By Angel Krasimirov and Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's ruling party delayed a vote on Thursday to ratify a European treaty designed to combat violence against women in the face of opposition from religious and political groups who said its provisions on gender could promote moral decay.
The delay gives more time for debate on the Istanbul Convention but still allows for ratification while Bulgaria holds the six-month presidency of the European Union, said Tsvetan Tsvetanov, parliamentary leader of the GERB party.
Critics of the treaty, including the influential Bulgarian Orthodox Church, say it could encourage young people to identify as transgender or third sex and lead to same-sex marriage in the country of 7.1 million people.
The office representing Bulgaria's large, mainly ethnic Turkish Muslim minority echoed the concerns, saying: "Gender topics are dangerous, bottomless traps" that endanger Bulgarian society.
The centre-right GERB's junior coalition partner, the far-right United Patriots, also came out against ratification and the main opposition Socialists demanded a referendum on the issue.
The row overshadows Prime Minister Boyko Borissov's efforts to present Bulgaria as a progressive and open-minded country during its first stint as chair of the EU since it joined the bloc in 2007. It chairs EU Council meetings until June 30.
But the dispute also highlights widespread resistance among the more socially conservative countries of the former eastern bloc to the liberal values of wealthier western Europe. The easterners, led by Poland and Hungary, have also rallied against the EU's bid to have them take in more migrants and refugees.
PM REJECTS CRITICISM
Speaking from the World Economic Forum annual meeting in the Swiss Alpine town of Davos, Borissov said he was convinced the convention would be ratified, and he reiterated that it would not oblige Bulgaria to introduce a "third sex" legal category or to legalise gay marriage.
"If there is a referendum, it must be clearly defined: If we are "for" or "against" the women and children of Bulgaria being beaten," he told reporters. "Because all the other texts they speak of - a third sex, gay marriage - are not in the convention at all."
The government signed the 81-article document in 2016 and parliamentary ratification is the next step. In all, more than 40 countries have signed.
"There must be transparency and awareness during the vote," Tsvetanov told reporters. "We are obliged to do what other EU countries, and even non-EU countries, have already done."
"We will do our best in these weeks to have a further debate with the academic community, NGOs and experts so we can really explain everything that is related to the objectives of the convention and the opportunities it gives," he said.
Nils Muiznieks, the Human Rights Commissioner at the Council of Europe, and the deputy head of the EU Commission, Frans Timmermans, have both urged Bulgaria to ratify the treaty quickly.
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov and Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Gareth Jones)