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Helsinki Commission Report: New Religion Law Conflicts with Bulgaria’s Human Rights Commitments

Washington – Bulgaria’s Law on Religions is “out of step” with the country’s human rights agreements to respect religious freedom, according to a report released today by the United States Helsinki Commission.

The report highlights sections of the Law on Religions which need further evaluation and legislative refinement, and suggests ways to bring the law into conformity with Bulgaria’s human rights commitments since becoming a party to the Helsinki Accords.

“As Bulgaria prepares to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in January, it is troubling that the religion law fails to fulfill all OSCE commitments on religious freedom,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “I sincerely urge my Bulgarian counterparts to seriously consider the recommendations in this report.”

Complications with administering the registration process under the new law have reportedly led to the denial of visas for two Catholic religious orders.

Concerns also exist about the preferential treatment given the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and how that will impact other religious communities. For instance, the law automatically registers the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, thereby forcing the other religious communities to complete the registration process. Registration is critical, as the law ties property ownership rights to legal personality.

The Law on Religions passed the Bulgarian National Assembly on December 20, 2002. In an apparent rush to approve the legislation, certain religious communities were reportedly overlooked for consultations during the hurried drafting process.

The Bulgarian Constitutional Court reviewed the law on July 15, 2003. Six of the court’s twelve judges ruled against the Law on Religions and five in favor. Under Bulgarian law, seven judges must rule against a law for it to be overturned.

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