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Religious Freedoms and Islamic Revivalism: Some Contradictions of American Foreign Policy in Southeast Europe

Religious Freedoms and Islamic Revivalism: Some Contradictions of American Foreign Policy in Southeast Europe 

Kristen Ghodsee 

Kristen Ghodsee is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College and is currently a member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She will speak at an EES Noon Discussion on May 15, 2007. The following is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report 335.  

Religion was one of the most strictly controlled elements of everyday life under the 45 years of communist rule in Bulgaria. The 1949 Law of Religious Denominations gave the state broad powers over the spiritual life of its citizens. The Bulgarian Communist Party promoted a Marxist atheist ideology, which held that communist subjects would abandon their faith as the living standards of the workers and peasants were improved through the marvels of the command economy. Religious education was largely banned and foreign religious exchanges were prohibited. The official clergies of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Bulgarian Muslim denomination were infiltrated by Communist Party members who mobilized religious discourses to solidify support for the centralized state. In the case of Islam, traditional clothing, burial practices and circumcision were outlawed, and Bulgaria’s Muslims were forced to trade their Turko-Arabic names in for Slavic ones. 

      The advent of democracy in 1989 gradually brought a general loosening of state control over the market and civil society. Although the Bulgarian communists (now called “socialists”) remained in power and the economy was still jealously guarded for the first seven years of the transition, popular outrage at the pre-1989 mistreatment of Bulgaria’s ethnic and religious minorities meant that state control over religious practice was quickly eroded. Exactly as the Bulgarian economy imploded and food rationing was instituted in many cities for the first time since World War II, the country was flooded with foreign religious workers hoping to spread their beliefs to what was perceived as a godless population of lost souls ready for spiritual awakening. 

      As early as 1991, the Jehovah’s Witnesses registered themselves in Sofia. The Pentacostal/Charismatic international missions began work in Bulgaria in 1992, and there were several Pentacostal churches with more than 1,000 members by 1995. The first American missionaries from the Church of the Nazarene arrived in Bulgaria in May 1994, and the Presbyterian Church in America began its “church-planting” missions to Bulgaria in 1996. According to the Presbyterians, the Mormons sent over 5,000 missionaries to Eastern Europe in the summer of 1991 and had bought over 1,000 apartments in Bulgaria to house their religious workers by the late 1990s. In January 1992, Christianity Today magazine declared Eastern Europe a “New Kingdom for the Cults” and specifically singled out Bulgaria as a “Fertile Ground for False Teaching.” At that time, Bulgarian men, women and children were also being proselytized to by the Hare Krishnas, the religious community of the “White Brethren,” the “Children of God,” the Unitarian Church, the Scientologists, the “Word of Life” Church, and the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, along with many other nondenominational Protestants from the United States. 

      Less well documented, however, were the Muslim religious workers and emissaries coming from Western Europe and the Middle East, particularly after the outbreak of the Bosnian War in 1992. Followers of the Gulen movement in Turkey and Pakistani adherents of the Ahmadiyya movement also found their way into Bulgaria. Alongside them were emissaries from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Syria who preached a much more orthodox form of Islam than was traditional for Bulgaria’s rather liberal Hanafi Sunni majority. These Arab visitors were largely rejected by Bulgaria’s Turkish Muslim minority, but they found some interest among Bulgaria’s Roma and Slavic Muslim (Pomak) communities. 

      The Pomaks were particularly targeted by Muslim religious workers throughout the 1990s. Like the Muslims of Bosnia, the Pomaks are generally thought to be the decedents of ethnic Slavs who converted to Islam during the 500 years that the Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Many of these Arab emissaries, however, had a different version of the Pomak origin myth, one that found increasing acceptance among the Muslim populations of the Rhodopi Mountain region along the Bulgarian border with Greece. According to this theory, the Pomaks are not Slavs and converted to Islam during the century immediately following the death of the Prophet Mohammed. They were already Muslims before the Turks arrived in the 14th century, and because the original form of the religion came to the Rhodopi region directly from Saudi Arabia, a return to the “pure” Saudi version of Islam is justified on historical grounds. 

      The influx of foreign religious workers from around the world and local anxieties that they were targeting Bulgaria’s youth led to a reassertion of state interference in the realm of spiritual affairs. The new 1991 Constitution made Bulgarian Orthodoxy the traditional religion of the country, outlawed ethnic or religious political parties, and enshrined the idea that the state could intervene in spiritual affairs if practiced “to the detriment of national security, public order, public health and morals, or of the rights and freedoms of others.” Interestingly, the Constitution is also one of the few constitutions in Europe that explicitly protects the rights of non-believers, declaring that: “the freedom of conscience, the freedom of thought and the choice of religion and of religious or atheistic views shall be inviolable.” To this end, all post-1989 governments have maintained the communist era Directorate of Religious Denominations, a special department attached to the Council of Ministers that local human rights activists refer to as “the religious police.” 

      It was this Directorate that caused the most trouble for the foreign religious workers throughout the 1990s. Since all religious denominations had to be officially registered with the Directorate, they could not openly proselytize or distribute literature without government consent. Furthermore, the Directorate could invoke communist era laws to prohibit the mention of miracles or healing in all public religious sermons, a move clearly targeted at the evangelical charismatic denominations that proliferated throughout Eastern Europe in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism. They could also revoke the registration of a denomination (as they did to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1994) thus depriving them of their rights to perform any religious activities on Bulgarian soil. In fact, throughout the immediate postsocialist period, the Bulgarian government tried very hard to keep the proliferation of new religious movements in check by saddling them with opaque and inconsistent bureaucratic registration procedures or simply refusing registration altogether and letting the police fine, harass and in some cases, expel them. 

      But this heavy-handed government interference with religious freedom flew in the face of the Western European and American expectations for East European states to support open societies. Part of the political transition to liberal democracy required support for civil society. This often took the form of direct financial assistance to local nongovernmental organizations, among them human rights organizations that promoted religious freedom by championing the causes of the new religious movements. In Bulgaria, organizations such as the Tolerance Foundation and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee were ever vigilant and constantly monitored government persecution of religious minorities, suing the Bulgarian state before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on numerous occasions for its violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. These organizations championed the cause of Mormons, Hare Krishnas and Jehovah’s Witnesses in their quests for legal recognition and promoted a more open and tolerant Bulgarian society. 

      But the human rights organizations were not powerful enough to challenge even the considerably weakened postcommunist state, and in 1997 debates began in the United States House of Representatives and Senate over legislation that would force the U.S. president to impose economic sanctions on any country that persecuted Christians. The 1997 Freedom from Religious Persecution Act eventually became the 1998 International Religious Freedoms Act (IRFA) and in its final version protected all peoples (not just Christians) in all countries (except the United States) from religious persecution of any kind. Although the provision for mandatory sanctions was removed, the IRFA did create an at-large ambassador for religious freedoms and instituted a yearly report on religious freedom around the world. Staff within the local U.S. diplomatic missions would closely monitor 194 countries and if they were found to be engaging in religious persecution they could be listed as a “country of concern” and subject to disciplinary actions. 

      Not surprisingly, from the very first report issued in 1999, Bulgaria was guilty of multiple violations of religious freedoms, mostly with regard to American denominations since the reports were based on anecdotal evidence presented to the U.S. embassy by victims of the state. A political officer at the U.S. embassy in Bulgaria explained, “We can’t exactly go to the Ministry of Interior and ask them how they have persecuted their religious minorities this year.” This reporting bias meant that it was largely cases of harassment against American citizens that came to light since Turks or Saudis were not likely to complain to the American embassy. As a result, the yearly International Religious Freedom Reports for Bulgaria were filled with episodes of discriminations against American Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and members of the Church of the Nazarene among others. As a result, the American mission felt compelled to get involved in loosening the legal regime governing religious denominations even as more non-American religious workers entered the country, and new foreign-funded mosques and Koran courses proliferated throughout the country  

      Interestingly, the International Religious Freedoms Reports from 2000 and 2002 mention several incidents of state persecution of foreign Muslims in Bulgaria. In January 2000, six foreign Ahmadi clerics were deported from Bulgaria for preaching “radical Islam.” In that same year, a Jordanian man named Ahmed Musa, the chairman of the Kuwaiti Social Reform Foundation (which had apparently donated over 1.5 million dollars in aid to the Bulgarian Muslim community) was also deported from the country as a threat to national security. Similarly, Dariush Al-Nashif, a stateless person of Palestinian origin, was expelled for promoting Islamic fundamentalism among the Pomak population. In all cases, the director of the Bulgarian national security services, General Atanas Atanasov, claimed that the government had evidence that they were promoting religious beliefs detrimental to the integrity of the Bulgarian state, although none of the evidence was presented publicly. The government feared that Islamic religious workers might promote a Bulgarian version of the Bosnian, Kosovar and Chechnyan separatist movements. 

      In the case of Al-Nashif, human rights organizations successfully sued the government in Strasbourg for a violation of the religious freedom article of the Convention (Article 9). The Bulgarian government has since been sued on two other occasions for Article 9 violations for its interference in internal power disputes among different Muslim leaders. Local experts claimed that the threat of fundamentalism in Bulgaria was completely exaggerated and was the product of false accusations by one of the rival factions within the Muslim denomination. Reports of any sort of radical Islamic activity in the press were usually put down to Slavic Islamophobia and/or media sensationalism. Protecting religious rights meant fighting these negative stereotypes and promoting spiritual pluralism at all costs. 

      In order to protect religious freedom, both the Council of Europe and the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria worked to influence the new Law on Denominations. This law went through multiple drafts and took more than three years to pass, spanning the mandate of two governments. The Bulgarians wanted to keep a rather restrictive law regulating religion in place, while the Americans and the Europeans advocated for a much more liberal interpretation of religious freedom. Local human rights organizations organized opposition among the new religious movements, attempting to propose an alternative draft that would abolish the Directorate of Religious Denominations and get rid of the requirement that made official registration and recognition mandatory in order to conduct religious activities in the country. They also wanted to temper the “national security and public order” clause of the Constitution, which effectively gave the state unlimited power to interfere with denominations that it considered to be a “threat.” In the end, the Bulgarian government’s preferred draft was “saved” by September 11, 2001, when the whole world recognized the potential dangers of religious fundamentalisms. The new Law on Denominations, replacing the 1949 law, went into effect in 2002. 

      At first, the U.S., Western Europe and local human rights groups strongly protested the new law, which affirmed Eastern Orthodoxy as the traditional religion of Bulgaria and exempted it from the registration requirements mandatory for all other denominations. Furthermore, the national security provision was strengthened and the Directorate of Religion Denominations was kept in place, although the primary site of registration for new denominations moved to the courts. Overall, the law was seen as a major loss for Bulgarian democracy, and the American ambassador attempted to convince the sitting Bulgarian president to veto the legislation. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee proclaimed that the new law was more oppressive than the communist law that it replaced. The International Religious Freedoms Report for Bulgaria in 2002 was very critical of the legislation. The wording of the report suggested that the Bulgarian government was going to be under close scrutiny for potential violations of religious freedoms, and that diplomatic pressure would be applied if the Directorate of Religious Denominations continued with its harassment of new religious movements. 

      In time, however, the terrorist bombings in Istanbul (November 15, 2003), Madrid (March 11, 2004) and London (July 7, 2005) significantly soured European public opinion on the whole concept of religious freedoms. The brutal November 2004 murder of a Dutch filmmaker by an Islamic fundamentalist also challenged the limits of West European tolerance, and in that same year France passed a law banning the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public schools. Perhaps as a result of these events, religious freedom and the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities did not play a significant role in Bulgaria’s pre-accession negotiations with the European Union. Indeed as January 1, 2007 steadily approached, there was growing evidence that more orthodox forms of Islam were taking root throughout Bulgaria, but particularly among the Pomak population of the Rhodopi Mountain region. Once accepted, Bulgaria would be first EU country with a large, autochthonous population of Muslims, with somewhere between 13 and 20 percent of the population claiming an Islamic identity of some form. While the Europeans worried that Bulgaria would be a conduit for radicals from the Middle East, Bulgarians worried that their country would attract Islamic fundamentalists from the West, those with EU passports who could not be deported as easily as the Arabs. 

      In fact, several high profile episodes in the summer of 2006 regarding headscarves and soccer jerseys, and the closing down of two radical Islamic websites openly promoting a Chechen-style jihad in Bulgaria in February 2007 finally put the American embassy on notice that perhaps there were some threats to be taken seriously. One high ranking U.S. diplomat in Bulgaria recently explained that, “We care about religious freedoms, but we care about Islamic radicals, too.” But from the Bulgarian perspective, both among government officials and in public opinion, American foreign policy is so strongly associated with the aggressive protection of religious freedoms that even the most orthodox of Muslim believers in Bulgaria welcome inquisitive American researchers with open arms because it is assumed that we are there to protect their human rights. And although the protection of religious freedom is certainly a noble and just cause, it should not always be considered paranoid or oppressive if states (even postcommunist ones) are concerned over ideologies that possibly challenge their territorial integrity. In the ever-Balkanizing Balkans, where a new microstate seems to appear every five years, there is an even greater need for a careful and objective study of the delicate ethnic and religious balance that a country like Bulgaria has struggled so hard to maintain. 

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