SOFIA (Reuters) - The central Bulgarian town of Pazardzhik banned the wearing of full-face veils in public on Wednesday in a move the local government said would prevent tension among communities and boost security.
The ban, the first of its kind in the Balkan country, was backed from politicians across the political spectrum in the town of some 70,000 people, where wearing full-face veils had become common among some Muslim Roma women.
“I am tired to hear that Pazardzhik is the town of the burqas. We want to say aloud that we are not that, but a town of responsible people and we will be associated with other achievements,” Mayor Todor Popov told the national radio.
Muslims make up about 12 percent of Bulgaria’s 7.2 million population and most belong to a centuries-old community, largely ethnic Turks, among whom full-face veils are not common.
Popov said fine would be imposed on anyone who defies the ban, which police said was needed because the veils - which cover all but the eyes - hampered quick identification.
Part of the Roma minority practices an ultra-conservative form of Islam and its women have started wearing full-face veils in recent years, angering nationalists and bewildering other residents of Pazardzhik.
Many Bulgarians are concerned that the migrant inflows into Europe may pose a threat to their predominantly Orthodox Christian culture and help radicalize part of the country’s long-established Muslim minority.
In February, 13 men - most from Pazardhik’s Roma minority -went on trial charged with helping people join the Islamic State group in Syria, propagating an extremist ideology and inciting to war.
Earlier this month, the nationalist Patriotic Front coalition, which backs the government, proposed a nation-wide ban on full-face veils, arguing that such clothing was not typical for Bulgarian Muslims.
The nationalists argued that such veils presented a national security risk and the issue had grown in importance in the wake of the violent Islamist attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Tom Heneghan