Bulgarian proposals would affect churches

Proposed amendments to Bulgaria’s Religious Denominations Act could affect financial support for United Methodist pastors, as well as who could serve.
Proposed amendments to Bulgaria’s Religious Denominations Act would dramatically affect whether United Methodists here could receive international support essential for churches to operate. The proposals would also limit who the government would allow to serve as pastors. The amendments now in a Bulgarian Parliament committee have not yet made their way into the full body, but concerns are great that they could become law, said the Rev. Daniel Topalski, superintendent of the UMC in Bulgaria and in Romania. «We are a country of many miracles and surprises», said Topalski. «But, these nationalistic trends are everywhere across Europe. We are not an exception».
According to Superintendent Topalski, Bulgaria’s Religious Confessions Law was developed after the fall of communism to guarantee religious freedom. However, the changes proposed would cause the opposite as they would give the Religious Confessions Directorate control over donations, religious institution accreditation and education. While the law was designed to curb influence from Muslim extremists outside the country, opponents argue that these proposals would not achieve that end. Instead, the changes would seriously curb religious practice of both Protestants and Roman Catholics, according to opponents.
Here’s how the act could directly impact United Methodists in Bulgaria, Topalski reports:
- Bulgarian United Methodist churches are part of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe. Churches in these 16 countries share funding, but under proposed legislation, international funding of this type would not be allowed.
- Bulgaria has 18 pastors currently serving in 27 United Methodist churches. Only pastors who have been educated in Bulgarian theological institutions, which now are all Orthodox, would be allowed under the proposal. Three current United Methodist pastors earned their graduate degrees from European seminaries outside Bulgaria. These three could be ineligible to maintain their posts. 
- Partnerships with churches abroad would need government approval – and so would traditional joint mission projects, such as Vacation Bible School.
- Bishop Patrick Streiff, who leads the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference, is from Switzerland. He would need government permission before speaking at any Bulgarian pulpit, as would any pastor from any other country. Prohibiting foreign religious leaders to speak was the practice under communism.
- Currently, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church regulates its own staff salaries and the one Muslim mosque operating in the country has its staff salaries paid for by the neighboring Turkish government. Under the proposed law, any denomination with members making up more than 1 percent of the national population would have their salaries paid by the Bulgarian state. That means Bulgarian taxes would go towards funding Orthodox and Muslim clerics. Members of Protestant or Catholic Churches or members of other religions would therefore also contribute to those funds, but their churches would get no tax money. And there is an additional challenge in this regard: census counts of practicing Christians may be compromised because government officials don’t understand denominational groups, Topalski said. Being Christian in Bulgaria simply means being Orthodox in the popular mindset, he added.
Establishing national United Methodist seminaries in each country across Europe is not financially feasible, and that’s why the Methodist e-Academy was developed to train European pastors online, said David Field, program coordinator of the academy. Students earn a theology degree in their home country, then receive online supplemental education from United Methodist scholars. Five Bulgarian pastors have graduated from the Methodist e-Academy so far, and three more are in training. Under the proposed law, their studies probably would be identified as international because the academy is sponsored by Methodist individuals, boards and agencies in Europe and the USA and therefore could be considered inappropriate. «The government would not be directly licensing pastors, but the effect would be the same», Topalski said.
The Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance – representing 12 Protestant denominations, including United Methodists – has sent a detailed formal objection to parliament arguing that the amendments violate the national constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion. The group’s chairman, Pastor Rumen Bordzhiev, wrote in the appeal: «It is inconceivable that our registered religious institutions would be separated from the European and world body to which they belong».
Bishop Patrick Streiff said that this subject had also been addressed during the General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches in Novi Sad (Serbia) – and that it will remain on the agenda of this European body. According to Bishop Streiff, the reality that attempts to curb the influence of Muslim extremists outside the country might lead to a violation of religious freedom from which suddenly Christian churches can suffer, as well, would not be an isolated Bulgarian case.
Bulgarian Parliament members contacted for this story have not responded to requests for comment.
«We see in this proposal an attempt to cut off the ties between the Methodist church and our wider Methodist family abroad», Topalski said. «We are a religious minority here. It’s important that we are part of a bigger religious family, not only in finances. All these connections are crucial for our survival and ministry».

Source: Ginny Whitehouse / United Methodist News Service

Photo: Ordination service in Varna (Bulgaria) - how will the international connections of the UMC in Bulgaria will look like in the future?