SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's ruling party on Thursday delayed a vote to ratify a European treaty designed to combat violence against women in the face of opposition from religious and political groups who said it could promote moral decay.

The delay gives time for debate on the Istanbul Convention but allows for ratification while Bulgaria holds the six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, said Tsvetan Tsvetanov, parliamentary leader of the GERB party.

Opposition to the treaty spiked in recent days when the Bulgarian Orthodox Church said it would lead to moral decay.


Critics say it could encourage young people to identify as transgender or third sex and lead to marriage equality in the country of 7.1 million people.

Bulgaria is Europe's poorest nation and the dispute undermines the government's effort to present the nation as progressive, particularly while it holds the rotating EU presidency for the first time since joining the union in 2007.

At the same time, opposition to the treaty fits a broader rise of conservative politics in eastern Europe that have frequently set the region against Brussels.

The Mufti Office of the Muslim Denomination also opposed ratification and said: "gender topics are dangerous, bottomless traps" that endanger Bulgarian society.

GERB's junior coalition partner, the far-right United Patriots, opposed ratification and the opposition Socialists demanded a referendum on the issue.

GERB says the treaty would not oblige Bulgaria to introduce a "third sex" legal category or to legalize gay marriage.


"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.

The government signed the 81-article document in 2016 and parliamentary ratification is the next step. In all, more than 40 countries have signed.

Bulgaria should ratify the treaty quickly, said Nils Muiznieks, Human Rights Commissioner at the Council of Europe said on Monday. The view was echoed by the deputy head of the EU Commission Frans Timmermans.

(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov and Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)