Cracks show in Bulgaria's Muslim ethnic model

Sun May 31, 2009 8:17pm EDT
 
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By Anna Mudeva

KRUMOVGRAD, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Twenty years after Bulgaria's then-Communist regime mounted an official campaign of persecution against its Muslim minority, Mustafa Yumer fears rising xenophobia could bring the nightmare back.

Yumer led resistance and hunger strikes against a drive to force Muslims to adopt ethnic Bulgarian names in the spring of 1989. Now he says growing anti-Muslim rhetoric is fomenting ethnic hatred and opening old wounds.

"We are all very worried," said the 65-year-old philosopher and former teacher. "People are scared by far-right parties who preach and want to see Bulgaria becoming a single ethnic nation."

Muslims make up about 12 percent of the Balkan country's 7.6 million people with most of the rest belonging to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The country won praise for avoiding ethnic clashes after the end of the Cold War, in contrast to the former Yugoslavia which borders it to the west.

Bulgaria is the only European Union member country where Muslims are not recent immigrants. Most are the descendants of ethnic Turks who arrived during five centuries of Ottoman rule that ended in 1878. They live alongside Christians in a culture known as "komshuluk," or neighborly relations.

But the rising popularity of the ultra-nationalist Attack party and hardening attitudes of other rightist politicians toward the Muslims ahead of a July parliamentary election have exposed cracks in the Bulgarian model.

Attack is unlikely to form part of the next government, but it has helped set the tone for the election campaign.

Ethnic Turks and Pomaks -- Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule -- are shocked and dismayed at accusations that they aim to create autonomous enclaves and that some of their villages are nests for radical Islam.   Continued...

 
<p>A woman and her child walk at the Muslim village of Ribnovo, some 180 km south of capital Sofia on May 15, 2009. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov</p>