The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the law prohibits discrimination based on religious orientation. Federal law bans covering one’s face in public. In September, the federal government recognized the Belgian Buddhist Union, which first applied for recognition as a nondenominational philosophical community in 2008. An application for recognition by the Belgian Hindu Forum, submitted in 2013, remained pending. In December, the government suspended the recognition process for the Great Mosque of Brussels, citing intelligence that it had ties with the Moroccan intelligence agency. In September, the Ghent prosecutor filed a criminal case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Kraainem, charging it with inciting discrimination and hatred after a former member said the congregation shunned him when he reported a case of sexual abuse. In June, the Constitutional Court ruled that universities may ban religious symbols on campuses, specifically headscarves, prompting widespread criticism. In December, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a judgment that a Flemish law requiring the stunning of animals prior to slaughter, including kosher and halal slaughter, is consistent with EU law on religious freedom. The judgment followed a legal challenge by the Jewish and Muslim communities against the Flemish law and a similar one in Wallonia.
Unia (an independent government agency that reviews discrimination complaints) reported that in 2019, the most recent year for which data were available, there were 79 anti-Semitic incidents (compared with 101 in 2018) and 336 incidents (307 in 2018) against other religious groups, 86 percent of which targeted Muslims. Media reported in February that during the annual Aalst Carnival parade, there were anti-Semitic floats and caricatures, as well as marchers who appeared to be dressed as Nazi soldiers.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials in the Office of the Prime Minister; at the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Justice; and with members of parliament to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders in Brussels and other communities to address anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment and to promote religious tolerance. In October, the Ambassador led a discussion on Muslim issues with academics, religious experts, and civil society leaders.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and conscience. Religious groups may worship without registering, but registered groups receive benefits. The constitution recognizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s “traditional” religion, and the law exempts the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) from registration. In December, the Plovdiv Appellate Court began hearing an appeal by 14 Romani Muslims convicted in 2019 of spreading Salafi Islam, among other charges. Muslim leaders again said several municipalities denied permission to build new or rehabilitate existing religious facilities. The Evangelical Alliance and some other religious groups stated the government did not apply COVID-19 restrictions on religious groups equally, favoring the BOC. The European Court of Human Rights stopped the deportation of three Uyghur Muslims to China. In February, a Shumen court ruled the municipality’s ordinance restricting proselytizing was unconstitutional. A parliamentarian and member of the governing political coalition criticized the ruling, which was being appealed, calling Jehovah’s Witnesses a “dangerous sect.” In February, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the Sofia mayor’s ban on the annual march honoring Hristo Lukov, leader of a pro-Nazi organization in the 1940s, restricting the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque. The academy of sciences published a report, backed by several government ministries, denying the World War II-era government had sent Jews to forced labor camps but instead had tried to save them from the Nazis.
The Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) Shalom reported death threats, increased incidents of anti-Semitic hate speech in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and periodic vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and monuments. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported fewer instances of harassment and threats, attributing the change to COVID-19 restrictions. Jehovah’s Witnesses said some media continued to misrepresent their activities. Protestants stated media published information about members of their community who tested positive for COVID-19, while not doing so for members of any other religious group. An Alpha research survey issued in January of Orthodox Christians and nonbelievers found rates of mistrust of Muslims was 26 percent, of Jews and Protestants 10 percent, and of Catholics 8 percent.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly discussed cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives supporting interfaith dialogue with government officials, including representatives of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, and local governments. The Ambassador and embassy officials also met with minority religious groups and supported civil society efforts to encourage tolerance and stimulate interfaith dialogue.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief. A concordat with the Holy See designates Roman Catholicism as the official state religion and extends to the Catholic Church special privileges not granted to other religious groups. These include funding for expenses, including administration and construction, visa exceptions, and exemptions for customs duties. Some members of non-Catholic groups said they did not approve of the government’s preference for the Catholic Church, lack of explicit legal protection for churches beyond what the constitution provided, and treatment of non-Catholic churches as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). According to representatives of non-Catholic groups, a draft law to register and regulate religious entities, if passed, could reduce what they characterized as unequal treatment of religious groups. President Luis Abinader divided the duties of the director of the executive office charged with outreach to the Christian community, with one director overseeing outreach to the evangelical Protestant community and a second director overseeing outreach to the Catholic Church.
In October, the Pontifical University in Santo Domingo, Brigham Young University, the Latin American Consortium of Religious Freedom, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) hosted a virtual symposium titled “Challenges and Opportunities for Religion in the Post-COVID Era.” One of the central themes of the three-day symposium was the importance of interfaith collaboration as a tool for fostering respect for fundamental human rights.
In September, U.S. embassy officials encouraged the Abinader administration to join the United States in reaffirming the fundamental rights set forth in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, including freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The embassy continued to support Holocaust remembrance and education initiatives through grants to the Sosua Jewish Museum and to two U.S. institutions to support the Sosua Jewish Museum’s efforts to preserve and digitize museum archives telling the story of Jewish refugees welcomed to the country after fleeing Nazi persecution. It publicized these efforts on its social media pages. Embassy officials engaged non-Catholic leaders to learn about efforts to pass a law that would create a process specifically to register and regulate religious entities. In August, an embassy official met with the leader of the Interfaith Dialogue Coalition to discuss religious freedom and the organization’s plans to engage with the incoming government. In December, an embassy officer participated in an interfaith panel discussion sponsored by the Interfaith Dialogue Coalition that included representatives from several Christian denominations.