Religious freedom

Sofia: local authorities don’t recognize property owned by the Catholic Exarchate as “religious buildings”

The case dates back to 2014, when a fiscal examination was carried out on taxes paid by the Catholic Exarchate of Sofia, which includes the faithful of Byzantine rite. Tax authorities of the capital city claim that two of the buildings owned by the Exarchate are used as dwelling places. Msgr. Christo Proykov, Catholic Exarch, President of Bulgarian bishops, said: “The fact that the Catholic community is small should not be a reason for discrimination or oppression.” In the meantime the local Church has decided to appeal to the Court of Justice

The law is equal for all, but in Sofia it is interpreted differently. It is the case of specific Church property that the Financial Department of the City Council has unexpectedly decided to consider “simple dwellings.”

The case dates back to 2014, when a tax investigation was carried out on the Catholic Exarchate of Sofia, which includes faithful of Byzantine rite. The tax authorities of the capital claim that two of the Exarchate’s buildings, the bishopric adjacent to the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, home to the Exarch and to four priests, as well as the Monastery of the Carmelite priests, are not ecclesial buildings but mere dwelling places. As such, they are subject to the municipal property tax and to the waste tax, which ecclesial buildings are normally exempt from.

“We filed our tax statements for years and never incurred in problems of any kind – said the Catholic Exarch, president of the Bulgarian bishops, Msgr. Christo Proykov -. Until, all of a sudden, we were confronted with a decision that penalizes us with a conspicuous fine for the years 2009-2013”.

The prelate wonders why different criteria are applied. “There are other two convents, of the Sisters of the Eucharist and of Carmelite nuns, – he said – which, according to tax officers, are ecclesial buildings. It’s not clear on which grounds it was established that the bishopric and the monastery don’t fall within this category.”

Failed negotiations. Mons. Proykov tried to solve the problem in vain by informing Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, the Mayor of Sofia Yordanka Fandakova, the Ombudsman, etc. The Directorate on Religions of Bulgaria’s Council of Ministers expressed its support to the Catholic Exarchate. “They lowered the fine we were asked to pay notwithstanding the decision that we failed to comply with the provisions”, Proykov added. The Town Council had even threatened to freeze the Exarchate’s bank accounts.

The problem is due to the fact that the law in force from 2009 to 2013 defines all religious buildings as “places of prayer.” However, according to tax officers, this does not apply to the above-mentioned monasteries.

“As a religious confession – the Exarch said – the Catholic community has always complied with tax payments and with its obligations towards the State. In fact we were taken as an example. Now this situation is profoundly unjust, resulting from the independent evaluation of tax officials.”

The law changed. In the meantime, as of January 1st 2014, the law changed, envisaging a distinction between monasteries, churches, chapels, places of prayer, etc. to avoid misunderstandings. “For this year we haven’t received a tax notice”, Proykov said, voicing his concerns: “Given the precedent, we have no guarantees that in five years another civil servant will claim that the monastery no longer has that status and must therefore be subject to taxation.”

Different treatment. The problem was addressed also during the visit by the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin in March 2016, during a meeting with Bulgarian authorities. But given the lack of dialogue Msgr. Proykov has decided to appeal to the Court of Justice as a last hope. “All the competent experts we consulted affirmed that in the judicial process the Court will rule in favour of the Catholic Exarchate”, said Bogdan Patascev, spokesperson of the Bulgarian Bishops’ Conference. The same view was unofficially communicated by experts from Sofia’s Town Council.”

“We cannot allow a different treatment of the various Catholic monasteries in Sofia, for they could be taken as precedents in the rest of the Country”, Msgr. Proykov pointed out. “The fact that the Catholic community is small shouldn’t be a reason for discrimination or oppression.” In his opinion, “while Bulgaria prepares to assume the rotating presidency of the European Council on January 1st 2018, it should show that the State is based on the Rule of the Law not only in words.”