BERLIN – The Bulgarian government flatly rejected on Thursday reports that meetings between official representatives of the government and Hamas officials took place.

Vessela Tcherneva, the spokeswoman for the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, told The Jerusalem Post that “the news about an official visit of Hamas is wrong and false” and no one has invited Hamas from the side of the government.

She said the Hamas representatives are “on a private visitation of an NGO” in Sofia.

A spokeswoman for Israeli Ambassador to Bulgaria Shaul Kamisa Raz conveyed a statement to the Post from Israel’s top envoy in the country saying that “Hamas is recognized as a terror organization by the EU. There can be no ambiguity about this group and its purposes. As for this recent visit to Bulgaria, we are looking into this. In order to understand the exact circumstances under which this visit took place, we prefer not to make any further comments at this point.”

Ismail al-Ashkar, the head of the Hamas parliamentary list Change and Reform, led the delegation. Hamas legislators Salah Bardaweel and Mushir al-Masri, who is also a spokesman for the Islamist terrorist movement in the Gaza Strip, accompanied him.

The three Hamas officials arrived in Bulgaria at the invitation of the Center for International and Middle East Studies, sources close to the movement said.

Austrian and Arab media reports said the trip to Bulgaria was the first visit by Hamas to a European Union country since the EU designated the group a terrorist entity in 2003. Switzerland, a non-EU country, allows Hamas representatives into the country.

The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told the Post that “Bulgaria is part of the EU politics as listing Hamas as a terror organization.”

She said Bulgaria maintains diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the PLO’s embassy in Sofia.

Countries who were formerly part of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw pact upgraded the PLO in 1988 to embassy status during the communist period. When asked why the Hamas representatives were allowed to travel to Bulgaria, she said there was no European list for a travel ban and the terror “list prescribes financial transactions and organizations... These folks are not on a travel ban list.”

A representative of Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry told the Post via email that “there is not an official visit or official meetings, concerted/coordinated between the diplomatic representations of Bulgaria and Palestine. The Hamas representatives are visiting our country as their private initiative.”

The Post learned that a program for the Hamas representatives contains visits with the radical right-wing extremist party Attack and the left-wing socialist party headed by former Bulgarian prime minister Sergei Stanishev.

It is unclear if the meetings will proceed. Critics in Bulgaria said Attack and its founder Volen Siderov stoke xenophobic, anti-Semitic and racist ideologies.

According to the Sofia News Agency, the Center for Global and Middle East Studies and its director Muhammad Abu Assi invited Hamas. Assi told the news outlet Dnevnik.bg that Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov “should not worry. He should assure his Israeli friends that the visit does not have anything to do with the Bulgarian government.”

Critics accuse the center and Assi of pro-Hezbollah activities and inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric. Solomon Bali, the president of the B’nai B’rith Carmel lodge in Sofia, told the Post that the center and its director are serving as the “official representatives of Hezbollah” in Bulgaria.

During an interview with the FOCUS news agency in late December 2008, Assi claimed that Israel was creating a Holocaust in the Gaza Strip.

The Center for Middle East Studies played a role in sending Bulgarian journalists from TV Station 7 to Beirut after the Burgas attack to broadcast anti-Israel interviews via Al-Manar, a Hezbollah- controlled television network.

France banned Al- Manar reception because the station’s programming is contrary to French values and promotes anti-Semitism.

Germany has outlawed reception of Al-Manar in hotels.

It is unclear who funded the Hamas trip and the nature of the center’s funding streams. The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told the Post, “it is not in the Foreign Ministry’s portfolio of research on their activities from the viewpoint of national security.”

The center was slated to hold a panel discussion on Friday with the Hamas representatives to cover the Palestinian perspective on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Hamas visit comes on the heels of a report into the July terror attack in Burgas, which resulted in the deaths of five Israelis and a Bulgarian national, in which Bulgaria’s government blamed the terror attack on Hezbollah.

Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.

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