Attacks on Bulgarian mosques: ‘This hatred is new to us’

Burning guard post in front of Roma leader's house

Muslims and Roma may be the new scapegoats in Bulgaria.

Attacks on Bulgarian mosques: ‘This hatred is new to us’

Anna Zacharias

Violent ethnic riots swept Bulgaria weeks before this Sunday’s presidential elections, following the killing of a teenager by a man with links to a local Roma crime boss. Originally aimed at highlighting the alleged corruption of “Tsar” Kiril Rashkov, these demonstrations soon spread across the country, before ugly scenes developed. Rioters turned on ethnic minorities and Muslims and attacked mosques in both Sofia, the capital, and Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city.

A few months earlier, politicians and the public had gathered to show their support for a unified Bulgaria following violent demonstrations outside Sofia’s historic Banya Bashi mosque. But what began as a “peaceful protest” against the volume of loudspeakers that broadcast the call to prayer, ended with supporters of Ataka, the ultra-nationalist party, setting fire to prayer mats and pelting worshippers with stones.

Some observers equated this attack with the creep of Islamophobia being seen in parts of western Europe. Yet it came as a shock to many in a country that prides itself on its history of religious tolerance.

“[That] was something nobody expected,” said Mustafa Alish Hadji, the grand mufti and leader of Muslims in Bulgaria, following the protests. “It is worrying for Muslims and Christians because it [creates] tension that didn’t exist before.”

Ethnic distinctions have become a favoured topic to exploit in the country’s post-communist political landscape, particularly since Ataka won 9.36 per cent of the vote in the 2009 parliamentary elections, establishing an informal coalition with the governing centre-right party.

But, while Ataka’s hardline rhetoric has served it well, the mosque protests did not get the expected results – ethnic sectarianism is accepted in Bulgaria, religious sectarianism is not. The public laid flowers at the mosque and opposition politicians denounced the attacks as a publicity stunt in the preamble to this Sunday’s municipal and presidential elections, in which Volen Siderov, the Ataka leader, is running for president using the campaign slogan, “I am your weapon, use it”.

Ataka was condemned in a declaration by Parliament to be “dangerous to the government” with an attitude “completely foreign to the Bulgarian people and their religious and ethnic tolerance”.

Irrespective of ethnicity, Bulgarian Muslims face prosecution because they are considered “Turkish” and associated with the rule of the Ottoman empire.

While myths of the terrible Turk are ubiquitous in Bulgarian culture – painted on churches and reenacted in village celebrations – so, too, is a strong sense of religious acceptance.

“This hatred is new to us,” said Hadji. “It’s the first time we have seen such nationalism and seen such hatred towards others. Most Muslims are rural. The problem is not in rural areas, it is in towns and in cities. Nationalism has more power [there] than in the villages,” he said. “In the city, people don’t know each other so well. In the village, Muslims and Christians live and pray together. Nationalism has no way to separate them.”

Nowhere is this religious tolerance better exemplified than in the villages of the Rhodope mountains, where minarets rise above thick clusters of pine trees and Muslims and Christians live side by side.

On the same day that blood stained the steps of the Banya Banshi mosque in Sofia, a three-day wedding was underway in the village of Musfata Alish Hadji. The celebration shared by Christians and Muslims exemplifies Bulgaria’s comfortable blend of Slavic and Eastern traditions. Women with red sequins glued bindi-style to the centre of their brow began the festivities by ring dancing to a pop song. Their performance was followed by belly dancing and exclamations in Greek and Arabic. Around tables spread with banitsa pastry and halva sweets, wedding guests spoke of their shock at the Sofia attacks.

Ramadan, a lorry driver in his thirties who had previously worked in Spain, said Bulgaria was among the most tolerant places in Europe for Muslims.

“The racism in Spain is horrible,” he said. “In the south, they treat us Muslims like s***, they swear at us. This doesn’t happen here. We are respected.”

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