World Bulletin / News Desk
Thirteen Muslim religious figures went on trial in Bulgaria on charges of preaching a "radical form" of Islam last week.
The 12 men and one woman -- imams, mufti Islamic scholars and teachers -- are charged with founding a local branch of the Al Waqf-Al Islami group in the southern regions of Smolyan, Blagoevgrad and Pazardzhik. It is the Netherlands-based but Saudi-funded organisation.
Prosecutors say the 13 Bulgarians preached a ideology based on Salafist teachings during prayers at mosques, lectures, sermons and cafe meetings between March 2008 and October 2010.
The charges against them specifically focus on their suspected “dissemination of anti-democratic ideology by propagating the preachings of the Salafite branch of Islam that seeks to impose a caliphate state.” All defendants pleaded not guilty in court.
The verdict is expected a month later.
The case has sparked protests from Bulgaria's Supreme Muslim Council, the country's top Muslim religious body, that warned against increasing “obstacles to religious tolerance in Bulgaria, created by growing Islamophobia around the world.”
A number of Muslim minority researchers and human rights activists also worry the trial risks flaming tensions between Bulgaria's religious and ethnic groups.
Bulgaria has the highest native Muslim population in the European Union -- about 13%.
Krasimir Kanev, chairman of the Bulgarian branch of the Helsinki Committee human rights group, rejected the case as "absurd".
"There is no proof whatsoever that they have preached an anti-democratic ideology or appealed for violence," Kanev said, referring to the 124-page indictment.
Bulgarian Muslims staged several mass protest rallies in front of the Court building.
They say the charges are groundless and they fear a new "Revival Process," a remake of the one from the 80s of the last century when the Communist regime forced them to change their Muslim names with Christian ones, is looming in Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian Chief Mufti's Office has condemned the trial, saying the accusations were exaggerated and manipulative.