SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) _ Thousands of ethnic Turks and Bulgarian Moslems gathered Sunday to press for legislation restoring the names they were forced to change in a sometimes violent assimilation drive.

Participants also threatened a general strike in areas populated by Bulgaria's 1.5 million Moslems to back demands for a swift change of names.

Later in the day, thousands of demonstrators ignored pleas from ethnic leaders to move from the downtown area. A government spokesman demanded that the protesters go home.

The vigil around the Alexander Nevski Cathedral and nearby Parliament building came on the eve of a parliamentary session expected to enact a law giving Moslems some rights to their original names.

Protesters criticized the draft law, saying it contained legalistic and bureaucratic hurdles that would slow the procedure.

In a campaign marked by violence, ethnic Turks were forced under Communist leader Todor Zhivkov to change their first names and family names to Bulgarian-sounding ones. They also were prohibited from speaking their mother tongue or practicing the Moslem religion.

Last year, about 320,000 Turks immigrated to neighboring Turkey, when Zhivkov permitted them to get passports. More than half have since returned.

After Zhivkov's ouster in November, the new leaders blamed him for the assimilation drive and in January decided to allow the Turks to reclaim their former names and gave them greater religious freedom.

But no legislation to that effect has been adopted.

Buses from around Bulgaria Sunday brought protesters to the capital.

Ahmed Doan, an ethnic Turkish leader, later urged the protesters through a police megaphone to leave the square near the Parliament building and go to a park in the southern part of the city. ''All our demands are accepted at this stage,'' he told the crowd. ''If you stay here we are going to hamper adoption of our demands.''

Fearing counter-demonstrations, Doan and two other Turkish activists also appealed to demonstrators on state television to ''avoid further tension.''

Interior Ministry spokesman Yordan Ormankov, also in a televised statement, condemned groups who ''exert pressure on Parliament'' and told demonstrators to go home. However, as night fell, about 2,000 demonstrators were still gathered at the cathedral.

Demonstrators told reporters they were angered by reports that under the proposed new law, Moslems still would have to have surnames with the Bulgarian endings ''ev'' or ''ov,'' and would have to request the name change in a lengthy court procedure.

''We Want Our Names,'' and ''No Name Change In Court,'' read placards held by demonstrators, who said they would not leave until their demands were met.

''If we have to go to court to get our names back we would have to wait at least 20 years,'' shouted a woman from Velingrad, in the Rhodope Mountains.

A factory worker in his late 50s said, ''We will stay put. We have left our homes and factories, and tomorrow all the Moslems will start a general strike.''

Doan, who heads the nationwide Movement for Rights and Freedom, said he received assurances from government leaders the controversial legislation would be scrapped.

He said that in a meeting Friday, President Petar Mladenov, Premier Andrei Lukanov and National Assembly Chairman Stanko Todorov ''guaranteed there will be short procedures'' under the new law.