SOFIA (Reuters) - A Bulgarian man was sentenced to a year in jail on Wednesday for spreading radical Islam, in a case seen as a test for the delicate relations between the country’s minority Muslims and Orthodox Christian majority.
The trial has provoked protest rallies both by Muslims and by nationalists claiming to represent the majority. Supporters of the nationalist VMRO party gathered outside the court on Wednesday in support of the prosecution.
“Ahmed Mussa was found guilty of belonging to an illegal organization, preaching an anti-democratic ideology, and inciting hatred on religious grounds,” the court in the southern town of Pazardzhik said in a statement.
Mussa, who was also fined 5,000 levs ($3,600), will serve four years in prison because he received a suspended sentence for spreading radical Islam in 2003.
Prosecutors have convicted 12 Bulgarian men, most of them Muslim prayer leaders, and one woman with preaching radical Islam between 2008 and 2010. Two others in the group have been handed suspended sentences and the rest fined.
Mussa, a former Christian, converted to Islam in 2000 while working in Vienna.
He returned to Bulgaria and studied Islam in a mosque school in the southern village of Sarnitsa. His Saudi Arabian-educated tutor there, Imam Said Mutlu, was one of those who received a suspended sentence on Wednesday.
The group was accused of working with an unregistered branch of Al Waqf-Al Islami, an Islamic foundation set up in the Netherlands and funded mainly by “Salafi circles” from Saudi Arabia, the court said, referring to an ultra-conservative brand of Islam.
Bulgaria is the only European Union country where Muslims are not recent immigrants but a centuries-old community, mostly ethnic Turkish descendants of Ottoman rule that ended in 1878.
Muslims make up about 12 percent of Bulgaria’s 7.3 million population. The VMRO is hoping to use the trial to gain votes in the closely fought European elections in May, analysts say.
The trial has revived memories of the 1980s when hundreds of Muslims were forced to change their names to Bulgarian ones. More than 300,000 left the country as a result of a campaign by late communist dictator Todor Zhivkov to revive mainstream Bulgarian culture.
Editing by Matthias Williams and Andrew Roche