SOPHIA, Bulgaria — In a drab house on the outskirts of Sophia, Bulgaria, every room is a bright, busy workshop.

One woman intently sketches arabesque curves into the ocher clay of a serving plate as another flattens clay with a rolling pin. Fired tiles of the Nativity scene line the walls.

Upstairs, a half dozen women, some clearly pregnant, make dolls as a cherubic toddler naps in a portable crib nearby.

Everywhere there are boxes of cats and angels, hens and fairies — whimsical toys for sale in Sophia and around the world to benefit mothers, especially pregnant women who reject abortion.

“In the 1990s, we were working against abortion, mainly through church groups,” explains Liudmila Balikova, program manager of the Nativity [Rojdestvo Hristovo, literally, “Christ’s Birth”] Center for Single Women, an employment and assistance program created for pregnant single women.

“The most common reason women gave for aborting babies was unemployment or a lack of job skills. They asked us, ‘What will I do to support my child?’ So we realized we needed a practical way to help mothers make a living,” Balikova said.

Ten years ago, when the Vatican requested proposals for active social assistance as part of Cor Unum, Eastern Rite Bishop Christo Proykov saw an opportunity to deepen the pro-life activity of his Sophia Diocese.

“We were very happy to develop this program of real help for pregnant women,” Bishop Proykov said, and looking at Balikova with a smile, he observed, “And since she took charge of a project from Pope John Paul II, she can’t stop. She knows she has his benediction!”

His benediction — and a start-up grant of $20,000 — have guided the center to success in terms of hundreds of women helped and the creation of a self-financing operation.

Worldwide, sales of the dolls and ceramics bring in approximately $50,000 [34,000 euros] annually, providing monthly payments to the women who participate while covering operating expenses and the cost of materials.

Most important, the Nativity Center has helped save lives while promoting family life.

“We are not a factory,” explained Balikova. “Our production is just a tool in our social work. It’s a key for contacts with women and between the women themselves.”

The center’s first client, Velina Emilova, today manages the organization’s storefront shop across the street from the Eastern Rite Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the bishop’s residence.

Although shy to discuss what brought her to the center, she lights up talking about the program’s impact on her life.

“I’m happy about everything,” she enthuses. “I have a beautiful family, four children, ages 10, 7, 2 and 5 months. My husband and I are members of the Church of the Assumption. I work with wonderful people.”

The center receives referrals from organizations ranging from the Orthodox Church to the Red Cross. Sometimes pregnant women go to convents. The nuns feed and console them, then refer women to the center.

The program also extends a helping hand to single mothers experiencing distress. Samia Ossama Zokb is a Palestinian woman who gave birth to her son Alex in a refugee camp in Sophia. His citizenship is disputed by the government. She is unemployed and a single parent: The Iraqi father abandoned her and Alex.

However, she said matter-of-factly that she enjoys the creativity involved in making dolls — and earning money for Alex.

Balikova explains that one of the organization’s most demanding tasks is to help restore the relationship between a woman who decides to keep her baby and her parents who don’t support her decision.

She describes a young woman who came to Sophia from a small village to teach. She had an affair with a married colleague and got pregnant. A Catholic, she came to Bishop Proykov for moral guidance. He counseled her and got her involved in the center’s program.

For her parents, this baby was a “big scandal.” They lived in a small village; they had sacrificed a lot to educate her.

“After the baby was born, we took the mother and baby by car to the village, first to meet the grandmother. Eventually, the grandfather accepted the baby, too,” Balikova said.

“Now everything is good. The baby is living in the village with the [grand]parents, and the mother is working in Sophia as a language teacher,” she concluded.

Placing children born out of wedlock with extended family members is a traditional response predating the abortion phenomenon, which was normalized under communism and has continued.

However, abortion is declining in Bulgaria. In 1995, the country’s official abortion rate was 150,000, more than twice the rate of 72,000 births. The most recent data, from the Association for Obstetrics and Gynecology, shows there were approximately 50,000 abortions and 65,000 births in 2007.

Although the decline is encouraging, Bulgaria continues to have a higher than average number of young teenagers having abortions.

Bishop Proykov’s staunch support of the Nativity Center is evident. As he said, “We will continue to work hard against this evil, together with the whole Catholic Church.”

Victor Gaetan is based in

Washington, D.C.

The Nativity Center does not have a website. It sells products beyond Sophia, Bulgaria, through word of mouth. The most popular product is a Christmas angel. Prices range from $1.50 to $25. These are excellent items for Christmas bazaars. To order, contact Liudmila Balikova at