The Balkan country has historically been characterized by the coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews. A focus on the Islamic presence in Bulgaria

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:59:06

For centuries Christians, Muslims, and Jews have lived together in Bulgaria. All of them are considered to be (both by experts and by themselves) autochthonous people of the country. They share common areas in villages and cities, in the educational system, in politics and economy, in cultural institutions. Each confession has its own religious body – the Holy Synod, the Episcopal Conference of Bulgaria, the Chief Muftiate, the Central Consistory of the Jews in Bulgaria. Representatives of each confession gather and form a consultative body in case a certain issue arises.


In their everyday life the different religious communities have constructed a system of respect for the different religious and family holidays, and the rituals and habits of “others.” There are also taboos, which are carefully respected and observed.


This equilibrium of balanced coexistence is not easily disturbed, even when threatened by internal political or geopolitical provocations or other actions based on populism. The religious communities in Bulgaria have participated together in wars of great significance for the country, as well in all other economic and political highs and lows.


Bulgaria is not some romantic or multicultural paradise. On the contrary, there are often tensions, which people manage to relieve, using their experience and patience. However, we do have something as close as possible to multireligious peace and coexistence without any extremism and fanaticism.


The understanding we have here is the one that His Holiness Pope Francis appealed for to the whole world, and the one where the hopes of the spiritual leader lay. Everyone in Bulgaria is thrilled about his upcoming visit – Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims (Sunni and Bektashi), Jews, Armenians. We all have different ethnic background, we all have centuries of experience of living together, and we are all excited to welcome His Holiness in our country.


Historical Introduction


The position and role of Islam and Muslims in the Bulgarian society cannot be fully comprehended without presenting the historical background. In 1396, the Bulgarian Kingdom was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria remained part of the European provinces of the Empire until 1878.


One of the most important dimensions of the Bulgarian national identity and of the national consolidation is the absolute repudiation of Ottoman rule. Despite living for almost five centuries under the Ottoman/Muslim law, and isolated from the rest of the Christian world, Bulgarians managed to preserve their traditions and culture – that of a Christian nation. Becoming a part of an Islamic Empire also meant that new Muslim communities have emerged alongside the majority Christian population. Some appeared through colonization by the Ottoman military and civil settlers, while others were created gradually through conversion.


The Ottoman conquest brought numerous profound changes into the life of Bulgarians. Shariah norms and courts were introduced. The Bulgarian Christians became dhimmis, a second-rate population, which was obliged to pay special additional taxes levied on non-Muslims. However, Islam that has penetrated the Bulgarian lands after the Ottoman conquest has also experienced changes, adapting to local beliefs and customs.


Under Ottoman rule, Bulgarians became part of the millet system – a relatively tolerant form of government. The system guaranteed them the right to profess and practise their religion, a limited self-governance in the fields of education, culture, religion, and often also in management of local administrative affairs. On the other hand, the non-Muslim population had specific fiscal, labour, and military duties to the state.


This positive interpretation of the Ottoman Empire is absolutely unacceptable to the Bulgarian historiography. The lengthy period of Ottoman rule in Bulgaria is generally reviewed in a romantic-sentimental light, accompanied by twisting of historical facts of the day-to-day economic, social, and cultural life. Such attitudes have strengthened stereotypes and perpetuated the social distances between Muslims and Orthodox Christians.


Muslims have come to occupy a psychological niche in the national memory as the bad heritage of the Ottoman Empire. A cliché for defining this period is: “Bulgaria’s five dark centuries.” Bulgarians believe that Ottoman rule made them suffer, arrested their economic and cultural development, resulted in Islamization of part of the nation (the Pomaks), and separated them for centuries from the European Christian civilization.


The changed approach to the presentation of the Ottoman rule has been also reflected in some history textbooks. These textbooks review the period of Ottoman rule in a more moderate context. Positive social and economic trends in certain periods of the Ottoman rule are described – opportunities for cultural, religious, and educational self-government, for active participation in the economic life of the Empire and therefore for social prosperity.


As a result, sociological and anthropological studies of the attitudes and stereotypes related to ethnic and religious minorities in Bulgaria, carried out in recent years, have revealed that with only a few exceptions, most characteristics the Christian Bulgarians ascribe to Turks/Muslims are positive. The negative characteristics are “Turkish slavery” and “(religious) fanatics”. The first negative stereotype is persistent, having been reproduced and reinforced by the school system since the nineteenth century. The stereotypes about (religious) fanatics is new. It was imported from abroad as a result of worldwide Islamophobia.


The Demographics


All censuses conducted after the end of the Ottoman rule (from 1910 to 2011) show that the ethnic Bulgarians (predominantly Eastern Orthodox, and small share of Catholics and Protestants) represent an overwhelming majority of Bulgarian population. Muslim minorities include Turks, Muslim Bulgarians (Pomaks), a proportion of Roma (roughly 30% of Roma are Muslims while the rest are Christians – Eastern Orthodox, Protestants and Catholics), and a small number of immigrants and refugees. In addition, there are several other smaller indigenous ethnic and religious groups, as shown in Tables:


Table 1. Population according to denomination and census years (2001-2011)

Year 2001   2011  
  Number % Number %
Total Population 7.928.901 100 7.364.570 (5.758.301)* 100
Eastern Orthodox 6.552.751 82.6 4.374.135 76.0
Muslim 966.978 12.2 577.139** 10.1
Catholics 43.811 0.6 48.945 0.8
Protestants 42.308 0.5 64.476 1.1
Jews 653 0.0 706 0.0
Armenian - Gregorian 6500 0.1 1715 0.0
Other and not indicated 7784 0.1 418.921 7.3
Not affiliated to any 308.116 3.9 272.264 7.1

Sources: 2011 Census results by the National Statistical Institute


* The figure 7 364 570 represents the entire population of Bulgaria. The figure 5 758 301 is the number of those who have answered the question about their religious affiliation. 1 606 269 (21.8%) have used the option not to answer. This methodology of the 2011 census has been criticised as presenting an unrealistic picture of the religious structure of the Bulgarian society.

** Muslims are distributed as follows: Sunni 546 004; Shiite (Alevi /Kizilbashi / Bektashi) 27 407; Other Muslims 3 728.

Table 2. Number and percentage of Bulgaria’s minority populations (2001-2011)

Year 2001   2011  
  Number % Number %
Turks 746.664 9.5 588.318 8.8
Roma 370.908 4.6 325.343 4.9
Russians 15.595 0.2 9.978 0.1
Armenians 10.832 0.1 6552 0.1
Jews 1363 0.02 1162 0.0
Macedonians 5071 0.1 1654 0.0
Greeks 3408 0.04 1379 0.0
Wallachians 10.556 0.1 3684 0.1
Tartars - - - -

Sources: Annual Book of Statistics of the Republic of Bulgaria. Sofia, 1994, p.51.



Turks are the largest Muslim community in Bulgaria. They are furthermore the most strongly consolidated community in the state with a very clear and unambiguous understanding of its ethnic identity. The only differences stem from affiliation to various Islamic movements. Some elements of in-group competition exist between Sunni Turks and Alevi /Kizilbashi / Bektashi. The Kizilbashi, a minority within a minority, have freely practised their specific rituals with no visible confrontation with the Sunni Turks since 1990. Contradictions and objections between these two groups concern only some elements of lifestyle and religious practices.


This has started to change in recent years. Anthropological researches carried out between 2008 and 2010 established increasing negative stereotypes against Kizilbashi /Bektashi among the Sunni and vice versa. The Bektashi were subjected to pressure to reduce their rituals, and their holy places were discreetly subjected to Sunnization.


The first Bulgarian constitution (Tarnovo Constitution 1879) included articles safeguarding the rights of the Bulgarian citizens belonging to religious minorities, although none of its articles included terms like “minority” or “Muslims”. The constitution guaranteed the autonomy of minority religious communities and wide cultural rights for minority groups (the right to have their own places of worship, schools, newspapers and journals).


The current Bulgarian constitution, adopted in 1991, also includes no reference to “minorities”. The constitution only mentions the “citizens whose mother tongue is not Bulgarian” (article 36) and adds that everyone has the right to “develop their own culture in accordance with their ethnic affiliation, which is endorsed and guaranteed by the law” (article 54).

Turchi bektashi_shutterstock.jpgReligious ceremony of Bektashi Turks in Deliorman region of Bulgaria [© Umut Rosa - Shutterstock]


Recent studies have also included regular surveys of their political commitments and activities. Studies note the massive electoral support of the Bulgarian Turks for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF; a party considered as representative of the interests of Turks and other Muslims in Bulgaria) and their reluctance to vote for other national parties (socialists, democrats, and centrists).


The analyses and debates about Turkish participation in political life often boil down to the pros and cons of having a Turkish/Muslim political party in Bulgaria. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, formed in 1990, has always been represented in parliament, and has been a member of three government coalitions (1993/4, 2001/5, 2005/9).


The overwhelming majority of the Bulgarian Turks from younger and middle generations have a secular attitude. The Muslim tradition is maintained mainly by the elderly. Young Turks opt for secular schools and it is hard for the Muslim religious high schools to recruit students among them. Among the occasions when the young come to mosques in larger numbers are the iftar meals during Ramadan.

Despite this, young Turks are strongly attached to their traditional culture and to the specific rituals inherited from their ancestors.




Pomaks are another important religious and cultural community in Bulgaria. They inhabit several regions of the Rhodope Mountains. The Bulgarian censuses do not include Pomaks as an ethnic identity option. As a result, their numbers are estimated based on a rather precarious calculation combining the data about persons who have registered as Muslims and at the same time have stated that their mother tongue is Bulgarian. Insulted by such an approach, many Pomaks have refused to be counted, while some declared themselves Turks. In 1992, the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute (NSI) estimated their numbers at approximately 160,000 and in 2001 at 130,000 (NSI 2001). Experts on minority issues believe that between 220,000 and 250,000 Pomaks lived in Bulgaria in 1992.


The issue of Pomak identity is very complex. They have a borderline identity halfway between Bulgarians and Turks. They are Muslims, but their mother tongue is Bulgarian. Pomaks do not have a uniform perception and identify themselves in various ways. They continue to search for their identity tracing back their historical genesis. Pomaks have endeavoured to affirm their identity through oral tradition, as recorded by the oldest representatives of the group, or have in some cases pinned their hopes on archaeological works to unveil written evidence of their pre-Ottoman Muslim origin (for various approaches to analysing the identity of the Muslim Bulgarians.

Sposa pomacca_shutterstock.jpgOlder women make up bride during a traditional Pomak wedding, Ribnovo, Bulgaria [© Veselin Borishev - Shutterstock]


About 26% of Pomaks identify themselves as Bulgarians. Some from this group have converted to Christianity (mostly Orthodoxy, but in some cases also Protestantism). The tendency to identify as Bulgarians is most common in the Eastern Rhodopes, where Pomaks live among the Bulgarian Turks. In contrast, in the Western Rhodope municipalities like Goce Delchev and Yakoruda, where the population consists mostly of Pomaks and Christian Bulgarians, many Pomaks opt for Turkish self-identification, although they do not speak Turkish. Lastly, a small group claims Arab origin. They believe that they are descendants of pre-Ottoman Islamic missionaries to the Bulgarian lands.


Pomaks practise a very syncretic form of Islam, i.e. Islam fused with local (Christian and pre-Christian) religious beliefs. Most of their religious rituals related to death, marriage, birth and seasonal holidays display deviations from the Qur’an rules and the way similar rituals are performed in Muslim countries.


Religion remains an important factor also among the younger generations of Pomaks. Parents enrol children in Qur’an reading classes and encourage them to study religion in municipal schools as an optional class. Pomak children are frequent winners in the annual national Qur’an reading contests in Sofia.




Roma are the third largest ethnic community in Bulgaria after Bulgarians and Turks. They started to settle in the Bulgarian lands during the thirteenth century. The Roma community is the most heterogeneous in the country. Roma differ according to religious beliefs and ethnic self-identification. While most self-identify as Roma, others do so as Bulgarians, and still others as Turks. There is a significant diversity related to mother tongue as well. Bulgarian, Turkish, and Roma with various dialects are spoken. There is also a division between “settled” and “nomadic” Roma.


In addition to these, numerous subgroups exist in accordance with their typical craft and other features. As a result, the Roma are a community mainly for the surrounding population. Roma themselves rarely have a sense of belonging to a “Roma community” – differences, distances, and conflicts tend to be more pronounced among them than between Roma and other ethnic groups.


According to 2011 census data, one-third of Roma (34.5%) are not religious or did not want to declare their religion. Of those who stated which religion they belong to, 56% (or 36.6% of all Roma) are Orthodox Christians, 27.8% (or 18.2% of all) are Muslims, and 15.4% (10% of all) are Protestants. The number of Protestant Roma has been steadily rising over the past ten years as a growing number of evangelical churches have won followers among both Orthodox Christians and Muslim Roma. The Protestant churches attract Roma because they are among the very limited number of institutions that work systematically and directly with the Roma.


In addition to converting to Protestantism, Muslim Roma are also open to joining movements which are not traditionally part of Bulgarian Islam such as Wahhabi, Nursis[1], Suleymanists[2], and in recent years Fethullahci[3]. Roma can be easily accessed and influenced by such non-traditional religious movements due to their low social and educational status. As an underclass, facing negative attitudes and intolerance in the Bulgarian society, Roma are highly vulnerable and the proselytizing by non-traditional Islamic movements mentioned above in the Roma ghettos quickly attracts new followers.


Muslim Immigrants in Bulgaria


The immigration into Bulgaria is a new phenomenon, as the country has been primarily a transit zone, due to being economically unattractive compared to other European states. Not surprisingly, studies of immigration are fewer than those focused on emigration. However, young people from Africa or the Middle East, who came to study in universities or who stayed permanently in Bulgaria through mixed marriages, were not treated as immigrants.


There were 107,245 immigrants in Bulgaria in 2010, or 1.4% of the entire Bulgarian population (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs – Population Division 2009). Since immigrants and refugees are not covered by censuses, there are no accurate data on the number or percentage of Muslims among them.


Many of those who the Bulgarian public perceives as Arabs (immigrants from the Middle East and Maghreb) are employed in retail trade and restauranteurship. The majority of Arab immigrants inhabit large cities like Sofia, Plovdiv, Burgas, and Varna. They do not form compact communities (do not reside in the same neighbourhood), but live dispersed among the native population.


According to the data from the State Agency for Refugees, in the 1993–2012 period, 20,600 refugees have come to Bulgaria. Of this number, 28% came from Afghanistan, 25% from Iraq, and 5% from Iran.


Most of the economic immigrants choose Bulgaria as an initial step, because it is the nearest and easiest European country to access. Considering the fact that Bulgaria is the poorest EU member state and that the State Agency for Refugees and Bulgarian Red Cross have at their disposal a very limited budget, it is not surprising that many immigrants consider the support they receive as insultingly insufficient.


The gender aspect plays a prominent part in the issue of religiosity of Muslim immigrants. A study of immigrants from the Middle East established that about 8% of the Muslims (mainly from Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) follow their religion strictly (many of them are followers of fundamentalist movements and schools). These are the same 8% of the respondents whose wives do not have a single Bulgarian female friend.


Returning to the gender aspect of religiosity, it comes as no surprise that Muslim immigrants in Bulgaria brought with them highly patriarchal traditions from their home countries. Thus 41.2% of the Arabs believe that the most important thing for a woman is to raise her children, and only 16.2% are of the opinion that women should work on equal footing with men. The desire to preserve their identity and maintain its most important features is prominent. Over half (54.7%) of the Arab children systematically study the traditions, rituals, and history of Islam and their nation. Even more (62%) of the respondents take measures for their children to study their mother tongue. However, only 10% enrol their children in schools with larger groups of Arab/Muslim students (schools at various embassies and the three schools in Sofia where Arab language is taught).


Despite the relatively small number of immigrants and refugees, there are some indications of racist attitudes and discrimination. The prejudices against Muslim or black immigrants are similarly strong as prejudices against the local Roma.


His Holiness Pope Francis is eagerly anticipated in Bulgaria and we all believe that here he will find what he seeks. Our Muslims will probably welcome him with Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī’s words: “What you seek is seeking you”.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


Additional reading on Muslims in Bulgaria

Antonina Zhelyazkova, Part III, chapter 13, Bulgaria, in Jocelyne Cesari (ed) European Islam, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2015, pp. 565-616

Egdunas Racius and Antonina Zhelyazkova (eds), Islamic Leadership in the European Lands of the Former Ottoman and Russian Empires, Brill, Leiden 2018



[1] Movement founded by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (d. 1960), a Turkish theologian of Kurdish origin and promoter of a modern reinterpretation of Islam (Ed.).

[2] Sufi community (cemaat) founded by Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan (d. 1959), a Sufi teacher born in the small Ottoman village of Ferhatlar, today Delchevo in the Razgrad province, Bulgaria (Ed.).

[3] Intercultural and interreligious movement founded by Fethullah Gülen (b. 1941) in the 1990s, consisting of a network of schools, publishing houses, radio, local associations (Ed.).