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Secular accommodation of religious diversity in Bulgaria

Mila Mancheva on religious diversity governance in Bulgaria.
Well, Bulgarian society is traditionally multi-ethnic and multi-religious. It has a number of minorities, together with the Orthodox Christian majority, that is followed by 76% of the country’s population. The biggest religious minority that the country hosts is that of the Muslims, who compose 10% of the country’s population. They’re followed by the Protestant denomination, which is followed by less than 1% of the population, the Catholic denomination, the Armenian Apostolic denomination, as well as by the religion of the Jewish community. All these denominations are smaller and form less or up to 1% of country’s population.
It is very important to elaborate a little bit more about the Muslim denomination in the country, which is composed of three different groups, different in ethnic terms and also linguistic terms. And any scholar of Islam in Bulgaria, but I would say also in the Balkans, has to be aware of these differences, because the religious dynamics within these communities differ very often, very much. So the biggest community within the Muslim community is that of the ethnic Turks, whose mother tongue is Turkish, and they form about 8% of the country’s population. The other Muslim community is that of the Roma. But we have to know that the Roma community in general professes different religions, Orthodox Christianity, Protestantism, and also Islam.
And it is about 30% of the Roma who profess Islam in the country. And this is an estimate that is unofficial by experts in the country. There is no official data about it. So the Muslim Roma, in terms of a mother tongue, they can speak Romanes or they can speak Turkish, being Roma. And the third Muslim community in the country is that of the Pomaks, who are ethnic Bulgarians, whose mother tongue is Bulgarian, and whose religion is Islam. When it comes to the Catholic denomination, the people that follow Catholicism in the country are mostly ethnic Bulgarians, speaking Bulgarian as their mother tongue. Not so homogeneous is the Protestant denomination, which is followed by ethnic Bulgarians, but also by many Roma.
Evangelism or Protestantism is actually very popular among the Roma community. And many Roma from the Islamic denomination or from the Orthodox Christian denomination tend to convert to evangelism for different social reasons. And the Armenian Apostolic denomination is followed by the small Armenian minority in the country. And the Jewish denomination is followed strictly by members of the small Jewish community in the country. What is important to stress is that the religious minorities in Bulgaria are old minorities in the country. The country does not have, I would say, significant immigrant religious minorities.
The country hosts immigrants from various denominations, including Muslims, especially with the latest refugee inflow in Europe, but they’re insignificant in terms of size, and they yet have not formed their own religious communities, I would say.
Well, the governance of religious diversity in Bulgaria has undergone significant change with the fall of the communist regime in 1989. And it was not that much affected with the EU accession in 2007, because the significant changes have already taken place until that moment. We know that the communist regimes all over Europe went hand in hand with strong policies of atheism, and it was the same in Bulgaria. And this was also coupled with a very strong control and supervision on the part of the state over the religious denominations in the country. So during that period, we had suppression of religious expression and strong control of the state over the denominations.
This was changed with the fall of the regime in 1989 and with the acceptance of the new constitution in 1991, which professed freedom of religious expression and also declared that religious institutions are separated from the state. It is also important to note in terms of management of religious diversity that the constitution stipulates that the state should assist the different denominations in the country to promote interreligious tolerance. Although, according to the constitution, denominations have equal rights and equal standing, the constitution declares the Orthodox denomination, which is the majority denomination, a traditional one, which puts it in a bit more favourable position with regard to the other denominations.
So all minority denominations in the country, for example, have to register at the Sofia city court in order to get permission to operate in the country. There is one state institution, the Department of Denominations, that is entrusted with the responsibility to ease the dialogue between the government and the state and the denominations, and it has more or less consultative functions.
Well, one example of a good religious governance that I can bring in probably could relate to the Council of Religious Communities in Bulgaria that has been created following the initiative of Department of Denominations. The department is entrusted with easing the dialogue, facilitating the dialogue between the state and the government and the religious denominations in the country. So the National Council of Religious Communities is informal body. It is not created following any particular law or regulation. But as an informal body, it helps not only the dialogue between the different denominations, but also the dialogue between the different denominations together and the state. It is composed of representatives of each and any denomination in the country.
And they provide statements and opinions on topical issues in the country. That could be social. That could be, to some extent, political. For example, they had statements in the case of the big inflow of refugees in the country and the very strong public opinion against accepting refugees in the country. And presently, they’re also providing statements with regard to new proposed law and denominations in the country, which, in its aim to stop Islamist influence penetrating the country, actually proposes a much stronger interference on the part of the state into the various religious organisations in the country.
So this council can play a very useful and constructive role in matters of religion, and especially in matters of the relationship between the denominations and the state.
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