Amendments to Bulgaria’s Religious Denominations Act approved by Parliament have caused a flurry of exchanges between Sofia and Ankara, after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu reportedly claimed that the changes were directed against the Muslim religion.
The amendments, approved at second reading on March 28, provide for a 10-year deferment of debts owed to the state by religious denominations. This is a change from the first reading, which had envisaged writing off these debts.
The main faith group affected by the amendments is the office of the Chief Mufti, spiritual leader of Bulgaria’s Muslim minority, which is said to owe about eight million leva (about four million euro) in arrears taxes and other payments to the Bulgarian state.
The amendments were tabled by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the latter a party historically with an electorate based mainly on Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish minority. The amendments were opposed by the nationalist United Patriots.
The drama about the amendments took on new life when Çavuşoğlu was reported to have said that Ankara had intervened in the amendments to the law. He reportedly said that Ankara was in contact with Sofia to find a solution to the Chief Mufti’s debts.
According to reports, Çavuşoğlu said that “now that the Chief Mufti has some debts, in return they wanted to sell his own property” – an apparent reference to claims of debt collection proceedings by the Bulgarian state.
Çavuşoğlu said that the amendments had been against all sorts of fundamental rights and freedoms, and Turkey had had to intervene so that changes were made.
He added that Ankara “day and night works for the interests of Turkish communities abroad and this is one of the priorities of the country’s foreign policy.”
On the evening of March 28, there were unconfirmed reports that Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva had summoned the Turkish ambassador for consultations.
Later, the Foreign Ministry said that a telephone conversation between Çavuşoğlu and Zaharieva had taken place, at the request of the Turkish foreign minister.
According to the Foreign Ministry, Çavuşoğlu voiced concern that the amendments to the Religiou Denominations Act were directed against the Muslim community.
Zaharieva told Çavuşoğlu that the amendments to the law submitted by MPs were not directed against any religion in the country but on the contrary guaranteed equal treatment of all registered religious denominations.
Bulgaria could not accept foreign involvement in its legislative process, Zaharieva said, noting that Çavuşoğlu’s speech was delivered days before the local elections in Turkey.
Bulgarian National Radio reported a spokesperson for the Chief Mufti’s office as saying: “I now hear from you about such a statement by the Foreign Minister of Turkey, but Bulgaria is a sovereign state and I do not think there is any external intervention, but if there is, these issues should be directed at those who correspond to a high state level “. The Chief Mufti’s office welcomed Parliament’s approval of the amendments./ibna