March 23, 2017 / 12:14 PM / 5 months ago

Nationalism the big winner in Bulgarian election

ELIN PELIN, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Syrian refugee Fatema Batayhi says she has not left her home for five weeks, not since a hostile crowd confronted her on the main square of this sleepy town in a valley east of Bulgaria's capital, Sofia.

Batayhi, her husband and their youngest son fled the barrel bombs and street fighting of Syria's Aleppo four years ago, eventually joining their eldest son in setting up home eight months ago in the first European Union country they could reach – Bulgaria, via Turkey.

However, they had not reckoned with the town's mayor, who refused to issue them with residence papers, or on a growing mood of nationalist intolerance that has dragged Bulgarian politics towards the hard right and may help determine the make-up of the next government after an election on Sunday.

The crowd in Elin Pelin, a town of some 7,000 people named after an early 20th century Bulgarian writer, hurled insults and objects at Batayhi, a Muslim.

"I got scared, very scared," the 50-year-old said over strong Arabic coffee, Syrian cheese and fruits. "I haven't been out since then and I keep the door locked."

Her husband, Fahim Jaber, said nationalists had threatened to forcibly convert the family to Christianity.

"We're Muslims, but our home in Aleppo was close to the church and I have never seen such division and aggression between Muslims and Christians," he said.

The wave of mainly Muslim refugees and migrants reaching Europe's borders over the past two years has contributed to a rise in right-wing nationalism across the continent, particularly in the countries of ex-communist Eastern Europe, which mostly have little experience of large-scale immigration.

Bulgaria stands out in the region for its significant Muslim minority, some 12 percent among 7.2 million mainly Orthodox Christians - a legacy of almost 500 years of Ottoman Turkish rule that ended in the late 19th century.

The resistance to the Muslim Ottomans is a core element of Bulgarian national identity, and some nationalists have cast the mainly Muslim migrants arriving via Turkey as a fresh threat to the nation's security and Orthodox Christian faith, despite the fact that most want to move on to wealthier western Europe.

The growing climate of intolerance is now feeding support for the likes of the United Patriots, an alliance of anti-migrant nationalist parties polling third with more than 11 percent of the vote ahead of Sunday's poll.

A strong showing could turn United Patriots into kingmaker in post-election coalition talks, and has seen Bulgaria's two biggest parties – the centre-right GERB and the Socialists – harden their own already tough rhetoric on migrants.

It remains uncertain which of the two main parties the United Patriots would favour joining in government given the alliance's own internal divisions.

"It’s fashionable to sound like a nationalist today," said political analyst Parvan Simeonov.

"WE'RE NOT FASCISTS"

According to a survey published in February, 77 percent of Bulgarians see migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa as a threat to national security.

Earlier this month, an Italian Catholic priest in northern Bulgaria announced he was leaving the country after his decision to provide shelter for a Syrian family triggered a backlash from local people.

Few of those travelling across the Balkan peninsula have any intention of actually staying in the largely poor region.

Fahim and Fatema, however, wanted to remain after their eldest son had managed to start a life for himself in Bulgaria in 2013. They joined him in June 2016 after three years in Turkey and were granted refugee status.

The refusal of the mayor, Ivaylo Simeonov, to issue the family with residence papers, which Fahim said had cost him several job opportunities, was condemned by rights groups, but drew no response from the government.

Simeonov is a member of the VMRO party, part of the United Patriots alliance.

Krassimir Kanev, the head of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, said the mayor’s behaviour and the inaction of the authorities were "extremely disturbing" and unlawful.

"It is the result of the continuing incitement of hatred, discrimination and violence against migrants legally residing on the territory of Bulgaria," he said.

Simeonov said he acted in accordance "with the will of the people".

"We're not fascists," he told Reuters. "We want peace for the town and its citizens."

"Europe did not allow us to distinguish between humanitarian refugees and economic migrants, and people are now afraid that many others, who are not as quiet as the Jaber family, will arrive."

Fahim said he had asked the United Nations Refugee Agency to return him and his family to Syria but that the agency had refused on security grounds.

Fatema said they should never have left Turkey. "I regret that we ever came here," she said.

Editing by Matt Robinson and Gareth Jones

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