Bulgarian Muslims demand their names back at landmark rally
Bulgarian Muslims demand their names back at landmark rally. The easing of repressive rule by Bulgaria’s new leadership brought thousands of the country's minority Muslims on to the streets at the weekend to demand religious and cultural freedoms, and an investigation into alleged atrocities carried out under the recently deposed Zhivkov regime. About 6,000 men, women and children from the Pomak community defied regulations forbidding them to wear traditional costume and staged their first mass protest against a 20-year campaign by the authorities to assimilate them into the Christian population. The Pomaks, descendants of Bulgarians who converted to Islam in the 14th century during Ottoman rule, were forced to adopt Bulgarian names in the early 1970s after internal security troops surrounded their villages and shot dissenters. Other Pomaks who took part in strikes and a three-month vigil in village squares were imprisoned or exiled with their families to villages in opposite corners of the country. The Government began a similarly violent name-changing campaign in 1984 against the larger 1.2 million ethnic Turkish Muslim minority, which led to an exodus from the country of about 300,000 ethnic Turks. At this weekend's rally in Gotse Delcev’s humble football stadium of blue corrugated iron fencing and broken wooden benches, the Pomak leaders called for the immediate restoration of their people's Islamic names. They demanded also the rebuilding of mosques bulldozed by the authorities, access for Muslims to the newly liberalized media, trials of those responsible for the killings in 1972 and 1973, and the setting-up of a government commission to discover the graves of villagers killed by the troops. The bodies were never handed over to the families. The Government was told that it had 10 days to reply to the demands, otherwise housands of Pomaks would descend on Sofia, the capital, to begin a permanent vigil outside the National Assembly. The crowd, some of whom carried placards with photographs of relatives killed during the name-changing campaign, which Mr Zhivkov dubbed “the spiritual rebirth programme”, roared their approval for the protest move and chanted repeatedly: “The names, the names. We are waiting, we are waiting.” Women, who wore their traditional golden-threaded lace headscarves and brightly coloured embroidered and beaded shalvari trousers and skirts, wept as speaker after speaker told a personal story of persecution and intimidation by the Government. The crowd also heard that many Pomaks, who number more than 300,000, were stopped from attending the rally by local Communist Party officials who declared Saturday, normally a holiday, a working day in factories in some of the towns and villages in the area. The Muslim cause is not popular with Bulgaria’s eight million Christian population, partly because of fears that the Muslim minorities, whose birth-rate is said to be higher than the national average, are a potential source of Islamic fundamentalism which could be exploited by Turkey. However, speeches were made at the rally by Christian Bulgarians, including leading dissidents recognized by the Government as spokesmen for the country’s unofficial opposition, which is pushing for reforms wider than those proposed by Bulgaria’s new leader, Mr Petur Mladenov. Mr Roumen Vodenicharov, chairman of the Independent Association on Human Rights, said: “Pomaks.” He said the main independent opposition had put the Pomaks’ fight to regain their name and be allowed cultural and religious freedom top of its list of demands to be made in talks with the Government this week. After the four-hour rally, several Pomaks said the Pomaks were still being intimidated by security police and officials. Mr Ayroush Hadjiev, aged 41, who was jailed for eight years for refusing to change his name, said Pomak teachers were being replaced with Bulgarians. Election plea: Opposition leaders will this week ask the Government to postpone its plans to hold democratic elections by next May. Mr Konstantin Tranthev, the leader of the newly recognized independent trade union Podkrepa and a spokesman for the Union of Democratic Forces, a coalition of the country’s main dissident groups, said the early date would not allow the opposition enough time to form a viable alternative to the communists. ``The Government already has a functioning infrastructure while our infrastructure is still in the process of being formed.” Mr Tranthev said he would ask for the postponement at round-table talks to be held on Wednesday with Mr Andrei Lukanov, the number two figure in the reform-minded Government. Mr Tranchev disclosed the opposition's concern after visiting the headquarters of the state television network to appeal for live air-time to put forward the policies of the Union of Democratic Forces, which is expected to become the main opposition party.
FROM PETER LAW -GOTSE DELCEV, BULGARIA OVERSEAS NEWS
The Times Edition 4* MON 18 DEC 1989