By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
The case of Karlovo and the Kurşun Mosque
At the end of the 1860s, Vassil Levski, a hero of Bulgaria’s liberation struggle against Ottoman rule, expressed his vision for the future of the country that he wanted to see free; a vision that included that all who lived in a free Bulgaria would enjoy equal rights irrespective of their religious affiliation.
Bulgaria’s freedom fighters were seeking to rid the country of the rule of the Sultan, but were not fighting against the Turkish people nor their religion, Levski said.
Today, however, in the town of Karlovo, religion is being invoked as a divisive issue, after a court ruled that the Kurşun Mosque in the centre of the town – which had some time ago been designated for use as a museum – should be restored to the office of the Chief Mufti, the spiritual leader of Bulgaria’s Muslims.
The October ruling has led to continuing protests by residents of Karlovo, with mayor Emil Kabaivanov among the leaders of the protests.
Ironically, Karlovo is the birthplace of Vassil Levski. But anyone who might hope that Levski’s vision might be remembered amid the controversy will be disappointed. That is because most of those protesting expressed offence at a mosque operating in the centre of the town that gave Bulgaria Levski, a former Orthodox Christian monk turned revolutionary whose heroic freedom struggle ended on an Ottoman gallows in Sofia.
Protesters also object to the Kurşun Mosque again being used as a Muslim house of worship on the basis of the argument that the town already has a working mosque (actually, seriously damaged in a fire three years ago) and, in the view of the protesters, the size of the Muslim community is not enough to justify two mosques in the town of about 25 000 people. Reliable figures for the proportion of Karlovo’s population that is Muslim are hard to come by. Overall, about 10 per cent of Bulgarians are Muslims; Karlovo is in Plovdiv province, where about eight per cent of the population is Muslim. Unofficial reports put the Muslim population of Karlovo at five per cent.
The court made its award on historical grounds. The mosque was built in 1485, apparently using rubble from a demolished monastery in its construction, and its builder bequeathed the property to his five sons. The court found in 2013 that the legitimate successor was the Chief Mufti.
Local outrage at the decision was considerable, but also fuelled largely by ultra-nationalist political interests.
Mayor Kabaivanov, ironically, is a former leader of the centre-right Union of Democratic Forces, but the all-party rejection of the mosque in the centre of Karlovo appears to be driven by parties such as Ataka and the VMRO.
Local media added, at the time that protests began on November 9, that Levski football club fans were expected to join in. On the day of protest, Levski fans were there, along with fans of other football clubs. Kabaivanov and other local politicians addressed the protest rally, as did an Orthodox Christian priest.
Footage showed, interestingly, that among the protesters was a man who turned up at other protests, for example in a failed attempt to break the anti-government occupation of Sofia University in November; also at a left-wing protest against President Plevneliev; and in the crowd at a rally by wannabe politician Nikolai Barekov, a former journalist who styles himself an opponent of Bulgaria’s current political establishment.
The fact is that the squabble over the 15th century mosque, dressed up as a religious issue, with some participants invoking their affiliation to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in objecting to the mosque, actually is linked to much broader national political issues.
One is the attempt by ultra-nationalist political groupings to again use Islamophobia to bolster their political fortunes, including ahead of Bulgaria’s 2014 European Parliament elections. For Ataka, there is a desperate scrabble for credibility after Volen Siderov’s party acted time and again to put and keep the largely ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms in power as part of Bulgaria’s current ruling axis.
After the Plovdiv District Court made its ruling on the Kurşun mosque, it was Ataka that announced that it was launching a petition against the mosque (managing, inter alia, to somehow blame President Plevneliev for allegedly “putting pressure on the court” – there is, predictably, no evidence to suggest that Plevneliev did so) and adding that while there had been a fire at the other mosque, the former centre-right government had provided funds for its restoration.
Somewhat hysterically (a state of emotion not uncharacteristic of Siderov’s party), Ataka said that the mosque being operational would turn Karlovo from a Bulgarian National Revival village into “the image of an Oriental Islamic village”.
The other way in which the mosque in Karlovo links into national political issues is the attempt by some political forces to stoke Islamophobia against the background of the recent increase in refugees coming to Bulgaria from the Middle East and North Africa. Within the ruling axis and especially for parties like Ataka, the emotions around the refugee issue – although not that the issue is not a legitimate topic for debate – serve as a useful distraction from public focus on the highly discredited current government.
In Karlovo, at least, the emotions are working in favour of the local alliance against the mosque being used as a mosque. Local media said that by November 9, about 10 000 people from Karlovo had signed the petition.
Residents were ready to talk to the media about the issue. One told reporters, “I live just 20 metres from the mosque and all that remains for me now is to get a little carpet and pray”.
In its statement, VMRO, a party with no seats in Parliament, said that most Muslim houses of worship in Bulgaria were built on the ruins of Christian churches, Thracian sanctuaries, or both. The VMRO said that it was against “the invasion of radical Islam in our country” and the claims by the Chief Mufti’s office in Karlovo and elsewhere.
Mayor Kabaivanov wrote to the Chief Mufti’s office, asking for the court action to be dropped, saying that the people of Karlovo – Christian and Muslim – always had lived in harmony “but with this court action you oppose us against each other, you divide us”. Kabaivanov added that when funds were being raised for the restoration of the other mosque, Christians had contributed. The Chief Mufti’s website makes no discernible reference to the Karlovo issue.
Mayors in towns elsewhere in Bulgaria where the Chief Mufti’s office has lodged claims blame recent changes to the Religious Denominations Act as putting property in Bulgaria “up for grabs”.
In spite of this claim, however, courts in Bulgaria far from universally have been finding in favour of the Chief Mufti – elsewhere, a number of claims have been turned down.
Suspicion in some quarters about the Chief Mufti’s motives are driven by the fact that some claims involve properties that are in secular use or vacant, rather than being mosques.
It may be cynical to suggest that there is unlikely to be any immediate backtrack on the changes to the law on religious denominations that made the claims possible. That is because, in a way, everyone is winning.
The Chief Mufti’s office has the opportunity to be awarded properties, but at the same time, is hardly unique in this position, because the law confers precisely the same rights on other religious groups.
The issue is a handy one for ultra-nationalists, who have a protest topic tailor-made for them and their brand of anti-Islam, anti-Turkish and supposedly Orthodox Christian ideology.
Finally, and again, the issue periodically makes headlines, distracting from wider national political issues such as the continuing campaign to get the government to resign, to say nothing of important questions about whether anything will be done to revive Bulgaria’s economy.
In fact, there is something in the issue of Karlovo’s Kurşun Mosque for almost everyone – the exception probably being the memory of what Karlovo’s most famous son, Vassil Levski, stood for.