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"New Bulgarian law on religion sparks criticism"

by Veselin Toshkov (AP, December 20, 2002)

The Bulgarian parliament passed a controversial bill Friday which would consolidate the dominant role of the Orthodox Church in this Balkan country.
The bill, which defines Orthodox Christianity as a "traditional religion in Bulgaria," was initiated by the ruling party, the National Movement Simeon II, and is aimed at ending a schism within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
The law would require all denominations except the Orthodox Church to receive official court registration.
It passed 150-0 in the 240-seat assembly, with others present boycotting the vote.
Representatives of smaller religions and human rights groups have criticized the bill, arguing that it grants the Orthodox Church a position of privilege and could lead to discrimination against other denominations.
"The bill is undemocratic and contravenes the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights," said Emil Cohen, an official with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a secular human rights group.
About 83 percent of the people in this country of 8 million are of Orthodox heritage. There are also smaller Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Protestant communities.
Those who boycotted the vote include legislators from a party whose members are mostly ethnic Turks, and Muslim. They condemned the bill as a violation of religious equality.
A legislator from the opposition Union of Democratic Forces, Ivan Ivanov, said opposition lawmakers would appeal the decision to the country's Constitutional Court. The constitution calls for separation of church and state.
The bill was primarily meant to end a deep rift between supporters of current Patriarch Maxim and backers of his rival, Metropolitan Innokentii.
Innokentii claims to be the church's legitimate leader and accuses Maxim of having cooperated with the communists. Maxim took over leadership of the church in 1971, when the country was still under communist rule.
Bulgarians regained religious freedom in 1989 after almost five decades of forced atheism under the communist regime.

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