University of Sofia, Bulgaria
delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998
Ladies and gentlemen, I come from a traditionally Orthodox country, Bulgaria. The problem of religious liberties has many philosophical implications. This is a problem for religious freedom. By birth, I am a member of the Catholic community. There are about 80,000 Catholics out of a population of more than 9 million. By my way of thinking, I am a scholar and a defender of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. I will briefly present the situation of Catholics in my country, and the Catholic concept of religious freedom.
The Catholic concept of religious freedom originates from those human rights which are enshrined in the Bible, and all international texts, expressing in the most true way the intention and dignity of human beings. The topic of religious freedom has often been studied in recent Vatican documents. In a recent statement, Pope John Paul II spoke about the importance of the rights of human beings to fulfill their religious duties, and to exercise their freedom. The Catholic postulation of religious freedom is clearly stated in Vatican documents such as Nostra Aetate. This declaration inspires Catholics throughout the world to be tolerant of other religions, toward Christians, and especially toward non-Christians.
The Holy Father is aware of the dangers of fanaticism and fundamentalism, and those people who think that they can impose, in the name of religion or science, their own vision of the truth upon others. Christian truth is not, and must not be, fundamentalist. The Catholic Christian doctrine of religious freedom is becoming particularly essential in places where Catholics are minorities, and undergo serious persecution and discrimination. This is the case in my country.
Since the deep political changes of 1989, attitudes toward Catholics haven’t changed. During the communist period, we were forced to hide our membership in the Catholic Church, marry secretly, and baptize our children clandestinely. Because of serious pressure stemming from unemployment and security, Catholic were branded as spies, or as persons allied with foreigners, etc. Still today, ten years after the fall of communism, Orthodox Bulgarians make jokes about Catholics, and do not recognize in their hearts the Catholic identity.
Based on many personal experiences, I can strongly affirm that there is today a fundamentalist form of Orthodox belief in Bulgaria. During the presidential campaign, several candidates asked that a text, designating the Orthodox Church as the official church of Bulgaria, be included in the constitution. The Orthodox religion is defined in this constitution as a traditional religious cult. Priests are trained to pastor, and to protect the Orthodox Church against others. But, against whom must the Orthodox church be protected? Against the Catholics and the Muslims.
Despite the law, properties have not been returned to the Catholic Church. The church is labeled a sect—there is a climate of hostility toward sects coming from the Western world—so they cannot be registered. Meetings are not allowed, and they are openly disrupted. Younger Bulgarians are being indoctrinated into one religious identity. You often see stories in newspapers arguing that, if you are not an Orthodox, you are not a true Bulgarian.
Furthermore, the Synod of the Orthodox Church has been strongly blocking any visit of the pope to Bulgaria, despite demands from the state and the Catholic Church. It is also is very hard to publish Catholic works. I, personally, was about to publish six books written by the pope, but only with foreign support. Finally, when Catholic Cardinal Sylvestrie came to Bulgaria for the canonization of a saint—the first visit of a Catholic official since 1212—not one official received him.