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Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricted this right in practice for some non-Orthodox religious groups. The Constitution designates Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity (BOC) as the "traditional" religion and the Government provided financial support to it, as well as to several other religious communities perceived as holding historic places in society, such as the Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Jewish faiths.
The Law on Religious Confessions took effect in 2002 to replace the universally unpopular Communist-created law of 1949. Religious and human rights groups have strongly criticized the law for the preferential treatment given to the BOC and for provisions that appear to take sides in what many see as an internal Church conflict. Under the new law, all religious groups, with the exception of the BOC, must register with the Sofia Municipal Court before they can practice their beliefs in public. The BHC also expressed concern at the requirement for groups to submit a statement of beliefs when applying for registration or re-registration, stating that this constituted an infringement on their freedom of religion. Even when they were registered nationally, some religious groups experienced problems with registering local branches, particularly Jehovah's Witnesses in Burgas.
In some cases, local authorities used the lack of registration as a pretext for interference with some groups and harassed others. Some church groups circumvented the administrative obstacles created by a lack of registration by registering as NGOs. There were periodic reports of police using lack of local or national registration as a pretext to confiscate signboards and materials, detain or expel religious workers, and deny visas or residence permits to foreign-national missionaries.
In May, police reportedly prevented the International Baptist Church in Sofia from using a rented apartment for religious meetings.
A number of religious groups complained that foreign-national missionaries and religious leaders experienced difficulties in obtaining and renewing residence visas in the country due to an amendment to the Law on Foreign Persons. The law has no visa category explicitly applying to missionaries or religious workers, and rules for other categories of temporary residence visa (such as self-employed or business-owner) were tightened in ways that reportedly make it more difficult for religious workers to qualify.
The Muslim community, the Catholic Church, and some Protestant denominations claimed that a number of their properties confiscated under the Communist government were not returned. A central problem facing all claimants was the need to demonstrate that the organization seeking restitution was the same organization--or the legitimate successor of the organization--that owned the property prior to 1944. This was difficult because Communist hostility to religion led some groups to hide assets or ownership and because documents had been destroyed or lost over the years.
Relations between the major religious communities generally were amicable; however, discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance of non-traditional religious groups remained an intermittent problem. Human rights groups reported that societal discrimination against non-traditional religious groups gradually lessened over the last few years.
« Human Rights Report Introduction
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