Bulgaria Orthodox Church Appeals to European Parliament for Reinstatement

Representatives of the Alternate Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church will be visiting Strasbourg from February 12th to the 15th. They will be calling on Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to put pressure on the Bulgarian government to address the state confiscation of Church property and the forcible expulsion of 160 priests from their churches and monasteries.

Bishop Kiril Kostantiiski and Father Jordan Kirilov Lesov have been forced to subsist on the charity of friends and members of their congregations since the loss of their churches in July 2004.

While they supported Bulgaria's entry into the EU, they will raise concerns that the European Union has not pushed for a just resolution to these apparent contraventions of religious freedom. Countries are required to meet European human rights standards as part of the accession process.

The priests represent the Alternate Synod - a group which does not recognise the leadership of Patriarch Maxim, who was appointed as the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church under the Communist Regime in the 1970's.

The group was forced out of their churches on 21 July 2004, after the State Prosecutor decreed that their churches and monasteries should be turned over to the segment of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Maxim. Police carried out the expulsion in a coordinated action across the country. A number of priests and laypeople were reportedly beaten in the process.

Since the expulsions the priests have been forced to hold services for their congregations in the open air which, over the winter, means freezing temperatures, snow and rain.

The case is currently being considered by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. According to their lawyer, Latchezar Popov of the Rule of Law Institute, the case highlights a continuing lack of the rule of law in Bulgaria as it was the Prosecutor's Office which gave an order to the police to carry out the seizures rather than a court decision. It is highly unusual in any legal system for a prosecutor's office to issue such a unilateral order with no court decision to back it up.

Stuart Windsor, Christian Solidarity Worldwide's National Director, says: "We continue to be deeply concerned for the welfare of these priests, many of whom are living in extremely precarious circumstances after having been deprived of their livelihood and vocation by the Bulgarian government. We are also, of course, extremely worried that this blatant violation of religious freedom has taken place in what is now a European Union member state.

"We urge members of the European Parliament to take up this issue with the European Commission and with the Bulgarian government and call upon the Bulgarian government to address this issue in a just manner, in line with their human rights obligations as a full member of the European Union."