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Notebook Religion

Prayer and protest

Bulgaria’s parliament building, with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on the left (Jens Kalaene/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

Europe

Prayer and protest

A draconian bill on religion goes down to defeat in Bulgaria

In a dramatic turnabout rarely seen in formerly communist Eastern Europe, the Bulgarian parliament passed a law protecting the liberties of the country’s religious minorities on the final day of its 2018 session.

The original version of the bill threatened to restrict the rights of religious groups representing less than 1 percent of the population—which included at least 100 of the country’s growing evangelical churches. How the turnaround happened—through eight weeks of prayer vigils and organized protests—is a lesson for other threatened believers.

When the government first proposed revisions to an existing religion law in spring 2018, many Bulgarian evangelicals assumed the restrictive articles would be rejected outright. But by autumn, concern turned to alarm as the revisions moved forward, according to Vlady Raichinov of the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance.

The proposed law would have negatively affected evangelical and Catholic churches, some Muslim communities, and other minority religious groups: It called for restricting seminary training, limiting foreign donations, banning foreign preachers without the presence of a Bulgarian minister, and banning worship outside of designated registered buildings. 

The government claimed the measures were to protect Bulgaria—one of the EU’s border nations—from outside radicalism. Critics voiced alarm that majority parties would back a proposal that threatened a return to communist-era repressions. Although exempted by the 1 percent population threshold and standing to gain financially from the new law, Orthodox and Muslim leaders also criticized the proposal as dangerously intrusive on religious life.

By October it became clear parliament would proceed with considering the measure. Evangelical leaders across denominations gathered to plan a unified response. Pastors mobilized churches to pray and encouraged congregants to write their parliamentarians. They also organized protests. For seven consecutive Sundays in November and December, evangelicals went from church services to the streets, rallying 4,000 demonstrators in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, alone. The peaceful protests spread to 11 other major cities.

Initially Bulgarian media ignored the protests, but the letter-writing campaign spread to European diplomatic institutions, and the movement gained wider traction. Bulgarian television invited evangelical leaders to present their case, and international pressure began to mount on the Bulgarian parliament.

“This is a quick issue with far-reaching effects that caught our leaders there by surprise,” Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Elijah Brown told WORLD, as the group’s network of congregations on five continents took a stand against the proposed law.

In December, blizzard conditions threatened but didn’t halt protests. Leaders gathered in front of the parliament building, gave Bibles to passing lawmakers, and explained why they opposed the legislation. Evangelicals held a vigil outside the parliament building during the Dec. 21 vote on the law, praying for an outcome that seemed anything but certain. “It’s amazing that the parliamentarians took out every offensive article when only two months before they had voted the complete opposite,” said Raichinov. “Only God can do that.”

Raichinov believes the legal challenge brought unity to the Bulgarian evangelical churches. An unexpected positive outcome is recognition of the evangelical community by government and society: Even with protests still underway, a government committee invited evangelical leaders to provide input on moral considerations regarding other issues, like human organ donation.

“We were encouraged by the response of the global Christian community. No country is an island, and every denomination is a global family. We want to support other countries in the same way,” said Raichinov.

Sofia was the setting in A.D. 311 for the “Edict of Toleration” that paved the way for the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Evangelicals believe they’ve again witnessed a victory over excessive state control. Said the Baptist World Alliance’s Brown: “God has granted us a remarkable blessing, by allowing us to see the will of the political powers changed.”