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Bulgarian Muslims worry that the wealthy EU bloc will take a hardening attitude about their faith once their country joins the union

SMOLYAN, Bulgaria — While millions in EU-aspiring countries dream of joining the euro bloc, Bulgarian Muslims are cautious about their country’s January accession, fearing Sofia might catch the Islamophobia virus.

“All my Christian friends here respect me, but as for Europe, I don’t know,” Salikh Kutsov, a Muslim carpenter, told Reuters on Wednesday, December 27.

The 27-year-old Muslim has been told accession into the European bloc will cement religious and democratic freedoms.

But like many Bulgarian Muslims, Kutsov is taken aback at hardening attitudes towards his religion in the wealthy bloc and their effect in Bulgaria, where Christians and Muslims have lived in relative harmony for centuries.

“We are worried how we will be treated,” agreed Husein Hafazoy, an aide to Bulgaria’s top Muslim scholar.

Islamophobia has been plaguing many European countries since the London and Madrid terrorist attacks.

In the Netherlands, once a model state for tolerance, a party won nine seats in parliament last month on a campaign against what it called the “Islamization” of the country.

France banned hijab in public schools two years ago while British Prime Minister Tony Blair has described the face-veil as “a mark of separation.”

Bulgaria will be the only EU state where Muslims are not recent immigrants but a centuries-old local community.

Muslims, who make up 12% of Bulgaria’s 7.8 million population, have lived with Christians in relative harmony for centuries.

Mostly ethnic Turkish descendants of the Ottoman Empire’s reach into Europe, they live beside Christians in a culture known as “komshuluk”, or neighborly relations.

Mosques and Islamic schools are common sights in Bulgaria.

The ethnic-Turkish MRF party has also become a powerful political force, participating in the last two governments.

Tough Test

Many fear the Muslim-Christian harmony in Bulgaria would be facing a tough test once the country joins the EU.

“Because of this globalization, there is a need to redefine the post-Ottoman model of good neighborly relations and see what we can be kept from that culture,” Simeon Evstatiev, a lecturer on Islam at Sofia University, told Reuters.

Bulgaria has already seen a glimpse of ongoing debate over the Muslim code of dress in neighboring Europe.

Two hijab-clad girls were recently prohibited from attending classes at a state school in the town of Smolyan over their headscarf.

“I hope things change for better and this problem with the headscarves is solved,” said Kutsov.

“I want my future wife to be able to wear one without being laughed at,” he added.

“The whole headscarf issue in Bulgaria has been ‘imported’ from France. It can change the status quo,” said Evstatiev.

Paradigm Shift

Many Bulgarian Muslims hope that joining the EU would be a chance to show that Muslims are peaceful people.

“One of our aims is to prove Muslims are not dangerous,” said Salikh Arshinski, Secretary of the Union of Muslims in Bulgaria.

“We have to stop the infiltration of radical Islamic groups here to avoid what is happening in Western Europe,” he added.

Evstatiev said the government should urgently try to involve Muslims more, economically and socially, so they do not feel like second-class citizens and embrace radical ideas.

Muslim minorities in Europe face deep-seated discrimination in jobs, education and housing in addition to myriad barriers that give rise to feelings of hopelessness and exclusion, the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia said in a new study published on Monday, December 18.

It indicated that Muslims are over-represented in low-paying sectors of the economy and that their educational achievement falls below average.

The study also showed that unemployment rates among Muslims are higher than average and that they are often disproportionately represented in areas with poorer housing conditions.

There are no official estimates of the number of Muslims in Europe.

According to Reuters, the EU has 15 million Muslims, the second largest religious grouping in the 25-nation bloc.