How Bulgaria Viewed New Religious Movements in 2006

This provocative conference[1] once again highlighted the dichotomies in the sphere of religion in Bulgaria. At one end is the dominant religion in Bulgaria, both in numerical and historical terms, and its followers. In the middle, as in the political arena, is the second-most numerous traditional religious community in the country. All other religious communities follow suit. This separation marginalizes smaller religious communities, those not belonging to the giants. They are thus, right from the start, relegated to existence in the periphery. The reality of accession to the European Union will probably not bring about a significant change in the status quo in this area, but it will certainly require some changes with regard to language. To what extent these changes in the mode of expression will lead to changes in people’s mentality, the reinforcement of democratic values, and zn end to religious discrimination is another matter.


In the first place, the new rhetoric finds its expression in attempts to make a shift in terminology. More and more often, the term “cult” is substituted by the politically correct expression “new religious movements,” in official documents and news reports, and the “war on cults” and “their destructive influence” becomes the euphemistic “new religious movements: problems and perspectives.” There is, however, some resistance to this approach. The “cults” are still there, in the minds of religious fanatics. The “cults” still sell newspapers, by being used to spice up articles emphasizing the threat of terrorism, loss of identity, and giving in to “foreign influence.” Let us recall that the terms “cult,” “national security,” and “traditional faith” have no legal definition; thus, they cannot provide a basis for the relationship between the state and religious denominations. They can only be used in the sphere of historical, social, religious, public, and other types of discourse – as well as in the media, in an attempt to increase the circulation, or popularity of a given outlet.


At the opening, Prof. Vasil Prodanov spoke of “the new situation,” the globalization, and “the religious pluralism confronting traditional religions, which are being assailed with marketing techniques.” Stoycho Yotov [2] spoke on religion and national se- curity, noting that “the aims of the new religious movements are not always religious.” Sometimes, they are “political and demographic.” According to him, “a battle of interests and survival” was being waged.

Georgi Krustev [3] drew attention to Recommendation 1412 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which reaffirmed the Assembly’s commitment to freedom of conscience and religion and pointed out that special legislation targeting “cults” could have an impact on the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed in Article 9 of the Convention on Human Rights.

Ass. Prof. Dimitar Dimitrov [4] emphasized the “brutal proselytism of the new religious movements” and defined the reasons for the existence of “cults” – the “lack of religious upbringing.” Afterwards he read a salutation from the Dean of the Theology Faculty,
Ass. Prof. Dr. Emil Traychev. The conference organizers expressed their profound respect towards the only foreign guest, Friedrich Griess (President of FECRIS [5]), who drew a parallel between the Third Reich, Communism, and “cults,” and voiced his hope that the CSNRM would become a member of his federation. Ralitsa Kostadinova [6] confirmed the Center’s intentions to that effect.

These introductory words clearly delineated the phalanxes and warriors on the “front lines of the war on cults.”

The speakers’ approach was well-known to everyone, while the position expressed by the government representatives seemed a bit more restrained; that is understandable, given the not-atall-unbiased statements of most of the conference organizers and its main participants. The absence from the program of any human rights organizations, expressing an unequivocal position on matters of freedom of religion, undoubtedly strengthened the impression of moderation on the part of the more restrained speakers.

What was the government’s position? Svetla Margaritova [8] cited and underscored Bulgaria’s obligations, and offered a brief introduction to the standards set by the European Court. As a member of the Council of Europe since 1992, Bulgaria needs to harmonize its legislation and practices to European standards. This necessity also follows from our country’s ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. She reminded the participants that to date, Bulgaria had lost several cases before the ECtHR. In her speech, Ms. Margaritova outlined the concrete borderlines of freedom of religion and the acceptable limitations that could be imposed by the religious movements themselves, as well as the acceptable conditions under which, but only in specific cases, restrictive actions may be taken against freedom of religion. She spoke in favor of concrete facts, in contrast to the abstract accusations and threats expressed by most of the other speakers. Svetla Margaritova clearly underlined Bulgaria’s obligation to conform to Art. 9 of the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and examined the Bulgarian legal framework in that area. She confirmed that the term “national security” has no legal definition, and that is why neither the Supreme Administrative Court nor the Sofia City Court (which registers the legal entities representing religious denominations, under the law) could be satisfied with unfounded requests, devoid of concrete evidence and based on a supposed “threat to national security.” According to Jasmina Donkova [9], a “colorful religious landscape” is the hallmark of a democratic civil society, while official registration has to do only with the granting of legal status and participation in the legal realm, but not with the categorization of the religious community. For Donkova, as a government official, “the term “cult” has no legal definition” and is unacceptable, and the official registration is not mandatory for religious movements, since “the law also gives unregistered religious groups the right to practice their faith.” Donkova did not condone the aggressive rhetoric of the majority of the speakers, on the eve of our accession to the European Union, and emphasized that “we need to be more tolerant, to accept people who have differing views and to get used to the idea that they have the same rights as we do, and for which we are fighting for.” She argued that any rights violations in the sphere of religion should be handled by the general legislation, without the imposition of any special restrictions.
The monk Father Zoevski [10] adopted a curious approach. He shattered the “cults” in Russia to pieces, comparing them to “Mafia or Leninist structures.” His speech did not radiate with love of one’s neighbor. The speech of Ibrahim Yalumov [11], who offered an academically rigorous examination of the rights and freedoms in Islam, was met with well-deserved applause.


The concluding portion of the conference was dedicated to the media, and contrary to expectations, was not geared towards a broader spectrum of media outlets covering the issue, but rather, was reserved for an inner circle of radio and television programs and print journalists [12], who shared the views of most of the speakers. On the one hand, these journalists used the same ideology and rhetoric, and on the other, they plainly declared their reluctance to provide a platform for different ideas and doctrines, trying to excuse themselves with the difficulty of getting in touch with the representatives of new religious movements. The excuse rang hollow, given the presence of such representatives and ones from the Religious Affairs Directorate.The new religious denominations in this country and their registered legal entities are still categorized as “a threat to national security,” which calls for preventive measures.The questions that inevitably spring up in the mind of any objectively thinking observer of these events, serve to distance him from the whole pattern.

Asen Genov
Obektiv nagazine, English Dygest, Nov. 2006
Translation: Iva Vatova
[1] From 10 to 12 November 2006, a three-day national conference was held in Sofia, entitled “The New Religious Movements: Problems and Perspectives on the Threshold of the EU”, organized by the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements (CSNRM) and the Working Group on “Religion and National Security” at the Institute of Philosophy Studies of
the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS), with the active cooperation of the Theology Faculty of Sofia University (which provided the hall) and the support of the Council of Ministers

[2] Working group on “religion and national security” at the BAS Institute of Philosophy Studies.

[3] Council of Ministers Directorate of Religious Affairs.

[4] Theology Faculty.

[5] Federation of European Centers for Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS).

[6] Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements.
[7] Bulgarian Parliament and the Council of Ministers Directorate of Religious Affairs

[8] Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Religious

[9] Chief specialist at the Council of Ministers Directorate of
Religious Affairs

[10] Theology student

[11] Dean of the Islamic Institute

[12] “Vyara” [“Faith”] TV network, Studio 865,,,, the Church Gazette, “Zion” radio station, Blagovestie” [“Annunciation”] – Bulgarian National Radio,
Silviya Nikolova, Duma newspaper.

„OBEKTIV“ Magazine of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee

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