Bulgaria Stamps Out a Minority

THERE is no Turkish minority in Bulgaria, government officials insist. Bulgaria is a single-nationality state where all of its citizens, including those of Islamic faith, are descendants of Bulgarians. The descendants of those Bulgarians who were ``Turkicized'' forcibly during the 500 years of Ottoman domination have voluntarily and calmly reverted to their true ethnic identity. Such is the official explanation from Bulgarian officials regarding the name change by 900,000 of the ethnic Turkish minority of Bulgaria from Turkish to Slavic names. Since the 1950s the government of Bulgaria has been waging and winning a war against its Turkish minority. More than 1,000 Turkish schools existed in Bulgaria in the early 1950s; none exist today. Back then the number of imams exceeded 1,800; by 1985 the number had been reduced to approximately 500.

It was four years ago that forced assimilation by the Bulgarian government of the Turkish minority, who make up 10 percent of the population, assumed the form of large-scale human rights abuses. The campaign's goals were clear: Eradicate any Islamic identity and erase a national minority within Bulgaria. From December 1984 through the winter of 1985 the government compelled members of the ethnic Turkish-speaking minority to change their Turkish names to Bulgarian ones. The campaign was carried out by the Army and paramilitary organizations - often at gunpoint and at the cost of lives. Reports coming out of Bulgaria indicated that more than 250 ethnic Turks were arrested and imprisoned for nonviolent opposition to the campaign.

Seydiye Tahirova, one of the few Turkish deputies of the Bulgarian National Assembly, defected to Turkey last September. Upon her arrival she stated that there are 1.5 million Turks living in Bulgaria today and they all now have Bulgarian names. Indeed, back in March of 1985 government officials declared that the restoration of Bulgarian names had been ``safely completed.''

Although the name change may have been successful, the Turkish minority has yet to accede to Bulgarization. Repressive measures aimed at destroying the Turkish community's cultural identity and restricting Islamic practices persist. The use of the Turkish language is absolutely prohibited and is punishable by fines, even though up to 70 percent of the Turkish minority are unable to speak Bulgarian.

In its latest semiannual report on ``Implementation of the Helsinki Final Act,'' the US Department of State notes evidence of forced resettlement of ethnic Turks to non-Turkish areas in Bulgaria and unconfirmed reports of government plans to relocate 40,000 Turks from the Kurdzhali area.

Restrictions on the practice of Islam are tied inextricably to the campaign to assimilate the Turkish minority. Most of Bulgaria's mosques have been closed. Muslim rites such as circumcision, weddings, and burials are severely restricted or forbidden. Religious education of children is prohibited. The Koran is not published and cannot be imported. Restrictions on travel outside Bulgaria make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca virtually impossible.

And those who protest assimilation or who attempt to practice Islam beyond very narrow limitations are punished. Dr. Ibraim Ismailov Arifov, a physician, along with others, was secretly tried in March of 1987 and sentenced to eight to 10 years for producing leaflets protesting the forcible assimilation.

According to reports from Amnesty International, four women were sentenced in 1987 to between six and eight months' imprisonment for having their sons or grandsons circumcised.

At last year's meeting of the Islamic Conference Organization in Amman, Jordan, delegates heard a report from a delegation that toured Bulgaria in June 1987 to investigate allegations of forcible assimilation and religious persecution. The report was pointedly critical of Bulgaria's actions.

The foreign ministers at that meeting expressed solidarity with the Muslim minority in Bulgaria, deplored the acts of repression, and appealed to the Bulgarian government to observe its international obligations regarding religious and cultural rights.

At the Commission on Security and Cooperation Follow-Up Meeting in Vienna, which has been going on now for a little over two years, the issues of cultural and religious freedom for minorities in Bulgaria have been addressed repeatedly by the United States delegation.

Yet there are no tangible signs that Bulgaria is considering any change in its policies. Political cynicism is reflected in the official line, which justifies persecutions in terms of past injustices inflicted by the Ottoman Empire upon Bulgaria. The government's position suggests an unwillingness either to adhere to human rights standards it has pledged to uphold or to accept responsibility for the suffering it is causing.

US policymakers are faced with a dilemma. The assimilation campaign can be accepted as a successful fait accompli and thus a closed book. Or the more recent ``openness'' on the part of high-level Bulgarian officials, spurred in part by the desire to gain full membership in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and to enhance Bulgaria's access to Western markets and technology, can be met by a challenge.

Continuation of the status quo in bilateral relations could be interpreted as tacit acquiescence to Bulgaria's policies toward its Turkish minority. The US must show this is not the case.

The immediate imperative is for the international community to exert greater pressure on the government of Bulgaria before the destruction of an entire way of life is complete.

QR Code to Bulgaria Stamps Out a Minority
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today