Five years ago, Bulgaria's Christians witnessed the overthrow of one of the most virulently antireligious Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. They breathed a collective sigh of relief, anticipating the chance to practice their faith without fear of reprisal. For a season, they could.
But that season is quickly coming to an end. In recent months, a swelling wave of religious intolerance that includes government restrictions, vitriolic media attacks, and even violent assaults has buffeted religious minorities.
The current era resembles to an alarming degree the period before the fall of communism-with one important exception: the church is fighting back. Before, churches were driven underground and pastors imprisoned; now, religious minorities are banding together to oppose intolerance.
In one of the most restrictive developments, the Council of Ministers recently denied legal status to several parachurch organizations, including Mission Possible, Youth with a Mission (YWAM), and the local affiliate of Gideons International. The groups can no longer legally engage in public activities, and they also could lose their property.
The action was mandated by a measure passed in February requiring all nondenominational religious groups to seek government approval before registering. Legal analysts say the measure violates constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
In addition, Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city, passed an ordinance prohibiting religious groups from inviting people under age 18 to activities and requiring those groups to submit financial activity reports annually. Rights advocates say the ordinance contains the most restrictive measures since the fall of communism.
Protestants, a significant and growing voting bloc, vow to vent their frustrations over such restrictions during the country's national elections in December. In 1991, Protestants strongly supported the anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). But to their dismay, many UDF deputies, like those of the former communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), strongly supported restrictive laws.
"Protestants had been repressed under communism, so they thought voting for the UDF would ensure their protection and promote their rights," says Krassimir Kanev, secretary of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC).
Nikolay Nedelchev, director of the evangelical LOGOS Bible academy, told CHRISTIANITY TODAY that because of its support for restrictive legislation, the UDF "could lose [Protestant] support."
Filip Dimitrov, UDF head and former prime minister of Bulgaria, told CT that UDF deputies were not aware of all the ramifications of their support for the measures.
"When [UDF deputies] vote on religious matters in the future they should definitely be aware of all the possible implications," he says. "There will be no reason for doubt that the UDF will stand for religious freedom."
Nedelchev says he also would like to see evangelical Christians become directly involved in politics. "It would be good if well-respected, reputable people from Protestant evangelical churches were to become deputies in Parliament."
Several Protestant lawyers have formed a group to explore ways to fight restrictive legislation through the court system.
Some of the animosity toward minority religions stems from pressure by conservatives in the Orthodox church who see the growth of non-Orthodox churches as a threat. Some of the blame also lies with religious groups that have adopted methods of proselytism some Bulgarians find offensive.
But the biggest source of ill will toward minority religions is unfair media portrayals. Newspapers across the country have been running myriad articles disparaging religious minority groups, often replete with unsubstantiated allegations. The articles also frequently blur distinctions between aberrant groups and traditional Protestant groups.
Earlier this year in the northeastern city of Rousse, newspapers blamed the local Church of God for the suicide of a recently released mental patient and called for his death to be avenged. Soon after, a group of 50 skinheads interrupted a service at the church, attacking congregants with stones and iron bars, shouting, "Heretics, dirty Protestants, you will burn in hell!" Several people were severely injured in the attack.
The nation's largest newspaper, "24 Hours," ran an editorial condoning the violence, saying the young "volunteers" had begun the task of halting "the creeping of sects through the Mother-land."
In addition, media protests were instrumental in Operation Mobilization's decision to cancel an August visit by its evangelistic outreach ship, Doulos, to the Black Sea port of Varna. During the summer months, the nation's newspapers grossly misrepresented the aims of the outreach and ran personal attacks on OM officials, one paper repeatedly referring to Doulos as a ministry of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.
PUBLIC RELATIONS CAMPAIGN
Across the country, churches rallied to support the attacked church in Rousse, collecting 35,000 signatures on a petition to be sent to the president, prime minister, and other officials.
But observers say religious minorities will have to go much further. "People are looking for a scapegoat for the country's current unstable political situation and its rising crime rates," says the BHC's Kunev. "So when newspapers publish articles disclosing alleged wrongs of religious associations, that quickly gains roots."
As a result, the public not only confuses evangelicals with aberrant groups, but it is also largely unaware of positive contributions made by non-Orthodox churches. "No one has ever written down what [non-Orthodox] Christians have done," says Stoyko Petkov, president of Studio 865, a Christian media organization. "What's needed is PR-for people to really know what the church is doing, presented in an accurate way."
Hoping to fill the information gap, a growing band of Christian journalists has launched a handful of small but ambitious newspapers. Teodora Emilova, editor-in-chief of the Church of God's monthly, Kristiansky Vesty (Christian News), has developed a reputation for asking public officials candid questions regarding religious liberty.
"Protestantism has historical traditions and roots in our country-a fact that is not widely known," Elena Poptodorova, BSP deputy and member of the parliamentary group on religion, recently told Kristiansky Vesty. "Protestants should tell society more about themselves."
In June, in the city of Chirpan, a dozen Christian journalists met for a Christian publishing seminar led by a YWAM journalist who taught the basics of magazine editing, design, and management.
Minority religions also are protecting their rights by banding together. A citizens' group called the Movement for Equal Rights and Tolerance in Religion formed recently and represents a wide variety of faiths, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), Islam, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The group pushes for the observance of religious freedom provisions in the Constitution and in international human-rights accords.
According to News Network International journalist Barbara Baker, as recently as late 1991 evangelicals in Bulgaria were "still badly fractured by narrow denominationalism," with several instances of one evangelical group "stealing sheep" from another. Today, such reports are rare, as evangelical groups have set aside differences to protect mutual interests.
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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