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Bulgaria Muslims commemorate communist-era repressions

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Bulgaria's Pomak Muslim minority marked on Saturday the 40th anniversary of the crackdown on a revolt against the then communist regime's assimilation drive to forcefully change their names to non-Muslim ones.

Members of the 200,000-strong minority -- whose Christian ancestors were converted to Islam while Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottomans between the 14th and 19th centuries -- gathered at a square in the southwestern village of Kornitsa in memory of the five people killed there on the night of March 28, 1973.

"Our husbands kept vigil here for three months to prevent the (communist authorities) from changing our Muslim names," 64-year-old Zeyneb Gatseva remembered.

"Then police attacked them, some were killed, dozens of others were injured, still others got arrested. After that we were all taken to the mayor's office to sign our new identity papers," added the woman, who was then given the name Zorka.

"Each woman was also forced to change her traditional Muslim wear for a dress provided by the authorities," she remembered.

Like most women at the commemoration, Zeyneb wore traditional baggy chalvar trousers and a rose-printed headscarf.

The communist regime's 1973 assimilation drive against the Pomaks was repeated eleven years later against Bulgaria's other sizeable Muslim minority of ethnic Turks, seen as foreign agents of NATO member Turkey.

Its 800,000 people were also forced to change their Muslim names to Christian ones and were banned from circumcising their boys, speaking Turkish in public or wearing headscarves.

If they did not feel Bulgarian, they were free to leave, authorities said in the summer of 1989, briefly opening the border to neighbouring Turkey. Some 320,000 people emigrated with over half of them later returning to Bulgaria.

All Bulgarian Muslims got their names back in 1990 -- shortly after the toppling of the communist regime on November 10, 1989 -- and tried to forget.

"Our parents do not speak about it, they want to spare us from this hatred and free us from the past," said 21-year-old Zayde Bial, a student in the nearby town of Blagoevgrad.

Regional mufti Muslim religious leader Aydin Mohamed however warned that history might repeat itself as modern minority integration policies "risk to turn into assimilation" again.

"Forty years after the feat of our parents, who fought for their dignity, let us lift our heads up and say 'We are Muslims.' Be proud that you are called Ahmed or Mohamed," he addressed the crowd at Kornitsa tiny square.

"We are Bulgarian citizens just like all the rest and we will not be treated as second category Bulgarians," another Muslim leader, Abdullah Salih from the southern town of Pazardzhik, added.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130330/bulgaria-muslims-commemorate-communist-era-repressions