The Bulgarian parliament is revising controversial draft amendments to a national religion law that critics say would have asserted state control over churches and ministries and could have resulted in the closure of evangelical Christian schools and congregations.
Following protests last week from faith groups, parties in Bulgaria’s Parliament are working to revise amendments that were proposed to the Balkan nation’s Religious Denomination Act, according to the Sofia Globe.
The proposed law would have required Bulgarian citizens who want permission to preach to complete their theological education in Bulgaria or at a foreign school approved by the Bulgarian government.
The proposal would have also made it so only Eastern Orthodox and Muslim institutions recognized by the government would be able to train clergy and run faith-based schools in the country.
The law would have banned religious activities from taking place outside of buildings designated for religious activity and would have made it so only religious groups with 300 people or more would be granted legal status.
Additionally, the amendments would have required foreigners looking to preach to do so in the presence of a Bulgarian-ordained minister. As well, foreign donations to churches would have needed government approval.
The proposed draft amendments, which passed on first reading in October, received immense backlash from many Christians across denominational lines who believe that the amendments threaten the freedom of local churches and the independent nature of the training of church leaders.
Critics feared that the law would force churches and institutions to “close or face unbearable and discriminatory burdens.”
Along with evangelicals, Baptists and Catholics, the majority Orthodox community has also voiced concern with the proposed law, which supporters say intends to crackdown on the spread of radical Islam.
Thousands of Christians took the streets in cities across the country to protest the law last week.
“We will continue the protests and prayer meetings in Bulgaria until the suggested changes to religious laws are completely withdrawn or until we see realistic proposals which guard religious freedoms and the right to a belief of everyone in Bulgaria.” the Rev. Teodor Oprenov, pastor at First Baptist Church in the nation’s capital of Sofia, told the Transform Europe Network.
According to the Sofia Globe, the revised bill eliminates the proposed ban on foreigners conducting religious services without the approval of the government.
Reportedly, the revised version would allow foreigners with a short-term residence to conduct services while a foreign cleric in Bulgaria on travel would have to notify the government of his presence.
The revision also eliminates a rule that would have made it so that only Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Muslim minority would be eligible for state subsidies.
Additionally, the revised version of the bill will allow for foreign donations to religious groups.
Although the proposal to change the Religious Denomination Act was an attempt by parliamentary parties to deal with the spread of radical Islam in Bulgaria, faith organizations and alliances at both the national and international levels have raised concern about the implications such a law would have on religious freedom rights of Bulgarians.
"The proposed law legalizes state interference in the affairs of religious communities, which invariably comes at the expense of religious freedom," World Evangelical Alliance Secretary General Bishop Efraim Tendero said in a statement this month. "At a time when governments worldwide face the challenge of strengthening freedoms while maintaining security, we call on Bulgaria and other democratic countries to lead by example and to strengthen the right to religious freedom rather than to weaken it."
The bill has been tabled for further review before a second reading. No date has been set for the second reading, the Sofia Globe reports.