Political row in Bulgaria over ‘Turkish interference’ in Religions Act continues

Political row in Bulgaria over ‘Turkish interference’ in Religions Act continues

The ripples in the political row over alleged Turkish interference in Bulgaria’s controversial amendments to the Religious Denominations Act continued to expand on March 29 as both the government’s nationalist minority partner and the largest opposition party demanded clarity about what had happened.

The row began on March 28 when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was reported to have said that Ankara had intervened against the amendments, which he described as having been detrimental to the Muslim religion in Bulgaria.

The amendments, as approved at second reading, provided for deferment of the debts to the state of faith groups. Mainly affected is the office of the Chief Mufti, spiritual leader of Bulgaria’s Muslim minority, which reportedly owes more than eight million leva (about four million euro) in arrears taxes. The second-reading version differed from the first, which provided for debts to the state owed by religious groups to be written off.

In Parliament on March 29, the United Patriots – the goverment minority partner, which had opposed the amendments – called for Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva to explain to the House what actions had been taken regarding Çavuşoğlu’s statement.

The leader of the United Patriots parliamentary group, Volen Siderov, called on Prime Minister Boiko Borissov to take up the matter.

Another of the United Patriots’ co-leaders, Valeri Simeonov, described the matter as “another provocation by Turkey”.

The third party in the United Patriots grouping, Krassimir Karakachanov’s VMRO, issued a statement asking who was interfering in the affairs of religious groups in Bulgaria, and why.

The VMRO asked what interests were being pursued “in order to forgive debts and open loopholes for foreign financing of the denominations in Bulgaria.”

During the second-reading debate, the United Patriots had tried and failed to get the amendments amended to ban foreign funding of religious groups in Bulgaria.

The VMRO said that it wanted guarantees that Bulgarian politics was protected from external influence.

Kornelia Ninova, leader of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party – which currently is boycotting sittings of the National Assembly – described the matter as “unacceptable interference in our country’s internal affairs”.

She said that the amendments providing for the rescheduling of the debts came after intervention of Turkey, which was a threat to national security and ethnic peace in Bulgaria.

Ninova said that Borissov had to answer when and how the government had been influenced, and why he had agreed to this.

The BSP called on the United Patriots to quit the governing coalition, “otherwise by participating in this Cabinet, it would mean that they approve of this policy”.

Ninova called on the Prosecutor-General to investigate whether there was foreign involvement in the domestic affairs of Bulgaria, and called on head of state President Roumen Radev to convene a sitting of the Consultative Council on National Security on the matter, as well as to veto the amendments to the Religious Denominations Act.

On March 28, Bulgaria’s 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./ibna

(Photo of Çavuşoğlu: Turkish Foreign Ministry)