PAZARDZHIK, Bulgaria – Finding their inner peace in the Islamic religion, a growing number of members of Bulgaria’s Roma minority are reverting to Islam.
“I've covered like this for the past two, three years to keep myself for my husband only and make sure I go to heaven,” Habibe, 35, her dark eyes glittering under the black full-face veil, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).Finding Islam, Habibe was one of a new wave of converts among Bulgaria’s Roma.
Her blue-eyed friend, Lyudmila, now Melek, says Islam opened “an ocean of knowledge” to her, compensating for being taken out of school at the age of 14 to prevent her from “being stolen and forced into an early marriage.”
Habibe and Melek bought their black made-in-Turkey niqabs from the local store of their “sister” in religion, Shasine, the wife of imam Ahmed Mussa.
“Only the most fervent believers wear the niqab,” Shasine, who is also a converted Christian, says.
She said that most women from Bulgaria's indigenous 13-percent Muslim minority wear only a headscarf (hijab).
Shasine’s husband, himself an ex-Christian called Angel, says he discovered Islam in 2000 while working in construction in Vienna.
He and other workers were sheltered by the Muslim community in Vienna and paid for their medical examinations.
Mussa came back to Bulgaria and studied Islam in a mosque school in the southern village of Sarnitsa.
The life of these women, however, has been disturbed over the past few weeks after Mussa and 12 other imams and teachers were accused of "dissemination of an anti-democratic ideology by propagating the preaching of the Salafite branch of Islam that seeks to impose a caliphate state".
Citing confiscated Islamic literature and witness statements, prosecutors accused the religious leaders of spreading radical ideas.
Pleading not guilty, Mussa said political parties were against Muslim religious leaders who did not encourage voting.
"Religion does not say we should vote. We do not bow our heads to anyone but Allah," he said.
The case, which brought Mussa's small community into the spotlight, is bogged down after most of the key witnesses refused to confirm their initial testimony against the defendants in court.
Residents say that Islam adapts with their way of life.
"In Bulgaria, Islam is democratic and well adapted to the Christian surroundings," minority reasearcher Alexey Pamporov said.
He said thefts, pimping and prostitution have been reduced thanks to the rising number of people reverting to Islam.
Pamporov stressed religions were filling in the vacuum caused by the absence of the state role in the Roma neighborhoods.
"While the state disappeared from the Roma ghettos and traditional religions did not do anything, the evangelists started to play a social role in the 1990s," said Pamporov, who did a project in the central district of Pazardzhik in 2011.
"The Protestant preachers convinced the outcasts to stop drinking and dress neatly. They found jobs, lived better and believed that God worked a miracle with them.”
Making up some 15 percent of Bulgaria's 7.3 million people, the Muslim community population is the highest proportion in any European Union member state.
The trial has revived memories of the 1980s when hundreds of Muslims were forced to change their names to Bulgarian ones and over 300,000 left the country due to a campaign by communist dictator Todor Zhivkov to revive mainstream Bulgarian culture - a policy that contributed to his fall from power in 1989.
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