Monday, 2 April 2018

Muslims and Christians in Bulgaria, between East and West.

Muslims and Christians in Bulgaria, between East and West.

On the 3rd of March, Bulgarians celebrate the 140th anniversary of the end of the Turkish rule. However, little is known about the relationship between Muslims and Christians in today's Bulgaria, which has the proportionally highest number of Muslims in the European Union. Tertio went to Plovdiv and the southwestern Rhodope Mountains to investigate.

Plovdiv - called Filibe by the Turkish rulers - was an important economic center and a very prosperous city in the Ottoman Empire, together with Constantinople, Edirne and Thessaloniki. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in 1878 led to a massive emigration of Muslims, who felt that they were being targeted by reprisals. After 1878, the total population of the once flourishing Plovdiv fell from 125,000 to less than 30,000.

Today Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria with about 340,000 inhabitants. Although the rich Islamic past is not mentioned in the tourist campaigns for Plovdiv, which will be one of the two "European Capitals of Culture" in 2019 - together with the Italian Matera, the traces of the Ottoman heyday are still visible, especially in the beautiful houses built by the prosperous citizens of Filibe.

“Bulgarian Muslims have quite a lot in common with Christians.”                                         

"Today Bulgaria counts 1200 mosques," Taner Beli tells me. He is the Regional Mufti of Plovdiv and the surrounding region, including the Rhodope mountains. "Plovdiv has only two remaining operating mosques, the Imaret-mosque and the Hüdavendigar mosque, where some 1,000 Muslims gather on Friday to pray.” By way of comparison, in 1650 there were 53 mosques in the city.

“Islamophobic actions are rare in Plovdiv, and Muslims and Christians in general have a good understanding”, Taner Beli tells me. Beli describes how Christians, Jews and Muslims meet every year in Plovdiv to commemorate an attack on the Hüdavendigar Mosque (the mosque is also called Dzhumaya   or “Friday Mosque” in Bulgarian), one of Plovdiv's landmarks, in 2014. According to the authorities and Beli, the mosque was beleaguered by a gang of “hooligans”; the press  described the attackers as a group of hundred nationalists and neo-Nazis.

Professor Maria Schnitter of the Department of Medieval Studies, Anthropology and Theology at the University of Plovdiv, agrees that the relations between Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria can also generally be described as 'good'. This is because, according to her, Bulgaria has its own form of Islam, which is very similar to (orthodox) Christianity.

Millets and Pomaks

Krassimir Asenov, who has written a doctorate about the Bulgarian Muslims, states that those can be divided into two categories, on the one hand, the Turkish-speaking Muslims, called Millets, and the Bulgarian-speaking Pomaks, who mainly live in the Rhodope Mountains.

Asenov argues that both groups have beliefs and folkloric practices that do not correspond with Orthodox Islam. According to Prof. Schnitter, the same applies to the majority of Bulgarian orthodox -Christians. This can be explained by the centuries-long coexistence of Christians and Muslims, which has led to a mixture and even the emergence of similar rituals, such as the superstitious rituals around spirits. "Bulgarian Muslims and Christians are much closer than they think," says Professor Schnitter.

Dr. Asenov also states that the vast majority of Muslims in Bulgaria are heterodox. "Most of them don't know what it means to be a true Muslim. They do not know the orthodox rules of Islam," says Asenov.


"According to the authorities - who carried out a census in 2011 - there would be 577,139 Muslims in Bulgaria, which would come down to 7.8% of the population," says Schnitter. "But according to most experts, these figures are not a correct reflection of the actual number of Muslims. According to a study carried out in 2014, the percentage of Muslims would be as high as 15%, which would mean that Bulgaria proportionally has the highest number if Muslims in the European Union.”

The reasons for this serious underestimation are multifaceted. "First of all, numerous Muslims have not been included in the census because they live outside the system and have no legal address," says Schnitter. This is particularly true for many Millets, who are about 600,000 in Bulgaria. Furthermore, religious identity is a relatively new phenomenon in post-communist Bulgaria, and the census asked for an ethical identity and not for a religious identity.  One last reason is the fact that the government prefers to lump Muslims together with the numerous Roma in Bulgaria. But only part of the approximately one million Roma is Muslim.

The fact that the government prefers to talk about gypsies rather than Muslims is due to the fact that the Millets have very close ties with Turkey, which the government perceives as a threat. This is in contrast to the Muslims living in the Rhodope Mountains, called Pomaks, who have Bulgarian as their mother tongue and are considered to be “native” Bulgarian Muslims, who are an integral part of the population, together with the Christians, and whose mosques are often built next to a church.

Asenov is one of the two municipal civil servants - out of a total of 1000 civil servants - with a Millet background in the whole aggregation of Plovdiv. As vice mayor of Plovdiv-North, he tries to persuade Millet parents to send their children to school and to resist the influence of the "preachers", whether they come from Turkey, Saudi Arabia or represent an Evangelist movement.

The influence of the outside world is increasing, not only on the Millets, but also on the Pomaks in the villages in the Rhodope Mountains. In the villages the typical colorful embroidered headscarves - by which one can recognize a woman's village of origin - gradually make way for black headscarves.


"Turkey's grip is very large", confirms Krassimir Asenov. Imams and Muftis such as Taner Beli are trained in Turkey. Beli, the Regional Mufti of Plovdiv and the region, is well-educated and well-spoken, either in Turkish or Bulgarian. According to Asenov however, Beli only represent the Sunni Muslims (there is also a significant portion of Shi’a Muslims in Bulgaria, who have lived together for centuries with the orthodox-Christians) and Beli receives a great deal of support from (Sunni) Turkey. When I ask Beli where the funds for his organization come from and how the representatives are elected, he does not answer me.

Many of the imams led Friday prayers in Turkish. This is often the only language the Millets speak. This means that a significant proportion of Muslims in Plovdiv live in complete isolation from the Bulgarians and have a parallel society and economy. They trade in goods purchased in Turkey, which they then resell to the Millet community. In this way, this community escapes any form of state control and the tax system.

During his field study at the Plovdiv Millets, Asenov was often confronted with the fact that these Turkish-speaking muslims refuse to learn Bulgarian. This means that their children will have major problems at school - if they go to school at all - they will be poorly educated and will not be able to find a decent job later on.

Another phenomenon in Bulgaria (as is the case in other Balkan countries) is the “Muftiism”. For each hierarchical level of the Islamic representatives there is an official title, from the preacher (vaiz called in Bulgarian) and the shoora (a council of elected Muslims), to the Regional Mufti and the Chief Mufti in Sofia.

“Hoping for an economic boost through tourism from other European countries”

Cautious rapprochement

However, there are signs of a cautious rapprochement between Bulgaria and Turkey. Turkey is currently restoring numerous Bulgarian churches, and a number of mosques are being restored to their former glory, including in Razgrad near the Turkish-Bulgarian border in the province of Edirne. But rather than looking to the East, Bulgaria is looking to the West and hopes - as one of the poorest countries in Europe - for an economic boost through tourism from the other EU countries, particularly when Plovdiv becomes one of Europe's capitals of culture next year.













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