack of criteria for selection. This is a problem not only for Bulgaria. In other countries the governments have encouraged the creation of special bodies which monitor the teachings and the practices of all religious groups, in order to prevent their societies from possible abuses. Such an observing body requires high level of experience and expertise. Instead of pointing to the existing practices as subjective and selective, the report could have suggested the professionalization of the existing structure, by incorporating the results of existing research centers (St. Iriney of Lyon in Russia, INFORMA in the United Kingdom, to name a few). A future and desirable change in the Bulgarian Directorate for Religious Affairs should include the use of professionals in this field, which could provide the administration with research data in the field of mental manipulation techniques (a.k.a. “sectology”), used by many of these groups.

Concrete Remarks

The report mentions the hardships faced by the Unification Church (a.k.a. “Moonies”) in obtaining their registration. Having in mind the fact, that this group is expelled from some European countries and the research data on the nature of their practices, in my opinion, the state administration has pursued the immediate interest of the Bulgarian public, expressed clearly in public and private media. What the report refers to as “public intolerance” is not an inherited or suggested attitude. Bulgarians are known for their religious tolerance. However, certain groups and their suicidal and manipulative practices are just not acceptable to be regarded as religious communities. Being intolerant to crime and abuse is a virtue, not a sin.

Further quotes from the report are in small italics.

At the Department of Theology of Sofia University all students are required to present an Orthodox Church baptismal certificate, and married students must present an Orthodox marriage certificate, in order to enroll in the Department’s classes. These requirements make it impossible for non-Orthodox students to enroll in the Department.

Comment: the example does not account for some very important facts: 1) historically, at the Sofia University Theological Department (the actual name of the institution is Faculty of Theology), Orthodox Theology has always been taught. The Faculty is also under the methodological supervision of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church. Although under the formal jurisdiction of the Sofia University and therefore supported by the State, the Faculty has always been a confessionally bound institution, preparing priests and other personnel for the Orthodox Church. 2) the formal requirement for presenting an Orthodox baptismal certificate for admission has not been observed in the last years. Furthermore, there have been a number of non-Orthodox students accepted in the Faculty, some of which have later become leading figures in their communities (for example, Rev. Victor Virchev, Chair of the Union of the Pentecostal Churches in Bulgaria). 3) the non-Orthodox (mainly Protestant) communities have obtained a license from the Ministry of Education for their own Theological Institute, which gives higher education to future pastors.

Although no exact data are available on attendance levels, most observers agree that evangelical Protestants tend to participate in religious services more frequently than other religious groups. Members of the country’s Catholic community also are regarded as more likely than members of other faiths to regularly attend religious services.

The quality of the report does not benefit much from phrases like “most observers agree”. Such phrases openly suggest subjectivism.

Relations between religious communities generally were good; however, discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance of nontraditional religious minorities (primarily newer evangelical Protestant groups) remained an intermittent problem. Strongly held suspicion of evangelical denominations among the Orthodox populace is widespread and pervasive across the political spectrum and has resulted in discrimination.

While this observation is true, again, it gives a one-sided view. Hostility, where there is such, is from both sides (Orthodox and Protestant evangelicals alike) and to blame only the “Orthodox populace” for it would be unjust. The author of these lines has personally attended worship services of Evangelical groups, where hostility towards the Orthodox church and its people has been preached. Certain Orthodox religious practices (veneration of icons, for example), have been classified as “satanic” by pastors and national cultural and religious heritage has been mocked. It is very difficult to expect tolerant attitudes from the other side in this respect. (Since the Lutheran church has been mentioned as suffering from the Orthodox intolerance, it would be good if the report had also mentioned the following fact: one of the main publications of the local Lutheran church for 1999, was a booklet under the title “What it means to be Orthodox?”. In an abusive and highly intolerant manner the teaching and the practices of the Orthodox church have been given special attention in it. Can one expect tolerance from the members of the Lutheran community towards the Orthodox after such a publication? And vice versa?)

Following its initial route, the report does not bother to give evidences and examples of good practices in inter-church cooperation, since the latter would not fit in the picture pursued. The existing cooperation in many fields (humanitarian assistance, social services, theological dialogue) between Orthodox and non-Orthodox churches and their organizations is not mentioned. However, such cooperation exists and is even institutionalized through the Bulgarian National Christian Committee, an ecumenical body, representing the main Christian denominations in the country through their legitimate leaderships and officially recognized as a National Council of Churches by the World Council of Churches. Dozens of joint (Orthodox – Catholic – Protestant) projects for social assistance, relief aid distribution, conferences and other activities inexplicably fall outside the scope of the report.

Non-Orthodox religious groups continued to be affected adversely by periodic negative media coverage. A variety of media outlets drew lurid and inaccurate pictures of the activities of Non-Orthodox religious groups. For example, the Open Bible Fellowship church was accused of being financed by drug and gun smuggling profits.

Again, a non-biased look at Bulgarian press and other media would find that it is not only the non-Orthodox who are “adversely affected”. To the common accusations about finances and manipulation, one can add the “church-specific” accusations towards the Orthodox leadership of having cooperated with the former Communists. Such accusations were the main theme in the media during the government-inspired schism in the Church and was used largely to justify the violent acts against the Orthodox communities.

The U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also raised the issue of a liberal approach to religious freedom under the new law with Bulgaria’s OSCE ambassador.

While we highly respect the American tradition in the regulatory practices in the Church-State relationship, other democratic approaches to this model are also possible and do exist in many European countries. It is therefore up to the Bulgarian parliament to explore the different approaches (including the American liberal one) to this issue and to take responsible decisions, which will take into account the rights of the existing religious communities (one of them, the Orthodox church, is historically the main reason for the very existing of the Bulgarian nation and state and therefore it is normal to receive special attention and treatment), the protection of the rights of Bulgarian citizens against violent and manipulative sects, and the general democratic principle of religious freedom.

Дарение за нов албум на Пламен Сивов

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