Imams’ trial tests Bulgaria’s religious tolerance

The imam of this mosque in the rural mountain town of Rudozem complains that secret police have been spying on the local Muslim community. (Tzvetelina Belutova/Special to The Washington Times) The imam of this mosque in the rural mountain town of Rudozem complains that secret police have been spying on the local Muslim community. (Tzvetelina Belutova/Special to The Washington Times)
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PAZARDZHIK, Bulgaria — Thirteen religious leaders accused of preaching radical Islam face up to five years in prison in a criminal trial that’s testing the limits of religious freedom in this European country.

Prosecutors say the Saudi-financed activities of the imams have been spreading religious extremism and that they have used a local soccer team to indoctrinate boys.

But local officials say the accused ringleader, Said Mutlu, 49, who ran an imam school in the village of Sarnitsa, has done nothing wrong and the case is slandering the Muslim community.

“Terrorists, terrorists — that’s what people know about Sarnitsa,” Mayor Mustafa Alikantov said. “It’s not true that he was espousing anti-democratic views.”

Prosecutors allege that three of the imams were undermining the state by encouraging people to boycott parliamentary elections and spreading religious hatred.

The imam of this mosque in the rural mountain town of Rudozem complains that secret police have been spying on the local Muslim community. (Tzvetelina Belutova/Special to The Washington Times)

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The imam of this mosque in the rural mountain town of Rudozem ... more >

The other 10 are implicated in working with Al Waqf al Islami, a Saudi-financed charity that built mosques, sent boys on trips to the Middle East and financed religious education in Bulgaria that prosecutors say embraced the Salafist brand of fundamentalist Islam.

The Bulgarian government closed Al Waqf al Islami in 2003, but prosecutors say the 13 accused continued its work without a license.

(Corrected paragraph:) The trial, which resumes Monday, is a test for Bulgaria on whether this former Soviet bloc country will criminalize religious association.

It has been sensationalized in Bulgarian media, with photos of sympathetic demonstrators being branded “jihadis” and “Taliban.”

Regardless, large groups continue to demonstrate silently outside the central courthouse in Pazardzhik during each court hearing, holding banners and placards.

Unlike the majority of Bulgaria’s Muslims, the people in these southern districts of the country are not ethnic Turks. They call themselves Bulgarian Muslims and have little affinity to neighboring Turkey.

This mountainous region has seen many of its mines shuttered, and many of its inhabitants eke out a hardscrabble existence by cutting timber and farming potatoes.

One of the accused, Hayri Sherifov, runs the central mosque in the mountain town of Rudozem. He says he studied Shariah, or Islamic, law in Saudi Arabia on a scholarship to train imams because there were no such opportunities in Bulgaria.

“These people have needs. They need someone to teach them religion,” Mr. Sherifov said.

Upon his return, he says he found himself under suspicion by Bulgaria’s internal security agency, DANS.

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