SOFIA, Bulgaria ― Every Friday at noon, Muslims gather at the only mosque in Bulgaria’s capital, waiting for the daily prayer to start. Since their gathering turned bloody three weeks ago, police officers and television cameras have joined them.
During a rally in late May, supporters of the far-right party Ataka (“Attack”) hurled stones and eggs at the worshippers, while chanting “Bulgaria.” They were nominally protesting the speakers that play the call to prayer, which the nationalists claim to be too loud. The Muslims fought back, while the protesters burned prayer rugs and cut up religious hats. Several people were injured, including police officers.
Experts say the targeted religious violence in Sofia is part of the far-right parties’ election campaigns. This fall, Bulgarians will elect a president and mayors. It seems nationalists are using xenophobic rhetoric and violence to boost their numbers.
“The motive behind this act of aggression is clear ― the upcoming elections. It’s a well planned event, designed to put Ataka under the media spotlight,” said Dimitar Bechev, head of Sofia’s office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Results in other European Union countries show it can be a successful strategy. Far-right parties are on the rise throughout Europe. Two months ago Finland's nationalist True Finns won about 19 percent of the vote in a general election, becoming the third biggest party in the parliament. Last year, Dutch voters handed the party of anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders enough seats in parliament that it is now part of the coalition government. In Hungary the anti-Semitic Jobbik party won 17 percent of the vote.
But in Bulgaria, the far-right seems to have taken its advocacy a step further than in these countries, egging its supporters to violence.
During a recent live radio talk show, Ataka’s leader, Volen Siderov, fought with a former member of the party favored by Bulgaria’s Turkish Muslim minority.
Although Siderov’s speeches often include xenophobic messages, he said after the recent violence that he has never incited ethnic or religious hatred. He said the people who clashed with Muslims at the mosque are not members of his party.
In April, another nationalist party, VMRO, staged a protest against Jehovah's Witnesses that also turned violent. During the incident several members of the organization were injured and their property damaged. VMRO threatened to initiate more protests against the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Worshippers waiting in front of Sofia’s mosque last week said they feared more violence as the campaign season draws closer. Mehmet Kailitski, who was at the mosque during the bloody clashes, is still deeply disturbed by the events.
“A house of God, no matter who your God is, is sacred, he said. “When in a prayer, one should feel most secure.”
Ironically, the violence erupted in so-called Tolerance Square, where a mosque, Orthodox Church, Catholic cathedral and synagogue share a few blocks in the heart of Sofia.
While the supporters of most far-right parties in Europe complain about immigration, the situation in Bulgaria is different. Parts of Bulgaria were part of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century through the end of the 19th century, so it has had a Turkish Muslim minority for centuries. About 12 percent of Bulgaria’s population is Muslim.
“The attack was a shame for Ataka and every self-respectful Bulgarian,” said Veli Karaahmedov, 35, while standing in front of the mosque last Friday.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has called the incident in front of the mosque a political “provocation,” stressing that it’s an ugly way to enter an election. Currently Ataka is the only parliamentary ally of the ruling center-right party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, GERB, which formed a minority government two years ago.
The incident triggered an immediate reaction from civil society. After people brought flowers to the mosque as an apology to the Muslim community, human rights advocates and government officials followed, condemning such acts of aggression.
Margarita Ilieva, deputy chairwoman of Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a leading NGO, denounced the outburst of violence.
“This time Ataka has gone too far ― to attack physically a minority group during their prayer is unacceptable,” she said. “I consider this as the ugliest and most brutal act of aggression, carried out by the party.”
Two weeks ago the Bulgarian parliament unanimously adopted a declaration sharply criticizing the clash, describing Ataka as “dangerous for the governance of the country.” Members of Ataka left the Parliament Hall in protest before the vote. Prosecutors, who have begun an investigation into the spreading ethnic and religious hatred, warned that the party could be banned, if there is enough evidence that it deliberately provoked the violence.
Bechev, however, thinks that analyses of the incident should go beyond mundane politics.
“It’s symptomatic of the overall tolerance deficit in the country. Such incidents only come to show that there’s still a lot improve in our respect towards those are different,” he said.
While Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in 2007, has adopted anti-discrimination legislation, the country is often criticized for its poor record of protecting human rights. Minority groups often fall victim to widespread discrimination and mistreatment based on their skin color, ethnicity, religion, disabilities or sexual orientation.
“It’s a good time for Bulgarian authorities to show that they respect basic human rights and freedoms,” Bechev said.