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News 11 Aug 17

Frozen Turkish Funding Leaves Bulgarian Imams Without Pay

Bulgaria’s around 600 imams have been left without money for salaries since the country allegedly cancelled a funding agreement for Islamic education with Turkey, Bulgarian Grand Mufti’s Office says.

Mariya Cheresheva
The Banya Bashi mosque in Sofia. Photo: Photo: Grand Mufti's Office

Since March, funding for Bulgaria’s Islamic schools, previously provided by the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, has been blocked, forcing the Bulgarian Grand Mufti’s office to freeze the salaries of hundreds of imams, Grand Mufti spokesperson Jelal Faik told BIRN on Thursday.

BIRN approached the governmental press service with questions regarding the current state of the funding for the Bulgarian Muslim denomination, but they had provided no reply by the time of publication.

Faik said that in order to provide funds for the three Islamic high schools and one High Institute it runs in Bulgaria, it had to cut the pay for its clerics, affecting around 600 imams, 32 of whom have already left.

He added that during the summer season, when schools are on vacation, the Grand Mufti’s Office has managed to repay the salaries of some of the imams, but in September, when the school year begins, the problem will appear again if no funding is provided.

“Tell me what to do now? This is Bulgaria, those are our cadres ... who would come in the place of the ones who leave,” Faik said.

Since 1998 Bulgarian Islamic schools, run by the mufti’s office, have been funded by Turkey according to a protocol signed between the Turkish Diyanet and the religious affairs directorate at the Bulgarian Council of the Ministers. According to the mufti’s office, it used to receive around 2 million leva (1 million euros) per year to cover the expenses for its educational activities.

But in April, after a significant delay in receiving the cash, the mufti’s office was told by the Diyanet that the funding protocol had been unilaterally cancelled by the Bulgarian interim cabinet in March, amid growing tensions between the two countries over Turkey’s blatant interference in Bulgaria’s snap parliamentary vote on March 26.

The topic of Turkey’s meddling in Bulgaria’s internal affairs assumed centre stage in the Bulgarian election with a number of Turkish diplomats expelled or banned from entering Bulgaria after accusations of attempted voter influence

Since then, the agreement had not been renewed, leaving the Grand Mufti’s office without funds for its essential activities.

Faik told BIRN that the mufti’s office had sent two official requests for a meeting with Prime Minister Boyko Borissov to discuss problems, but had received no answer.

The Bulgarian government has not yet officially commented on the issue.

 In June, it told weekly newspaper Capital that the financial relations between the Diyanet and the Grand Mufti’s office are a private matter and the government’s religious affairs directorate had not been informed about whether the grant agreement had been scrapped.

Bulgaria’s Muslim minority makes up about 13 per cent of the population. 

“How can we take care for the spiritual life of the Muslims and prevent their radicalisation?” Faik asked, expressing concern that the lack of funding for teaching traditional forms of Islam could push Bulgaria’s Muslims to some of its more extreme forms such as Salafism and Wahabbism.

He called on the Bulgarian state to provide all necessary funding for official religious denominations in the country.

In June, prime minister Boyko Borissov announced that the MPs would start working on amendments to the law on religious denominations that would ban foreign funding, while providing extra state funding for national religions, increasing state control over the activities of the denominations.

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