Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Bulgarian-speaking Muslims, commonly known as Pomaks, are most probably descendants of Bulgarian Christians who converted to Islam during the period of Ottoman rule, while retaining the Bulgarian language as well as certain Orthodox practices. Although precise figures are not available in census data, the minority is estimated at about 160,000-240,000 people, dwelling mainly in the Rhodope Mountains.
The authorities do not consider Pomaks a distinct minority and do not provide specific figures in census reports beyond the number of people self-identifying as both ethnically Bulgarian and Muslim – though this produces a figure far lower than the unofficial estimate. In its 2014 report, the Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of Minorities reported that just three predefined ethnic groups were listed in the census (Bulgarian, Turkish and Roma) and those who wished to register a Macedonian or Pomak identity were discouraged or even obstructed from doing so.
Bulgarian-speaking Muslims were subjected to forcible conversion in 1912-13 and were the victims of government-led name-changing in the early 1940s. In 1948, the communist authorities initiated programmes aimed at their assimilation, including population transfers to areas of ethnic Bulgarian settlement. Between 1970 and 1973, vigorous attempts were made to oblige Pomaks to abandon their Muslim and Arabic names and adopt Bulgarian ones.
These measures were accompanied by violence and led to many deaths. In the late 1980s Pomaks participated in the mass protests at the name-changing campaign of the communist government. Unlike ethnic Turks, Bulgarian-speaking Muslims were refused permission by the authorities to emigrate to Turkey.
Even after the demise of the communist regime in 1989, Pomaks continued to face governments refusing to recognize their separate identity. Beyond the state, Pomaks remain subject to outside pressure on their identity from a number of different sources including the ethnic Turkish community, and Orthodox and other religious groups proselytizing among them. Some Pomaks, mainly in the eastern Rhodope Mountains, have converted to Christianity, mainly by joining the Uniate and Protestant churches.
While those in the central and eastern Rhodope tended to identify with Bulgarians, in the more impoverished and neglected western Rhodope region the situation was different. Here, in the early 1990s a large minority of Pomaks began to identify themselves strongly as Turks. In the 1992 census, 27,000 Bulgarian-speaking Muslims are believed to have identified themselves as Turks, while a further 35,000 are thought to have declared their mother tongue to be Turkish, even though they could not speak the language. This was believed to be due to shared religion as well as economic factors since emigration to Turkey is perceived as one way of overcoming employment difficulties. Thus, in this period it seemed that perhaps as many as a third of the community claimed to be Turkish while a third saw themselves as Bulgarians with the remainder claiming some form of ‘Pomak’ identity. In the 1992 census 65,000 declared themselves as ‘Muslims’, ‘Pomaks’, ‘Bulgarian Mohammedans’ and the like.
However, the number claiming to be Turks dropped dramatically by the late 1990s to only about 5 per cent in western Rhodope while the number seeing themselves as Pomaks – ‘Muslims’ or ‘Mussulman’ being the usual form of self-classification – grew to perhaps half the community. Another factor is the drift from town to country. Previously the community remained predominantly village-based with only some 20 per cent residing in towns. By the late 1990s this had risen to about 40 per cent and the trend has continued. Pomaks tended not to move to Sofia but rather Plovdiv, Asenovgrad, Pazardzhik and other towns near or in the Rhodope region. Those who move to the towns tend to identify themselves more readily as Bulgarians especially as religious practice tends to decline in urban settings.
Upon its accession in January 2007, Bulgaria became the EU member state with the largest percentage of Muslims, comprised overwhelmingly of its Turkish, Pomak and part of its Roma populations.
When the government formed an important consultative body on minority rights, the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Questions, in 1997, Pomaks were excluded. There are no Pomaks in the National Assembly, and Pomak political participation remains restricted to the local level.
Pomaks are also affected by the wider hardening of popular attitudes towards Muslims who, along with Roma and migrants, are commonly portrayed as anti-social and anti-national elements by populist politicians.
Updated July 2018
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