Imams' Trial Tests Bulgaria's Religious Tolerance

Views on BG | October 26, 2012, Friday // 17:29| Views: | Comments: 7
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From The Washington Times

Thirteen religious leaders accused of preaching radical Islam face up to five years in prison in a criminal trial that's testing the limits of religious freedom in this European country.

Prosecutors say the Saudi-financed activities of the imams have been spreading religious extremism and that they have used a local soccer team to indoctrinate boys.

But local officials say the accused ringleader, Said Mutlu, 49, who ran an imam school in the village of Sarnitsa, has done nothing wrong and the case is slandering the Muslim community.

"Terrorists, terrorists — that's what people know about Sarnitsa," Mayor Mustafa Alikantov said. "It's not true that he was espousing anti-democratic views."

Prosecutors allege that three of the imams were undermining the state by encouraging people to boycott parliamentary elections and spreading religious hatred.

The other 10 are implicated in working with Al Waqfal Islami, a Saudi-financed charity that built mosques, sent boys on trips to the Middle East and financed religious education in Bulgaria that prosecutors say embraced the Salafist brand of fundamentalist Islam.

The Bulgarian government closed Al Waqfal Islami in 2003, but prosecutors say the 13 accused continued its work without a license.

The trial, which resumes Monday, is a test for Bulgaria on whether this former Soviet republic will criminalize religious association.

It has been sensationalized in Bulgarian media, with photos of sympathetic demonstrators being branded "jihadis" and "Taliban."

Regardless, large groups continue to demonstrate silently outside the central courthouse in Pazardzhik during each court hearing, holding banners and placards.

Unlike the majority of Bulgaria's Muslims, the people in these southern districts of the country are not ethnic Turks. They call themselves Bulgarian Muslims and have little affinity to neighboring Turkey.

This mountainous region has seen many of its mines shuttered, and many of its inhabitants eke out a hardscrabble existence by cutting timber and farming potatoes.

One of the accused, Hayri Sherifov, runs the central mosque in the mountain town of Rudozem. He says he studied Shariah, or Islamic, law in Saudi Arabia on a scholarship to train imams because there were no such opportunities in Bulgaria.

"These people have needs. They need someone to teach them religion," Mr. Sherifov said.

Upon his return, he says he found himself under suspicion by Bulgaria's internal security agency, DANS.

"We have always been squeezed by DANS," he said. "I don't remember a year when I wasn't called in for questioning — there were even some threats. They call you in, you sit on a chair, three or four guys surround you like you're guilty of something."

Security officials did not respond to requests for comment.

But a senior DANS official who asked not be named because he's not authorized to speak to the media confirmed that intelligence agents have been keeping tabs on foreign religious donors since at least 2005.

"Everyone who goes abroad for training is monitored because he could be the so-called sleeper cell," the official said.

He said there are troubling signs that Bulgarian Muslims are being exposed to radical elements, though he questioned whether there's enough evidence to convict anyone.

"We've found literature for spreading jihad. There are all the signs for a Wahabist movement," the security official said, referring to a conservative sect of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. "But there are no facts, no solid evidence that could hold up in court."

The trial also has a political dimension.

Earlier this month, Volen Siderov, leader of the far-right nationalist party Ataka, which holds a few seats in parliament, called for a moratorium on mosques.

"We are traditionally an Orthodox country. That's what it says in the constitution," Mr. Siderov told Nova TV. "We hope there are enough patriots in the National Assembly to ban the construction of mosques."

Mr. Siderov's remarks reflect only a fringe of society, but it's rhetoric like this that makes Bulgarian Muslims uneasy about their image.

In the 1980s, the communist government forced many Muslims to change their names. Mosques were closed, and head scarves for women were banned.

Deadly riots ensued, pressuring the government to open the border with Turkey in 1989. Some 300,000 Muslims — mostly ethnic Turks — fled to Turkey in what the parliament recognized this year as an act of "ethnic cleansing."

These southern mountain regions remain very poor and politically irrelevant, says Mihail Ivanov, a former presidential adviser on ethnic policy.

"After 1989, the Muslims in the Rhodope Mountains became very disappointed that no one defends their interests," he said.

So long as the state refuses to support its domestic Muslim population — in the same way Orthodox Christian schools are supported — Bulgarian Muslims will seek religious training elsewhere, he added.

"The money given by the state for the Muslim education is extremely little, so any rebuke over foreign financing isn't really fair," Mr. Ivanov said. "If they don't want [foreign donors], they should finance it themselves."

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» To the forumComments (7)
Seedy - 1 Nov 2012 // 09:37:19

Gosh! I wonder what I used to do for self-enlightenment before Maharishi Yogi Chushki came to show me my True Self.... :D

Chushki - 1 Nov 2012 // 08:59:19

Seedy ''ALL religions are mumbo-jumbo. Islam is medieval. I have never claimed to be erudite. I was not a lady last time I looked... ;)''

By reading between the lines its clear that what Seedy is really trying to say is ''We do not want any other god than Germany itself. It is essential to have fanatical faith and hope and love in and for Germany."

DP - 31 Oct 2012 // 22:37:44

“ALL religions are mumbo-jumbo. Islam is medieval. I have never claimed to be erudite. I was not a lady last time I looked... ;)”

What a mumbo-jumbo for an answer... Next time you start yelling to someone to go get an education about something remember this post of yours my, self-proclaimed, “shallow, ignorant, illiterate, uneducated, uninformed, unthinking, unschooled, unlettered, untaught” friend (any of those will do since those are the antonyms to erudite).

I will not go as far as the meaning of your last statement goes... Cheers! ;)

Seedy - 31 Oct 2012 // 20:58:21

ALL religions are mumbo-jumbo. Islam is medieval. I have never claimed to be erudite. I was not a lady last time I looked... ;)

DP - 31 Oct 2012 // 19:44:14

“However, why should the state waste money on ANY variety of "education" in medieval mumbo-jumbo?”

Seedy, why do you keep referring to religion as “medieval mumbo-jumbo ”? Most religions are far older than the middle ages. You should know that being as highly educated /erudite as you claim to be ;).

BTYW is there any truth to the rumour of you being a lady? Just asking...

Seedy - 31 Oct 2012 // 10:30:19

So someone missed out the word "bloc" in the initial, now-corrected, text - big deal!

However, why should the state waste money on ANY variety of "education" in medieval mumbo-jumbo?

Yane - 30 Oct 2012 // 21:15:37

Article made by someone with a Bulgarian sounding name that thinks Bulgaria was a Soviet Republic, he's really an American now and nothing else.

Western media is unprofessional.

Bulgaria news (Sofia News Agency - is unique with being a real time news provider in English that informs its readers about the latest Bulgarian news. The editorial staff also publishes a daily online newspaper "Sofia Morning News." (Sofia News Agency - and Sofia Morning News publish the latest economic, political and cultural news that take place in Bulgaria. Foreign media analysis on Bulgaria and World News in Brief are also part of the web site and the online newspaper. News Bulgaria