Religious freedom in Bulgaria

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 29th of January, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. We turn to Europe now, with some good news for religious liberty. Recently on World Tour we reported that the nation of Bulgaria passed a new religion law that continues protections for religious minorities.

REICHARD: But it could have gone the other way.

An early draft of the law had Christians concerned, and they mobilized to protest for several weeks before the vote. WORLD Radio correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt joins us now to talk about that story.

Jenny, how did Bulgarian evangelicals first become aware of the problems?

JENNY LIND SCHMITT, REPORTER: Last May, the government proposed amendments to the law to restrict activities of religious minorities. This was to protect the country from influence of foreign religious fundamentalists. But what it did was restrict any group falling under 1 percent of the population. Across denominations evangelicals make up more than 1 percent, but no one group meets that threshold.

The articles were so restrictive that evangelicals first assumed they’d be struck down. When they weren’t, and instead were approved in October in parliament, church leaders became alarmed.

REICHARD: What were the restrictions exactly?

SCHMITT: The law proposed restrictions on theological training. Pastors would be required to be trained in Bulgaria, but the existing evangelical seminaries would be closed. That would have left only Orthodox and Muslim seminaries.

Another provision was a ban on foreign preachers unless they preached with an ordained Bulgarian minister. Foreign donations had to have state permission—which curtailed most missionary activity.

There was ban on worship activities outside of designated, registered religious buildings. This would have made any home gatherings for Bible study or prayer illegal.

The pastors I spoke with said it felt very much like a return to communist-era government interference in religious practice.

REICHARD: What did evangelical Christians do?

SCHMITT: Evangelical leaders met to pray, and they organized their churches to fast and pray. They started a letter-writing campaign. They wrote to political leaders, and also to the international bodies of each of the denominational groups. Then they took to the streets.

I spoke by Skype with Vlady Raichinov who is vice president of the Evangelical Alliance of Bulgaria. He told me about the protests:

RAICHINOV: And Christians would go out, with signs of disagreement for example, State should be different and separate from church. And this started the end of October and went on for a series of seven protests every Sunday after the morning worship service. Christians would go have a lunch and then go spend the whole afternoon on the streets. Including days of sun. Including days of rain. And especially one of them was a day of a snow blizzard.

REICHARD: So what happened?

SCHMITT: At first there was little media attention or response from the government. But slowly that changed. A couple foreign news agencies picked up the story. The European Evangelical Alliance started lobbying agencies like the European Court of Human Rights and the European Council. The Baptist World Alliance got its member nations to write to the Bulgarian government.

As you might imagine, the Bulgarian government didn’t like all the negative attention. Christians meanwhile, moved their protest to weekdays in front of parliament. This was right before Christmas, so at one point they got permission to use speakers and started blasting Christmas music in the direction of the offices.

REICHARD: I’ll bet that got their attention!

It did! The head of the religious affairs committee and other parliament members stopped to talk to them. Another day, they had the opportunity to give each member of parliament a Bible with a personal message written in it.

Still when the vote came on December 21st, it really wasn’t sure how it would go.

Here’s Raichinov: 

RAICHINOV: The whole parliament said, we will vote these things in. Two months later, at the end of December. they just dropped it.


SCHMITT: Yeah. Really incredible. All of the really restrictive provisions were dropped.

When I asked Raichinov about the good that has come out of this trial, he said by far the greatest thing was the unity that Bulgarian Christians experienced across many denominations.

He also talked about how this situation made the media, the government, and all of society recognize that evangelicals are an invested part of Bulgarian society. Another thing he emphasized was how much it meant to Christians there to feel the support of the Christian community around the world.

RAICHINOV: One lesson is that no country in this world is an island. Every denomination is a global family, so if we hear of a social injustice or religious persecution in another country—Kazakhstan, in Russia, even in America—we want to respond as a church, and as a community, because this matters.

REICHARD: We definitely need each other in the body of Christ.

SCHMITT: Yes, we do. And in fact, Bulgarians may have an opportunity to speak out fairly soon on behalf of Christians in France. French President Emmanuel Macron announced he wants to revise France’s religion law this year. Christians there have begun praying about those revisions, and that they’ll be able to give input.

REICHARD: Well, you’ll have to keep us up to date on that. Jenny Lind Schmitt is a correspondent for WORLD Radio. Thank you, Jenny.

SCHMITT: Thank you, Mary.

(Photo/Vlady Raichinov)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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