SOFIA, Bulgaria--The former head of Bulgaria’s Islamic community warned the public on 24 November that his successor is not doing enough to prevent radical Wahabbi Muslims from foreign countries from spreading Islamic fundamentalism.
The former Islamic community head, Nedim Gendzhev, accused Chief Mufti Selim Mzumzun Mehmed in an interview with the Bulgarian online news agency Mediapool.bg. Gendzhev said Mehmed was accepting bribes from foreign Muslim clerics to turn a blind eye to their illegal activities, including the operating of illegal Islamic-fundamentalist schools in Bulgaria.
The Chief Mufti is the nominal leader of all Bulgarian Muslims, most of whom adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam.
Gendzhev’s accusations come shortly after two deadly suicide bombings in the Turkish capital of Istanbul, in which 61 people died.
The accusations also come three weeks before a national assembly of Muslim clerics, scheduled to be held in Sofia on 13 December, and during the main Muslim religious holiday of Ramadan, which ended on 25 November, with the Eid holiday celebrations.
And Gendzhev says the timing of his warning is no coincidence. He says the terrorist attacks on Turkey should be a warning to Bulgaria, and that Ramadan has attracted many Muslim imams from Turkey to Bulgaria’s Muslim-populated towns and villages.
The Chief Mufti’s office announced on 25 November that 22 clerics from Turkey had arrived in Bulgaria for Ramadan celebrations--all of them allegedly approved by Turkey’s Religious Decrees Department as clerics not related to Islamic fundamentalist groups.
According to current Chief Mufti Mehmed, the visit of the 22 clerics was also approved by the Bulgarian Interior Ministry. The foreign clerics’ presence in Bulgaria for Ramadan, he said, is necessary in light of the country’s long history of totalitarianism, which has prevented the local Muslim intelligentsia from developing along with their peers.
Mehmed also said that the religious connection between Bulgaria and Turkey is a strong one that has been historically determined by similarities in the two countries’ Islamic communities.
The Chief Mufti assured Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov on 25 November that no radical Islamic influences are being spread in the country. The two met on the occasion of Eid to discuss the idea of forming a forum of Bulgaria-wide religious leaders, in an attempt to illustrate the country’s level of religious tolerance.
IS BULGARIA BREEDING TERRORISTS?
Following news of the terrorist attacks in Turkey, media in Bulgaria have begun speculating that similar terrorist attacks are being planned in Bulgaria and Romania.
Authorities suspect that Al Qaeda has been behind the attacks. Syria has so far handed over to Turkey 22 people suspected of having been involved in the recent attacks.
On 27 November, security was tightened at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia--the site of the Israeli Embassy, the Central Synagogue, and the British Embassy. The British Embassy was closed for a few working hours in the morning, reopening again at noon.
A day later, Professor Paul Wilkinson, a well-known British terrorism expert from St. Andrews University, told the BBC he believed that Islamic terrorists have been seeking supporters in countries with large Muslim populations, such as Bulgaria. Wilkinson claimed that the terrorists are attempting to penetrate Bulgaria’s Muslim community, and warned authorities in Sofia to be on high alert.
Wilkinson underlined Bulgaria's geopolitical position, which in his words makes it a likely target of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The closing down of the British Embassy in Sofia came on the heels of intelligence information regarding a possible attack on the British Foreign Office, he said.
But it’s not the first time Gendzhev, the former Chief Mufti, has sounded the alarm bells about extremist influences in his country: on 4 August last year, Gendzhev told Info Radio that several charity foundations in Bulgaria had been training young Muslims for terrorism. Gendzhev’s accusation has never been independently confirmed.
Islamic fundamentalism, says Gendzhev, is mostly penetrating the western part of the Rhodopes Mountain, on Bulgaria’s border with Macedonia.
“About 100 students, who had earlier been sent to study at the Universities of Jordan, Sudan, and Iran are now returning to Bulgaria,” Gendzhev said, describing the situation as “an attempt to replace traditional Islam here with militant Islam.”
The Bulgarian News Agency reported on 24 September 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the United States, that 60 foundations associated with Islamic fundamentalism were presently operating in Bulgaria. That figure came from Ashim Hadzhiasan, president of the Straight Path for Bulgarian Nationals of Turkish Origin Foundation.
Hadzhiasan also mentioned the name of Shaykh Abdul Kemal of Saudi Arabia, the uncle of Osama Bin Laden. Hadzhiasan said Abdul Kemal had visited Bulgaria prior to 1999 and met with members of various Islamic foundations financed by fundamentalist circles.
Chief Mufti Mehmed denied the accusations at the time, describing Hadzhiasan’s words as “pure imagination.”
“Such a thing cannot exist in Bulgaria. Bulgarian Muslims have never been--and will never be--fundamentalists. They profess traditional, moderate Islam. We will make sure to bar alien, radical beliefs and ideas,” Mehmed said.
But according to both Hadzhiasan and Gendzhev, however, the Chief Mufti’s office is not being upfront, and is well aware that foreign extremists are spreading Islamic fundamentalism in Bulgaria. Old imams, they say, are being replaced by new ones trained in the Shariat Islamic law, followed in Arab countries.
Hadzhiasan is one of the few Bulgarians who has actually met Osama Bin Laden, during a 1994 visit to Sudan, arranged by the East European Islamic Center.
One million ethnic Turks live in Bulgaria, or 8.5 percent of the country’s population. Some 13 percent of the ethnic Turks profess Islam as their faith. Around 85 percent of Bulgaria’s population is Christian.
Although a few ethnic Turkish groups had pushed for autonomy in 1989, immediately after the anti-communist revolution, the Turkish community is, for the most part, well-integrated into Bulgarian society.
Bulgaria’s recent attempts to accommodate the Turks (its largest minority) are partly due to the discomfort felt about the repressive policies the state exercised in the recent past. In 1984, two governmental decrees mandated that all Turks in Bulgaria change their names to Slavic ones. And in May 1989, the former dictator, Todor Zhivkov, urged the Turks to leave the country.
There are three legally registered Muslims schools in Bulgaria, where future Muslim clerics are trained, and one Muslim university in Sofia. Around 2,000-3,000 students passed through those schools between 1991 and 2003, studying traditional Islam.
But it is not these schools that have Gendzhev worried.
“The Bulgarian public must be alerted; the fact that we have not yet been touched by the terrorism wave only allures the terrorists. I don’t accept it when Bulgarian politicians say that everything is under control. They were calming the people down in Turkey, too, but look what happened there. We should be very careful, otherwise terrorist attacks are possible here as well,” he said.
--by Polia Alexandrova