Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov (left) meeting with Patriarch Neofit (second on the right) and Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji (third on the right) on Monday to discuss the cancellation of the Muslim community’s debts. Photo: Bulgarian Council of Ministers.
The decision by Bulgaria’s parliament last Friday to write off 4.2 million euros in debts owed by the office of the country’s senior Muslim cleric, the Grand Mufti, has stirred controversy, and led to a meeting between Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Muslim and Orthodox Church leaders on Monday.
“Our goal is to start off with a clean sheet, so that the state pays its religious groups from now on,” Borissov was quoted as telling the two religious leaders.
“While the Mufti and the [Orthodox Church] Patriarch can sit on the same table and talk, we can remain certain about ethnic peace and tolerance,” Borissov added.
The decision has angered the main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, which is boycotting parliament in protest against electoral code changes that would make preferential voting redundant.
The Prime Minister’s GERB party was “cancelling the debts owed by the Mufti to the state. The deal is, ‘We back you to overturn the Presidential veto and BSP’s criticism, and you cancel the debts,’” BSP leader Kornelia Ninova told parliament on Friday.
She said it was one of several cases in which GERB was striking behind-the-scenes deals with the nominally opposition ethnic Turkish Movement of Rights and Freedoms, MRF.
The bill, which passed though parliament’s religious issues committee on Friday, was introduced by the MRF.
The only vote against it in the committee came from Pavel Shopov, a member of the United Patriots, an ultra-nationalist group that is backing the government.
The MRF and GERB defended the move to cancel the debts of the Grand Mufti is a way to reduce potential foreign interference in faith groups.
“We introduced the changes to the Law on Religious Denominations in order to cut all dependencies of religions on foreign funding, which is related to national security,” MRF MP Yordan Tsonoev told the debate on Friday.
Borissov echoed this line on Monday. “The Bulgarian state, not other countries, must pay for its religious denominations,” he told Patriarch Neofit and Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji, adding that no country need feel offended about this.
Bulgaria’s second largest faith group, the Muslim community, until 2017 received 1 million euros a year from Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, known as the Diyanet. The money went towards paying for imams and for running the country’s Islamic schools.
In April that year, the Diyanet told the Bulgarian Grand Mufti’s office that the Sofia government had cancelled the funding protocol following accusations of Turkish interference in Bulgaria’s snap parliamentary election in March 2017.
The debt cancellation comes after another set of controversial changes to the law governing religions voted last December.
This provides religions numbering at least 1 per cent of the population, according to the latest census data, a state subsidy of 5 euro per follower. In practice, only the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Muslim community are eligible for the cash.
The law sought to also restrict foreign funding – but after protests this amendment was dropped.
According to the Bulgarian National Statistics Institute, 577,000 Bulgarians describe themselves as Muslim out a population of about 7.1 million.