KRUMOVGRAD, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Twenty years after Bulgaria’s then-Communist regime mounted an official campaign of persecution against its Muslim minority, Mustafa Yumer fears rising xenophobia could bring the nightmare back.
Yumer led resistance and hunger strikes against a drive to force Muslims to adopt ethnic Bulgarian names in the spring of 1989. Now he says growing anti-Muslim rhetoric is fomenting ethnic hatred and opening old wounds.
“We are all very worried,” said the 65-year-old philosopher and former teacher. “People are scared by far-right parties who preach and want to see Bulgaria becoming a single ethnic nation.”
Muslims make up about 12 percent of the Balkan country’s 7.6 million people with most of the rest belonging to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The country won praise for avoiding ethnic clashes after the end of the Cold War, in contrast to the former Yugoslavia which borders it to the west.
Bulgaria is the only European Union member country where Muslims are not recent immigrants. Most are the descendants of ethnic Turks who arrived during five centuries of Ottoman rule that ended in 1878. They live alongside Christians in a culture known as “komshuluk,” or neighborly relations.
But the rising popularity of the ultra-nationalist Attack party and hardening attitudes of other rightist politicians toward the Muslims ahead of a July parliamentary election have exposed cracks in the Bulgarian model.
Attack is unlikely to form part of the next government, but it has helped set the tone for the election campaign.
Ethnic Turks and Pomaks — Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule — are shocked and dismayed at accusations that they aim to create autonomous enclaves and that some of their villages are nests for radical Islam.
“If we sit and don’t work like Bulgarian patriots, one day they will conquer us indeed. They will annex whole regions,” Attack’s leader Volen Siderov told an election demonstration in May.
There have been over 100 incidents of vandalized mosques and other Muslim buildings in the last 2-3 years.
Girls have been banned from wearing the traditional Muslim scarf in some schools and universities — Bulgaria’s first glimpse of an issue that has raised tensions in western Europe.
Some Muslims fear losing civil rights, gained in the past two decades, and a possible repeat of the repression of the 1980s if nationalists join a coalition government after the July 5 vote.
Commentators say the rise of nationalism has been helped by a combination of voter apathy and discontent at low living standards, high-level corruption and organized crime.
A “revival process” launched by the late communist dictator Todor Zhivkov to forcibly assimilate Muslims culminated with a campaign to force them to change their names, and the exodus of over 300,000 ethnic Turks to neighboring Turkey in 1989.
According to various estimates, between 500 and 1,500 people were killed resisting forced assimilation between 1984 and 1989, and thousands of others went to labor camps. The repression led to bomb attacks by ethnic Turks that killed scores.
“The wounds would have been healed by now if some people had stopped poking them,” said Fikri Gulistan, 49, dentist in Momchilgrad, where Turkish is the daily language.
Religious leaders warn that some in the Muslim minority may fall prey to foreign Islamic groups trying to radicalize them.
“We are doing our best to stop such processes,” said Hussein Hafazov, aide to Bulgaria’s top Muslim cleric Mustafa Alish Hadji. “We try to control the mosques and all the rituals. We have been successful so far.
“If we are constantly being blamed that we are terrorists and are dangerous for the security in this country, we don’t know whether part of the society won’t start feeling that way one day,” Hafazov added.
The Chief Mufti office says 323 mosques have been built in the past 19 years mainly with donations from individuals and organizations in Muslim countries, including Turkey.
Police have investigated a number of foreign Islamic foundations and made some arrests since 2000 on suspicion of spreading of non-traditional Islam and training fundamentalists but no charges have been raised.
In March, security services, acting on the complaint of a rightist politician, launched a probe into a local mayor and an Islamic studies teacher from the village of Ribnovo, on suspicion of taking Saudi funds to spread radical Islam.
No charges have been filed but the case filled chat rooms of newspapers and other news providers with anti-Muslim messages such as “Bulgaria for the Bulgarians.”
Religious leaders deny the existence of radical Islam and say the Ribnovo case only adds to worries that politicians are threatening the culture of tolerance in mixed communities.
But analysts say the long tradition of good neighborly relations and the previous 45 years of official communist atheism had so far made it hard for fundamentalist Islam to gain a foothold in Bulgaria.
“The Turks (of Bulgaria) are mostly secular people. Any kind of messengers of non-traditional Islam have been sent away so far,” said Antonina Zheliazkova, head of the Sofia-based International Center for Minority Studies.
The mosque in Krumovgrad, built on the site of an ancient Thracian sanctuary, overlooks a flashy casino and several bars and was half-empty during a recent visit to Friday prayers.
Young women wear skinny jeans, sleeveless tops and modern haircuts rather than headscarves, while the secondary Muslim school in Momchilgrad finds it hard to enroll students.
The headscarf, banned by the communists in the 1980s, is mainly worn by older ethnic Turkish women and peasant Pomaks of all ages as an answer to the persecutions of the past and expression of rising Muslim consciousness.
Analysts say playing the Muslim card weeks before the elections helped a number of parties, including the ethnic Turkish MRF that is seeking to mobilize voters.
Many Muslims say they are disappointed with the MRF for failing to bring investment and jobs to their regions, which remain some of the poorest in Bulgaria.
None of the other parties, including the ruling Socialists, have so far offered an alternative that appealed to minorities.
Pollsters estimate that between 10,000 and 30,000 of those who immigrated to Turkey come back at election times to vote for the MRF, partly encouraged by Ankara.
“Turkey wants a strong Turkish minority in Bulgaria. This strengthens Turkey’s hand in the bilateral relations,” said Kader Ozlem of the Balkan Immigrant Culture and Solidarity Association of Bursa, whose parents left for Turkey in 1989.
Hardening attitudes toward Muslims in Bulgaria have also strengthened opposition to Turkey’s bid to join the EU. A poll late last year showed 49 percent of Bulgarians were against and 35 percent backed Ankara’s membership.
Attack is campaigning on the slogan “No to Turkey in the EU” for the European Parliament elections on June 7.
“No one has guarantees that the ghost won’t leave the bottle but for now it seems that the ethnic issues are exploited by two groups mainly,” said Boriana Dimitrova of Alpha Research, an independent polling company.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan and Alan Elsner)
Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Istanbul