By Mariya Cheresheva
A Catholic priest from the northern Bulgarian town of Belene has announced that he is going home to Italy after his decision to shelter a refugee family caused tensions.
In an emotional message on Facebook, Fr Paolo Cortezi explained that “his superiors” in the Church had withdrawn him from the parish, following days of tensions with the local community who objected to decision to host a Syrian refugee family on Monday.
“Now I am a refugee, too. I am leaving Bulgaria with my head up, proud, innocent,” he wrote on Friday.
“I sought to protect the innocent, decent, educated, honest, kind, humble and scared Syrians. This is not politics … I did not succeed, we did not succeed. God forgive me,” he added.
BIRN tried to contact Fr Cortezi, but he did not reply to telephone calls.
Following the protests, led by municipal councillor Krasimir Todorov from the “Democrats and Patriots for Belene” coalition, the Al Bakri family, which had been granted refugee status by the State Agency for the Refugees in 2016, decided to leave the Danube river town.
On Tuesday, Fr Cortezi demanded the resignations of Belene’s mayor Milen Dulev and of Krasimir Todorov for alleged ill treatment of the refugees.
A day later, he announced he was launching a protest after receiving threats and being accused of smuggling refugees and cancelled all liturgies in the municipality.
“It is not right to offend an honest man and for no consequences to follow. It is not fair to spark fear and hatred and no consequences to follow,” he said.
The Bulgarian Catholic Church, which numbers about 50,000 believers, on Tuesday backed the controversial cleric, saying it upheld the evangelical and human principles of charity and compassion, which encouraged it to lend a hand to those in need.
But the much larger Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the main faith group in Bulgaria, was less encouraging.
In two official statements, in 2015 and 2016, it called on the authorities to stop accepting refugees.
Fr Kortezi is well known in Bulgaria for his activism for preserving the memory of the dark past of Belene, which hosted a communist-eras labour camp.
In 2016, former President Rosen Plevneliev honoured him for his initiative to create a memorial complex on the site of the former camp on Persin island near Belene.
Following a rise in anti-refugee sentiment in Bulgaria, a number of towns around the country have recently protested against hosting refugees.
In February, the mayor of the town of Elin Pelin, near Sofia, refused to issue residence documents to a Syrian family although it had been granted refugee status.