Issues of religious liberty in the United States are often discussed in terms of wedding cakes, taxpayer-funded church playgrounds and politics in the pulpit. In other parts of the world, it’s more about survival.
That was the case in Bulgaria for three dicey months last year when religious minorities, including Protestant Christians, faced a parliamentary effort to drastically scale back long-held religious freedoms.
The initial proposals, all of which were ultimately rejected, would have amended the nation’s existing Religious Denominations Act. They included restrictions on religious education, strict limits on missionary and evangelical activities and a requirement that worship be held in government-approved facilities.
The proposals got the attention of Bulgarian and world religious organizations, including the Baptist World Alliance.
“It would have immediately put 128 Baptist churches at significant risk of closure,” said BWA General Secretary Elijah Brown.
Dire as the situation looked for Baptists and other faith minorities, the controversy that raged the last 90 days of 2018 also showcased the power of Christian unity in the cause of religious freedom for all, Brown said.
Weekly rallies were held after the proposed changes were approved on first reading in October. Some of the rallies had 2,000 participants representing of Christian communities. Some were held in freezing, snowy conditions.
“Each gathered around the idea that Bulgaria should continue to embrace religious freedom for all,” Brown said. “And not just for evangelicals, but for all faiths.”
The Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that Orthodox Christians represent 75 percent of the population in Bulgaria, followed by 15 percent who are Muslim.
Another 5 percent are unaffiliated. All the rest fall into the “Other” category, at 4 percent.
There are an estimated 5,150 Baptists in Bulgaria, according to the Baptist Union of Bulgaria, which is a member of the European Baptist Federation.
AgenSIR, a Catholic news organization, reported that Muslim and Orthodox leaders also opposed the proposed religious restrictions on religious minorities.
One rally organizer was Dimitrina Oprenov, the wife of First Baptist Church in Sofia Pastor Teodor Oprenov. She is a leader in Bulgaria’s evangelical alliance, Brown said.
“All of us owe a debt of gratitude for the evangelicals and Baptists of Bulgaria who stood up for religious freedom for all people,” he said.
Brown said their actions represent a wake-up call for Christians everywhere.
“One lesson is that every one of us has a God-given voice to stand up for religious freedom and justice,” he said.
The challenge also demonstrated that coordinated action, including peaceful demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns, can be effective.
Outside Bulgaria, BWA mobilized its resources and networks to bring religious and civil groups alongside minority faith groups within the nation, he said.
The alliance also sent an open letter to the Bulgarian parliament asking it to reconsider the proposed religious liberty restrictions. BWA’s Commission on Religious Liberty sent letters of concern to Bulgarian embassies around the world.
The global Baptist group also appealed to the United Nations while U.S. and European Union agencies expressed official opposition to the proposed changes.
“It is undeniable that it was the combination of action inside Bulgaria and support from outside that reversed the direction of a government that was headed to significant restrictions,” Brown said. “It shows that writing to representatives and prayer … can have a meaningful impact in our world today.”
The proposed restrictions were finally dropped in December, and on the last day of parliament for the year. The timing was especially meaningful, Brown said.
It was “a Christmas miracle” that parliament proceeded “without any of those egregious restrictions in place,” he said.
It should also be a wake-up call for Baptists and other people of faith living in nations with greater religious freedoms, Brown said.
“We have a responsibility to the values the God-given dignity into which each person is born and to speak up on religious freedom for all people.”
Brown said he’s seen such courage in many of the nations he has visited since becoming BWA general secretary in January 2018.
“I continue to find conviction and courage in the lives of and testimonies of so many who face really challenging environments and yet live their faith boldly and compassionately.”