Bulgaria is the gateway to Europe on the eastern side of the world and the political center of the Balkans. It is a bridge linking the East and West, through which successive civilizations crossed, leaving behind a history whose evidence is still present, especially the Islamic civilizations.
The number of Muslims in Bulgaria is currently estimated at 1.5 million, but they were much more before the Ottomans left it in A.D. 1877.
Muslims in Bulgaria have faced varying conditions, reaching the point of persecution during the days of communist rule, then dispersal, according to former Yemeni Ambassador to Bulgaria Abdul Razzaq al-Amrani.
Al-Amrani, in a lecture on the sidelines of the Istanbul International Arab Book Fair in early October, said: “The worst stage Muslims lived in Bulgaria was during the communist rule, in the period between 1944-1989, when they robbed them of their identity and stripped them of their religion by force. In just two months, they expelled more than 300,000 Bulgarian Muslims of Turkish descent.”
Al-Amrani, who was also attending a book signing for his book “Bulgaria from the Eastern Corner,” added: “In 1985, the Bulgarian authorities forced Muslims at the time to change their names and religion, depriving them of their money and property, not to mention looting and confiscating mosques and turning them into discos and stores, at best. The situation turned to museums, and he closed a large number of them, and so far no one can reopen them.”
Bulgaria from the east corner
Al-Amrani pointed out in an interview with Daily Sabah that the minarets were raised in Bulgaria before they were raised in Istanbul, as Islam entered Bulgaria before the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453.
The writer also mentioned in his book that “there are those who say that Islamic and Arab antiquities and inscriptions were found in Bulgaria, indicating the entry of Islam to it before the Ottoman conquest.
“Some historians confirm, based on historical facts, that the inhabitants of the Rudbe region in southern Bulgaria, the Pomak, are considered the descendants of the Umayyads who besieged Constantinople at the time, and were unable to enter it, so some of them continued toward Bulgaria and settled there and spread Islam.”
And he added: “Therefore, it is necessary to recall the intimate relationship between Islam, the Ottomans, the Bulgarians and the Arabs, and this is one of the main reasons that prompted me to prepare my book.”
“This is the only Arabic book that discusses and deals with the situation of Islam and Muslims in Bulgaria, and what prompted me to write it is that after I was appointed as an ambassador of Yemen in Bulgaria in 2013, I did not find any Arab reference that raises this issue. The references were Turkish or Bulgarian, so they were biased.
“On the side of the Bulgarians or on the side of the Muslims, I have not found any neutral references that give accurate information.”
In his book “Bulgaria from the Eastern Corner,” al-Amrani explains the Muslims in Bulgaria came from the eastern side, as well as details their origins, numbers, distribution, the conditions they went through, and the difficulties and problems that Muslims suffer from in Bulgaria, since the exit of the Ottomans from it until now.
Origins of Muslims in Bulgaria
The origins of the Muslims of Bulgaria date back to several nationalities and peoples. The majority of them are of Turkish descent, as Turkish Muslims constitute 60%, followed by the Pomak Muslims at 25%, then the Romani Muslims at 15% and the Tatars who constitute a small percentage of Muslims, according to Amrani’s book.
The author pointed out that the largest Muslim population centers are concentrated around two regions, the first is located in the northeast of Bulgaria, where the squares of “Ruse, Silistra, Varna, Shumen” are located, while the second region is located in southern Bulgaria on the Rhodope Mountains.
About 80% of Bulgarian Turks live in these two regions, while 90% of the Pomak Muslims reside in the Western Rhodope region. Muslims are also spread across areas close to the western, Serbian, Macedonian, Greek and Turkish borders.
The Muslims of Bulgaria are generally characterized by their rural nature, as most of them work in agriculture, according to al-Amrani.
1.5 million Muslims
The writer stated that “the number of Muslims in Bulgaria, the closest to the accuracy, is one and a half million, based on what was reported by the Mufti of Bulgaria.”
“Some exaggerated estimates indicate that the number of Muslims in Bulgaria is more than 3 million and that Muslims constitute 25% of the population, that could have been true if we were talking about the number of Muslims when the Ottomans left Bulgaria in 1878, before the displacements,” he added.
The number of mosques in Bulgaria is 1,283 and they are divided into two parts. The first is “mosques in which the five daily prayers are held and the Friday prayers are not held, and those number 126,” and the second is “the mosques in which the five daily prayers are held in addition to the Friday and Eid prayers, and the number of those is 1,157.”
Al-Amrani pointed out that there are large numbers of mosques that have been closed since the communist rule, and some of them have been converted into stores and museums, and no one can reopen them, because successive Bulgarian governments say that “the current number of mosques is enough for Muslims.”
He points out that most of these mosques are located in villages and suburbs, but in cities, for example, in the capital, Sofia, there was only one mosque in 2010, due to the difficulty of obtaining licenses to build mosques. In 2012 the Arabs opened two other mosques in the suburbs far from the city, while there were 85 mosques in it when the Ottomans left.
Situation of Muslims in Bulgaria
Regarding the current situation of Muslims in Bulgaria, former Yemeni Ambassador Abdul Razzaq Al-Amrani said: “At least from the official side, there is no harassment but rather a hostile individual or partisan behavior, such as the right-wing party ‘Ataka,’ which from time to time harasses Muslims, as it had previously protested the sound of loudspeakers and prayers outside the mosque.
Also, in 2014, hundreds of people gathered in front of the Bulgarian city court of Plovdiv to protest the conversion of the “Korshom” mosque under the Bulgarian Islamic authorities.
Al-Amrani pointed out in his book that the most prominent obstacles faced by Muslims in Bulgaria are that most mosques suffer from a lack of imams, according to what was reported by the mufti of Bulgaria. And its inability to pay the salaries of imams.
Rely on the youth
However, al-Amrani stressed that the situation of Muslims today in Bulgaria is much better than it was in the past, as they have a house for fatwas and institutions, and have regained a small part of their material and moral rights.
He stressed that they are still looking forward to a better future, especially today’s youth who want to learn to read the Quran in mosques, and have become more knowledgeable and committed to matters of religion, compared to the elderly who grew up at the time of the ban in the days of communism. He said especially those who leave Bulgaria to study or work in Western Europe and return more committed to religion because, in the West, they have more religious freedom there than in Bulgaria.
Al-Amrani concluded his comments to Daily Sabah by saying: “Today we look to these young people to carry the torch toward a better future for Muslims in Bulgaria, to work to unite their ranks, overcome challenges, and benefit from the state of sympathy with Islam in some aspects of Bulgarian society.
“So much so that a number of Bulgarians have converted to Islam just because they read about it on the internet, and then they came to the headquarters of Dar al-Ifta to request information about Islam and take the necessary measures to declare their Islam.”