SARNITSA, Bulgaria - A recent attack on a bus carrying Israeli tourists is making the life of Bulgaria's Muslims much harder and giving ammunition to far-right politicians to step up hostile sentiments against the sizable minority.
"When things in the country do not go well, they try by creating ethnic tensions to divert attention from the real problems," Said Mutlu, an imam in Sarnitsa lakeside town in Bulgaria's remote south since 1998, told Reuters on Tuesday, November 27.Mutlu, whose office shows a mixture of bucolic painting of snowy mountains and traditional Bulgarian craftwork with Arabic books and a calendar depicting Makkah, feels that long co-existence in Bulgaria is in peril.
The fault lines were getting wider after a suicide bomber killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian driver at the Black Sea port of Burgas in July, an attack Israel blamed on Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, a claim denied by Tehran.
Yet, the attack has changed the life of many Bulgarian Muslims, including imam Mutlu.
Following the attack, Mutlu was put on trial on charges of running an unregistered branch of Al Waqf-Al Islami as well as preaching an ultra-conservative brand of the religion.
Citing confiscated Islamic literature and witness statements, prosecutors say Mutlu and 12 other religious leaders and activists in southwest Bulgaria had been on Al Waqf-Al Islami's monthly payroll to spread radical ideas. He denies the charge.
"There is tension among people here. They are deeply shocked by the trial," said Mutlu, a quietly spoken and earnest 49-year-old man wearing tracksuit trousers striped with the colors of Bulgaria's national flag.
Another defendants, Hairi Sherifov, runs a youth soccer club in Rudozem, 10 kilometers from the Greek border.
Denying accusations of teaching children extremist ideas, Sherifov said the 50-odd boys doing soccer drills at a crumbling stadium were both Muslim and Christian and there was no religious element in the club.
"In the mixed communities (like) Rudozem, where we all know each other, I think it will be hard - not to say impossible - for tensions to escalate," he said.
"But people who are far from us, and they do not know us, they may get it wrong."
Analysts accuse rightist Prime Minister Boiko Borisov of exploiting the growing tension inside the community to win a second term in office.
"We have the alienation, the disappointment and this on top," said Mikhail Ivanov, minority issues lecturer at Sofia's New Bulgarian University.
Using the trial to promote their anti-Muslim agenda, protesters led by far-right parties staged marches with banners reading "Our religion is Bulgaria" and "Tough sentences for fanatics".
"Today they bring radical Islam and tomorrow they surely will ask for Islamic autonomy," said retired teacher Pavel Petkov.
"We must wake up while it is still not too late."
Making up some 15 percent of Bulgaria's 7.3 million people, the Muslim community population is the highest proportion in any European Union member state.
The trial has revived memories of the 1980s when hundreds of Muslims were forced to change their names to Bulgarian ones and over 300,000 left the country due to a campaign by communist dictator Todor Zhivkov to revive mainstream Bulgarian culture - a policy that contributed to his fall from power in 1989.
Areas where Muslims live tend to be poorer and the community feels neglected over the more than 20 years since the fall of communism.
"The balance is broken, said Ivanov, the lecturer at Sofia's New Bulgarian University.
We have a country which is indifferent to 1 million of its people."
The defendants deny receiving money from Al Waqf-Al Islami, though some studied in Saudi Arabia.
"As far as I know him, the man is clean. He has been an imam here for over 20 years. We cannot say anything bad about him," said Mustafa Alikanov, mayor of Sarnitsa.
"The town stands behind him".
Trying to patch up differences, the office of the Chief Mufti has been working to limit troubles in the community.
Chief secretary Ahmed Ahmedov said it has known the defendants for a long time and not observed anything unusual in their behavior.
"When you persistently mess in the hive, sooner or later it may blow out," Ahmedov said."People should know we are not raising suicide bombers in the basement."