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Christ, Mohammed draw divisions among Bulgarian Roma

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Nothing illustrates better the arrival of a new wave of Islam among Roma in Bulgaria's southern town of Pazardzhik, whose imam Ahmed Mussa is on trial for spreading radical ideology, than the appearance of women in niqabs.

"I've covered like this for the past two, three years to keep myself for my husband only and make sure I go to heaven," says Habibe, 35, her dark eyes glittering under the black full-face veil.

A former Christian, she converted to Islam and changed her name from Milka.

Her blue-eyed friend, Lyudmila, now Melek, says Islam opened "an ocean of knowledge" to her, compensating for being taken out of school at the age of 14 to prevent her from "being stolen and forced into an early marriage."

Habibe and Melek bought their black made-in-Turkey niqabs from the local store of their "sister" in religion, Shasine, the wife of imam Ahmed Mussa.

"Only the most fervent believers wear the niqab," Shasine, who is also a converted Christian, says, adding that most women from Bulgaria's indigenous 13-percent Muslim minority wear only a headscarf.

But her husband Mussa can no longer travel to Turkey to supply their small store.

He was put on trial last year along with 12 other imams, mufti Islamic scholars and teachers for alleged "dissemination of an anti-democratic ideology by propagating the preachings of the Salafite branch of Islam that seeks to impose a caliphate state".

All the accused pleaded not guilty to the charges but 38-year-old Mussa is particularly apprehensive about the trial.

He is the only one in the group who has already received a suspended sentence for spreading radical Islamist ideas in 2003.

He meets AFP surrounded by a bunch of other men, who all wear long black beards. Like the women's niqabs, long beards are not customary among the rest of Bulgaria's Muslims.

Himself an ex-Christian called Angel, Mussa says he discovered Islam in 2000 while working in construction in Vienna.

A Muslim community there sheltered him and other workers and even paid for their medical examinations. He came back to Bulgaria and studied Islam in a mosque school in the southern village of Sarnitsa.

His tutor there, imam Said Mutlu, has studied in Saudi Arabia and is the key accused in the trial.

The unprecedented court case, which brought Mussa's small community into the spotlight, is bogged down after most of the key witnesses refused to confirm their initial testimony against the defendants in court.

One of them had quoted Mussa as saying they should "bow to those who cut heads in the name of their faith, blew themselves up or set bombs." Mussa rejected the accusations.

He said political parties were against Muslim religious leaders who did not encourage voting: "Religion does not say we should vote. We do not bow our heads to anyone but Allah."

He hints he might have been targeted out of jealousy by the Christian evangelist priests competing for followers among the 14,000 souls in his Roma neighbourhood.

"Before, I believed that God was Mohammed," says Yanka, 50, the wife of the local evangelist priest Sasho Yankov.

The Roma couple converted from Islam to Christianity after the "miraculous" healing from cancer of Sasho's mother, "saved" by the prayers of her Christian friends.

A former Muslim herself, Yanka however turns hostile when word comes to her niqab-clad neighbours: "They scare people off. Let them go to Iran, Syria. This is a Christian country."

Muslims, Christians or non-believers, the Roma in Pazardzhik all agree on one point: thefts, pimping and prostitution were reduced thanks to the new Islam and evangelist preachers.

"While the state disappeared from the Roma ghettos and traditional religions did not do anything, the evangelists started to play a social role in the 1990s," says minority researcher Alexey Pamporov, who did a project here in 2011.

"The Protestant preachers convinced the outcasts to stop drinking and dress neatly. They found jobs, lived better and believed that God worked a miracle with them," he adds.

As to the niqabs and the beards, Pamporov shrugs: "Their appearance is shocking and has the air of some kind of demonstration because of the trial."

Other minority experts share his view.

"In Bulgaria, Islam is democratic and well adapted to the Christian surroundings," he explains.

The court's next hearing on the imams trial is on February 18.

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