Muslims and Christians Celebrate Together in Bulgarian Town

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SHAFAQNA – In the town of Belitsa, the local mayor has pioneered a joint celebration of Eid for all religious communities – but some Bulgarians fear that tough new laws against religious extremists are recreating divisions in society.

Despite the hot sun at midday on July 5, hundreds of people in the small southeast Bulgarian town Belitsa gathered at the central square to eat traditional sweets at a long table, greeting each other with friendly hugs and listening to Bulgarian folk orchestras.

It was the first time that Bulgarian Muslim and Christians had officially gathered together to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr, or Ramazan Bayram in Bulgaria, the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

“We have no problems with our Christians friends. We have never had any problems. We live in togetherness,” Aishe Ismail, who had come with her family from the nearby village of Avramovo, told BIRN.

Despite the long tradition of coexistence between Muslim and Christian Bulgarians in this region, where the communities are roughly equal in size, over the past 25 years the municipality had only organized common celebrations for the Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas.

“Unfortunately, divisions existed in Belitsa – Christians on the one side and the Muslims on the other. I don’t like such things – I like bringing people together,” Radoslav Revanski, the young new mayor of Belitsa, said.

He was delighted that so many people had come for the feast, and promised to turn this new initiative into a local tradition.

Among all the EU countries, Bulgaria has the largest percentage of Muslim compared to its total population.

According to Pew Research Center’s latest mapping of Muslim populations from 2015, the 1.02 million Muslims in Bulgaria form 13.7 per cent of the country’s population.

Most of these Muslims belong to the country’s largest minority, the ethnic Turks. Sunni followers of the Hanafi tradition, they have a long history of peaceful coexistence with different religious traditions, including Orthodox and Armenian Christians and Jews.

However, despite this tradition of mutual tolerance, in the 1970s and 1980s, during the so-called “Revival Process”, the then ruling Bulgarian Communist Party subjected the Muslim minority to forceful assimilation, which left a deep scar on the country.

Faced by demands to change their names and forfeit their identity, in the summer of 1989, around 360,000 ethnic Turks chose instead to leave their homes and seek refuge in Turkey.

The Ismail family celebrating Ramazan Bayram in their home in Avramovo. Photo: Paul Tutsek

Muslims still remember this period with bitterness. “It is in the past but still … very bad things that have happened to us and we remember them. We hope they never happen again,” Aishe said. “We do not wish to anyone else to suffer our fate,” her husband, Mustafa, added.

The couple insisted that before the assimilation process started, no real divisions existed between the religious communities, but now, over 25 years on, they have not been overcome.

“The politicians and parties are the ones who want to divide us; everyone is fighting for power. Everyone wants to be in politics and have a place in parliament,” Aishe noted. “But we, the Muslims and the Christians, will not allow them”, she added.

Some fear that Bulgaria’s recent legal measures against religious extremism and terrorism will widen the religious divide in Bulgaria as well as limit the fundamental freedoms of its Muslims.

In June, an overwhelming majority on MPs in parliament approved the first reading of a bill banning the wearing of garments covering the face in public, which is known as “the burqa ban”.

Veils that fully cover the face are already outlawed in several towns and cities, such as Pazardjik, Stara Zagora and Burgas.

A proposal by the nationalist coalition, the Patriotic Front, to criminalize radical Islamic preaching also received backing from MPs on its first reading on June 23.

Preachers of radical versions of Islam now face up to three years in prison and fines of up to 5,000 leva [around 2,500 euros], under the proposed changes.

“All the time, our Muslim brothers in Bulgaria call us and express concern about those restrictive measures taken by parliament,” Djelal Faik, secretary-general to the office of the Grand Mufti in Bulgaria, told BIRN on July 4.

He finds it especially worrying that the proposed legal measures fail to clearly define what “radical Islam” actually is, and says the measures could create a backlash in the Muslim community.

“Those laws are unacceptable, have not been coordinated with the Grand Mufti’s Office and unfortunately will create deep problems for Bulgarian society in future,” he commented.

Simeon Evstatiev. Photo: Paul Tutsek

Simeon Evstatiev, a professor of Arab and Islamic history at Sofia University, also noted that lawmakers have not consulted experts while drafting their new anti-extremism laws.

“I hope Bulgarian society will be able to find the best modus, based on its experience, balancing between keeping our traditionally good coexistence with necessary measures against some particularly radical versions of Islamism,” he said.

“What differs Bulgaria from the Western European context is six centuries of coexistence [between Christians and Muslims] which has created bonds between people. What is also different is that it [Bulgaria] does not know how to use this expertise,” Evstatiev added.

The people of Belitsa and the surrounding villages who had gathered to celebrate Eid together did not seem too worried about the dangers of state repression.

“Under Communism, we were afraid of the police. Now I am not afraid of people any more – neither the politicians, nor the police. I am afraid only of Allah,” Aishe observed.

 

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