Pomaks of Bulgaria

Alternative names: Bulgarian Muslims, Bulgarian Mohammedans
Location: mainly in the south in the Rhodope mountains around Smolyan
Population: 150,000 (est.)
% of population: 1.7%
Religion: Muslim
Language: Bulgarian

The Bulgarian Muslims, usually called by the term “Pomaks”, are a religious minority. They are Slav Bulgarians who speak Bulgarian as their mother tongue but whose religion and customs are Islamic. They are estimated to number in excess of 150,000 and live in compact settlements in the mountainous regions of the Rhodope mountains in south-western and southern Bulgaria.

Since 1948 the Bulgarian authorities have made repeated attempts to induce the Pomaks to change their names, renounce their faith and become integrated into the socialist Bulgarian state. In the period 1971 to 1973 the authorities pursued a concerted campaign to force the Pomaks to change their names by obliging them to choose new ones from a list of “official” Bulgarian names. The Pomaks were obliged to hand in their old identity papers and receive new ones made out in new Bulgarian names. Some Pomaks, mostly old people but some young ones as well, refused but, without new identity papers, no pensions, state salary or money from a bank account could be drawn.

There were a number of instances of violent resistance. For example, in 1971 there were riots in Pazardzhik in which two Communist Party functionaries were reportedly killed. The authorities reacted by arresting large numbers of people. Two Pomaks were condemned to death and two others sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. A group of Pomaks travelled to Sofia and protested against these measures but were stopped near the town of Samakov by the militia and in a violent clash two Pomaks were shot dead and 50 wounded. There were also reported violent clashes in Barutin and around Devin. Intensive military operations were carried out in May 1972 in Blagoevgrad and surrounding districts against the Pomaks which resulted in many deaths of Pomaks who resisted the forced assimilation. In March 1973 security forces supported by border guards again entered several villages in Blagoevgrad district and went from house to house with prepared lists of Bulgarian names from which the Pomak inhabitants were obliged to select new names. In the violent resistance which ensued at least eight people were reported to have died, including one army officer, and a number of people wounded. Large numbers of Pomaks were arrested, 20 from the village of Kornitsa alone, and sentenced to three to 15 years’ imprisonment. About 100 Pomaks were also deported to other areas in Bulgaria.

In prison the Pomaks suffered particularly harsh treatment. If they failed to use or respond to the Bulgarian name assigned to them by the authorities they risked being deprived of their right to visits from their families. In 1975 Amnesty International was informed that about 500 Pomaks were serving prison sentences in Belene prison camp and the same organization reported that in 1977 there were 40 to 50 Pomaks held in Stara Zagora Prison, many kept in solitary confinement with reduced rations for periods longer than the maximum 14 days allowed by Bulgarian penal law. Former prisoners from Stara Zagora Prison have alleged that Pomaks have been placed for as long as three days in a special concrete cell, “one metre square”, which has a curved floor often covered with water. In winter the water freezes, and prisoners put in this cell have suffered from kidney diseases and pneumonia.

Demonstrations were reported to have taken place on August 15, 1989 by Pomaks protesting at the authorities’ apparent refusal to issue passports to people living in the predominantly Pomak area around Gotse Delcher—a new passport law was to be implemented in September 1989 and over 300,000 ethnic Turks emigrated to Turkey in 1989. Protests reportedly occurred in over a dozen villages including Hvostyane, Kornitsa, Lazhinista, Breznitsa, Dabnitsa and Blatska. Security forces sealed off at least six villages with unconfirmed reports of some deaths of protesters.

(See also Turks of Bulgaria)