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“When I applied for a job as a cashier in a shop, they told me they would hire me, but only if I didn’t wear a head-scarf,” said 20-year old Silve. She chose to remain unemployed; this way she had more time to participate in Islamic seminars, conducted in the Rhodope region by nongovernmental organizations. Sixteen-year old Fikra also participates in such seminars. She says that they are the only place where she feels that she is among like-minded people. At school, she is not allowed to wear a head-scarf. We found 10-year old Selvi in the mosque, learning to recite the Koran by heart. He is from a poor family, but being in the Koran class he receives free food and shelter. These are not fictional characters or made-up names. These are children who live in the Rhodopes, and there are thousands like them. What unites them is that they spend far more time on religion than their peers in other parts of the country. These children’s goal is to have religious occupations, to study in Arab countries and to spread the teachings of Islam.

kits with a crescent moon on them (rather, they wear kits with the letters OIRK printed on them, along with the organization’s logo, which features a crescent moon). OIRK was established two years ago, by a group of Bulgarian Muslims who were protesting against political interference in the work of the Chief Mufti’s Office. After the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF political party) took over the institution, the group remained active as a nongovernmental organization. Some of its followers are also motivated by a desire to avoid the monopoly over Muslims by one political party. Representatives of the Mufti oppose OIRK’s activity, and accuse them of ushering in an Arab influence, calling them “talibans”. At the same time, OIRK is also gaining in popularity among young Muslims because of its innovative approach, including music and sports activities. The activity of OIRK has given many people who call themselves patriots occasion to make public statements. They warn of the “Islamization of Bulgaria” and the penetration of “Arab interests”. On 19 September, the Smolyan


Intolerance regarding head-scarves and the poverty endemic to this mountainous region are the main factors that have led more and more young boys and girls to dedicate themselves to religion. They are not forced to wear head-scarves, nor to attend mosque, because most of their parents are not that devoutly religious. The youngsters, meanwhile, are already reading books by Islamic philosophers, listening to lectures by theologians and are well-versed in religious matters. The lectures and seminars are put on by the Association for Islamic Development and Culture (which goes by its Bulgarian acronym, OIRK), an NGO in Smolyan. Its main figures are Arif Abdullah and his wife Neda, as well as Arif’s friend Selvi Shekirov. All three of them are graduates of Islamic universities in Jordan. Their activities include the organization of seminars, celebrations, and concerts. The organization’s leaders conduct lectures in local cultural centers. OIRK also sponsors the musicians in the group Vest, the first band in Bulgaria to perform Islamic-oriented religious songs in the Bulgarian language. The association is also a sponsor of the Rudozem 2005 football team, which plays in the regional championships. The team became known for playing in football

Regional Prosecutor even announced that he would be investigating OIRK’s activity of his own accord, and requested that the counterintelligence service submit information about the Association’s sources of funding. What this inquiry will disclose is irrelevant, because the more important aspect is clear to everyone: religion has indeed become more visible in the Rhodopes over the past few years, and more and more young girls there want to wear head-scarves, while it is the desire of more and more young boys to study in Saudi Arabia. P.S. Remember those kids from the beginning of this article? If Bulgaria was a bit more of a properly-functioning country, Silve would be working in a shop, Fikra would go to school however she prefers - with or without a headscarf - and Selvi’s parents would have enough money not to need the free schooling and food. And these kids would have something else in their lives, besides religion. If Bulgaria was a bit more of a properly-functioning country, political parties would not meddle with religious institutions, OIRK probably would not exist, and the prosecutors would investigate criminals and corrupt politicians, instead of theologians.„ OBEKTIV 17

Children of the Rhodope mountains  

Publication of the journal Obektiv, number 138 of 2007 author Ivan Bedrov