Orthodox Church of Bulgaria

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An autocephalous Orthodox Church and national church of Bulgaria that is in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of constantinople.

Early history. In 679, the Bulgars, led by Asparukh [or Isperikh (643701)] had defeated a Byzantine army led by Emperor constantine iv, forcing Byzantium to accept a peace treaty in 681. Moving south, the Bulgarians settled in territories where Christianity had been flourishing for several centuries. The Church Council of Serdica (modern-day Sofia) in 342 a.d. gave evidence of Christianity's popularity and the importance of that territory for its development in the early fourth century. Contacts between Bulgarians and Christians increased, especially after rapid expansion of the Bulgarian state during the reign of Krum (802814), but it was not until 865, under Khan (Tsar) boris (852889) that Christianity became the official religion in Bulgaria. The peace treaty of 863 between Byzantium and Bulgaria required, among other things, that Boris permit Byzantine missionary activity in Bulgaria.

Boris' baptism in 865, followed by mass baptisms of Bulgarians, opened the door to the establishment of Orthodox Christianity in Bulgaria. But in 866, when photius, the patriarch of Constantinople rejected Boris' request to establish a national hierarchy, Boris switched his allegiance to Pope nicholas i. That same year, Boris sent emissaries to Rome, requesting Latin missionaries, Latin liturgical books, and a civil code to replace those of the Byzantine missionaries. Encouraged by Pope Nicholas I's positive response in his famous letter to the Bulgarians, by which the pope revealed his intention for the institution of a Bulgarian hierarchy, Boris gave his full support to the work of Latin missionaries. The Bulgarian drift toward Rome was evidenced by intensive Latin missionary activity, and by the preaching and celebration of Latin liturgy. In 868 Boris wrote to Pope adrian ii, reminding him of his predecessor's (Pope NicholasI) support for a Bulgarian autocephalous church. However, he was frustrated by Rome's slowness to his request, and disappointed when the pope refused to name Marinus (whom Boris favored) as head of the Bulgarian hierarchy. Expressing his displeasure with the pope's replacement of Formosus (a bishop of Porto and a head of the Latin mission to Bulgaria) by the subdeacon Sylvester, Boris seized the opportunity to turn, once again, toward Constantinople.

The issue of the jurisdiction of the Bulgarian Church became a contentious point between Rome and Constantinople at the Fourth Council of Constantinople (870). Over the protests of the Roman legates, the Byzantines, with the approval of Ignatius, Patriarch of Constantinople, sent an archbishop and several bishops to Bulgaria. Despite Byzantine attempts to reintroduce their rite into Bulgaria, neither Byzantine nor Latin rites succeeded. Rather, the newly introduced Byzantine-Slav rite appeared more suitable for the needs of the Slavs. Institution of the Slav rite resulted from efforts of SS. Cyril and Methodius and their disciples, who developed the Slavic alphabet and translated the Holy Scriptures and Byzantine liturgical books into Slavic (a language contemporarily known as Old Bulgarian or Old Church Slavonic). This new rite accelerated the Christianizing of Bulgaria. The arrival in Bulgaria in 886 of Clement, Naum, Angelar, and other disciples of Methodius, who had been expelled from Moravia after Pope Stephen V's prohibition of Slavic liturgy there, constituted an event of signal importance for efforts to Christianize Bulgarians and Slavs.

In Bulgaria, Cyril's and Methodius' disciples undertook translations of church books and the training of priests. St. Clement and St. Naum established influential church and educational centers in Pliska, Preslav, and Ohrid (on the shores of Lake Ohrid, in Macedonian territory today), where more than 3,000 priests were educated to conduct religious services in Old Bulgarian (Slavonic). During the next two decades, Christianity in Bulgaria developed into a full-scale national Church headed by an archbishop approved by Constantinople, the first of whom was Joseph, appointed on March 4, 870. Consequently, Boris' waverings between Rome and Constantinople eventually resulted in the establishment of an autonomous Bulgarian church. But it was not until 893 that Christianity was proclaimed as the state religion by the national assembly, after which the Slavic language was officially adopted and Byzantine books were replaced by Slavic texts.

An important political dimension of the Bulgarian conversion to Christianity was the centralization of authority, as evidenced during the reign of Boris' younger son, Simeon (893927). To further his efforts at reorganizing the ecclesiastical hierarchy and replacing Greek bishops with bishops of Slavic origin, Simeon appointed two new bishops. Clement was consecrated bishop of Velika and Dragovitya (today's Macedonia), while Constantine was named bishop of Preslav. Simeon's dream of Bulgaria having a national hierarchy, indigenous clergy, a unique liturgy and religious practices of its own was for a time fulfilled. John Exarch became the first Bulgarian archbishop appointed to the town of Preslav (904). Ecclesiastical development progressed even further when the National Synod of Preslav (918) proclaimed Leontius, the archbishop there, "Patriarch of Bulgaria," thereby establishing the Bulgarian Patriarchate. But it was not until the last year of Simeon's reign (927), when Damian, successor of Leontius, was formally recognized as patriarch by both Rome and Constantinople. By the end of Simeon's reign, the Bulgarian Patriarchate (by then relocated to Dorostoltoday the town of Silistra) had as many as forty dioceses and metropolitans under its jurisdiction.

Under Simeon's successors, Byzantium invaded and gained control of Bulgaria. In 1018 Bulgaria and the Bulgarian Church completely lost their independence, remaining under the control of Byzantium until 1185. The Greek hierarchy took control of the Patriarchate of Ohrid in an attempt to replace the Bulgarian Slavic rites with liturgy in the Greek language. The archbishop of Ohrid was a Greek, appointed by Constantinople, as were all the bishops under his jurisdiction. The See of Ohrid, which had arisen as a most important center of Slavic Christianization, after 1018 became a bastion for the Hellenization of Bulgaria. It was from Ohrid in 1054, that Bulgaria became mired in the Schism between Rome and Constantinople (the archbishop of Ohrid, Leo was a supporter of Michael Cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople). For the Bulgarian church, the century and a half of Hellenic domination had been devastating. The resultant lack of communication between a Greek hierarchy imposed by Constantinople and the church's lower clergy, most of whom were of Bulgarian origin, permitted resurgence of the paulician and bogomil sects.

During the reign of Ivan's and Peter's brother and successor Kaloyan (11971207), primacy of Rome in Bulgarian church affairs was reasserted. Pope innocent iii granted Kaloyan the title of king. He also reaffirmed Archbishop Basil of Bulgaria as primate of the Bulgarian Church (1204), encouraging the latter to retain the church's well-established Slavic rites. But the fall of Constantinople under the crusaders on April 13, 1204, accompanied with an extreme cruelty with which the crusaders treated the local population, some of Bulgarian descent, seemed to have cooled Kaloyan's feelings toward Rome. Unwilling to surrender to the crusaders, who had already been looking for Bulgaria's submission, Kaloyan sought Pope Innocent III's intercession for a peaceful outcome, but to no avail. Alienated, Bulgaria returned to the Byzantine sphere of influence, especially after Byzantium's new recognition of the Bulgarian church's independence. But the final break with Rome did not come officially until 1235, when the Bulgaro-Byzantine Council of Blasherna proclaimed autonomy of the Bulgarian Church, in communion with Nicaea, while reaffirming the title of patriarch for the head of the Bulgarian church in the capital of Turnovo.

Bulgaria under the Turks. The period from 1396 to 1878 witnessed the end of the Bulgarian kingdom and the beginning of five centuries of Turkish political domination in Bulgaria. For the Bulgarian church, this was a period of Greek ecclesiastical domination which came into effect in 1416. Proclaimed by the Ottomans to be the Father of all Christians (or the "Roman nation," Rum millet ), the Patriarchate of Constantinople was established in Phanar as a vehicle for mediation between the Sublime Portal (Turkish government) and the Christian population dwelling in the Ottoman empire. Greeks gradually replaced Bulgarian bishops while the Greek language was substituted for Bulgarian in churches. This led to a forceful Hellenization of the Slavic population and ecclesiastical domination of the Bulgarian church, which actually ceased to exist for almost five hundred years. The archbishops of Ochrid were the only exceptions, as they temporarily retained the titles of primates or patriarchs of Bulgaria. This situation remained until 1767, when the archbishop of Ochrid became a subject of Constantinople. The liturgy was celebrated in Bulgarian only in monasteries hidden among remote mountains.

In 1870 Makaripolski succeeded in creating an Orthodox exarchate recognized by the Turkish Sublime Portal, which issued a decree establishing an autocephalous Bulgarian church. Headed by an exarch with jurisdiction over the 15 dioceses of Bulgaria and Macedonia, the church again became a moving force in Bulgarian life. The exarchate represented Bulgarian interests to the Sublime Portal and sponsored subsequent expansion of Bulgarian churches and schools. The national synod of the Bulgarian exarchate in Constantinople approved the first ecclesiastical constitution in 1871, although the Greek patriarch based there refused to recognize this independent church and subsequently excommunicated its adherents (1872). But the exarchate reorganized and consolidated after the Russian-Turkish war (1878), when Bulgaria achieved a measure of political independence.

The Church Stands against Jewish Deportation. After election of Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a grandson of Louis-Philippe of France, as a prince of Bulgaria by the Grand National Assembly in July of 1887, Bulgaria officially became a monarchy. Boosted by the 19th century national revival which was reflected in church life, education, and monasticism, the Church nevertheless began showing some signs of decline by the mid-20th century. The period between the two world wars was difficult for Bulgarians. In an effort to maintain a de facto neutrality, positioned as it was between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR, Bulgaria allied with Germany and adhered to Hitler's treaty of 1939 promising not to invade the Soviet Union. Bulgaria's alliance with Germany brought the most difficult modern challenge to the Bulgarian nation and church: how to boycott Nazi plans for deporting Bulgarian Jews to Poland for eventual extermination in concentration camps. The official reaction of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church against state-sustained anti-Semitism opened a chapter of Bulgarian modern church history known as "the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews in 1943." Bulgarian church resistance to anti-Jewish legislation began as soon as the government announced a project to establish a "Law for a Defense of the Nation (1940)." In his memorandum dated Nov. 15, 1940, Archbishop Neofit of Vidin countered that any persecution of individuals belonging to ethnic or religious minorities would impede the Church's divine mission of salvation.

In 1943 the Bulgarian Orthodox Church then initiated its rescue effort. Two metropolitans played a significant roles in defending Jews: Stefan, archbishop of Sofia, and Kiril, archbishop of Plovdiv (and future patriach of Bulgaria). Kiril became noteworthy for his successful effort to release 1,500 Plovdiv Jews who had been arrested and prepared for deportation. Kiril sent a telegram to King Boris and the Bulgarian government informing them of the church's intention to stop, "by any means," the anti-Jewish action. He declared that he would lie down on the rails in front of the train transporting the Jews rather than allow this to happen. The success of his campaign became evident on March 10, when orders were issued to release imprisoned Jews in Plovdiv. Some members of the Bulgarian National Assembly supported Kiril's action, and Peshev, a congressman, together with 42 members belonging to the majority of the assembly, on March 17 signed a letter of protest to the prime minister against Jewish deportations.

In later stages of the Jewish deportation campaign, the church harbored many Jews, hiding them from the police. Dr. Hananel, the chief rabbi in Bulgaria, found temporary refuge in Archbishop Stefan's house on May 24, 1943. Stefan assured the rabbi that the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church would do everything possible to halt Jewish deportations. In correspondence with the king and top government officials, Stefan warned that he would open the doors of all Bulgarian churches and turn them "into fortresses in defense of the Jews" if anti-Jewish persecutions continued. King Boris himself resisted Nazi imposition of the deportation campaign. By this solid resistance of the Bulgarian Church, the king and some members of the National Assembly, many Jews from Bulgaria (around 50,000) were saved.

The Church under Communism. The new communist regime which came into power at the end of World War II showed an anti-religious orientation almost immediately after its establishment. Between 1944 and 1947, several influential events involving the Bulgarian Orthodox Church took place. First, Metropolitan of Sofia Stefan was elected exarch of Bulgaria on Jan. 21, 1945. On February 22 of the same year, the schism imposed on the Bulgarian Orthodox Church by Constantinople in 1872 was lifted. Under the new regime, the Church lost not only its international connections but also its relevance to Bulgarian society. Overall reduction of the Church's role in Bulgarian society had a predictably negative impact on Orthodox clergy. Despite the Holy Synod's decision of Dec. 14, 1945, to organize parish schools in all parishes, the process of decline in religious education proved irreversible. Eventually, Orthodox Christian seminaries in Plovdiv and Sofia were closed down, at first under pretext of accommodating Soviet troops. New legislation that came into effect on June 27, 1947, authorized the expropriation of two-thirds of the Church's extensive property holdings.

As head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Exarch Stefan attempted to adapt to the new political regime, but he resisted efforts of the Bulgarian Communist Party to control church affairs directly. Such resistance was futile, and many Bulgarian Orthodox bishops and clergy, together with their Catholic and Protestant counterparts, were executed or imprisoned during the persecutions that followed. In its effort to dominate church affairs, the communist government fomented internal dissension in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church by establishing a priests' union, which challenged the church's constitution. Stefan resigned his office, allegedly under pressure, and retired to a monastery on Sept. 6, 1948. Legislation adopted on Feb. 24, 1949, subjected all religious denominations to strict state supervision. Kiril, Stephan's successor, did not offer effective resistance as the new state restrictions on religious associations brought church activities under complete state control.

The reestablishment of the Bulgarian patriarchate in 1953, without approval of the Patriarchate in Constantinople (this approval did not come until 1961 under the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras), completed the process of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church's consolidation under the communist regime (19441987). Kiril, Metropolitan of Plovdiv, was elected as new patriarch of Bulgaria.

The situation of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church did not significantly change after Kiril's death, which was followed by Maximus' election as the new patriarch of Bulgaria in 1971. The church remained under state restrictions and continued its decline in numbers of clergy, religious, and laity. It was during this period when many worship places fell into disuse for lack of priests and monastic vocation, while a few smaller monasteries were quietly taken over by the state and converted into medical facilities and other state establishments. Isolated from society and from Bulgarian youth, who were then engaged in forceful participation in the Young Communists League (komsomol ), the Church barely managed to survive.

The situation did not change significantly until the late 1980s, when reforms launched by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev began to have some impact in Bulgaria. Among various dissident groups organized in Bulgaria, one named the "Committee for Defense of the Religious Rights, Freedom of the Conscience and Spiritual Values" was lead by Christophor Sabev, an Orthodox hieromonk residing in Veliko Tarnovo. Founded on Dec. 15, 1988, the group had several objectives: primarily liberation of the hierarchy of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church from communist influence; reestablishment of religious education in state schools; and guaranteeing freedom to conduct religious rites and ceremonies in public places. The organization also demanded changes to previous denominational law and abrogation of restrictions applying to religious publications.

The movement conducted its campaign by organizing peaceful candlelight processions of icons (called litias ) in which several hundred people participated. The organization was persecuted and its leader, Christophor Sabev, was arrested and briefly jailed. Under pressure from the regime, on March 28, 1989, the Church's Holy Synod denounced Christophor Sabev's movement, claiming that such establishment contradicted canons of the Orthodox Church and its Constitution. But the eventual fall of communism in Bulgaria, following Zhivkov's resignation on Nov. 10, 1989, marked the beginning of a post-communist era, when Christophor Sabev's movement became a central element of the democratic opposition to the old regime.

The Post-Communist Era Schism. After elections in the autumn of 1991, Sabev became a member of the opposition in Parliament, then led by the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). With UDF's help, Sabev decided to launch a campaign for purging the Bulgarian Orthodox Church of communist element and influences. The process of church "decommunization" was intended to begin with the head of Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Maxim. Primarily this was because Maxim's election had taken place under communist rule and he had the support of the communist regime. Furthermore, Maxim and his synod were not widely believed to have reacted effectively on issues of human rights and religious freedom during the communist regime. In an effort to purge the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and compel Patriarch Maxim to resign, Sabev and his allies applied political pressure, which apparently had a negative effect on the Bulgarian Orthodox Church's ecclesiastical life. Sabev's subsequent struggle for the Church's decommunization, in which other members of its hierarchy were involved, precipitated a major ecclesiastical crisis by publicly challenging both the Church's integrity and its moral authority.

The process of decommunization began when four metropolitans influenced by Sabev's political power (among them Pankratiy and Kalinik, who had occupied two of the most important administrative positions during the communist period: those of the Church's internal and external affairs) decided to abandon Maxim and the synod over which he presided. The group established an alternative synod (May 19, 1992) under the presidency of Metropolitan Pimen, who was afterward elected as the alternative patriarch of Bulgaria. Intended to be a promoter of renewal within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the alternative synod was envisioned as lasting until a subsequent national church council provided conditions for new elections. Sabev's incorporation into the new ecclesiastical structure and his elevation to the episcopate was intended to be the most significant symbol of church renovation.

Fulfillment of the plan began with Sabev's direct intervention into the Council of Ministers, through the Department of Religious Denominations that had been created by the communist regime to control all religious institutions from one centralized political entity. The same department then declared illegal Maxim's position as patriarch, an office he had occupied for twenty-two years. Metody Spasov, at that time head of the Religious Denominations Department, announced the decision on the basis of the Council of Minister's edict #92 from May 25, 1992. One day after the Council of Ministers announced Maxim's deposal, Sabev was consecrated as a bishop by the metropolitans Pankratiy, Kalinik, and Stefan in the presence of bishops Antoniy and Galaction.

Regarding this announcement as political interference in church affairs, the majority of Bulgarian Orthodox Church's metropolitans and bishops who had supported Maxim decided to file an official protest against the decision. But with government approval Sabev and his supporters occupied the office building of the Holy Synod on May 31, 1992, paralyzing the operation of Maxim's synod. Maxim lodged a criminal complaint "for breaking in" against Subev, Pimen, and their supporters, but without any effect. Instead, instructions came from the prosecutor's office of the Republic of Bulgaria on July 10, 1992, confirming the government's support for Pimen and his new synod. Maxim, in turn, convoked a National Archbishop Council, which on July 22, 1992, condemned the new schism and what the council called "the illegal consecration of Sabev" into the episcopacy. The council unfrocked the four participating metropolitans as well as the bishops who had joined them.

There were efforts from the side of the Bulgarian society and Bulgarian Orthodox Church's lower clergy to reconcile the two rival groups within the church. On Sept. 3, 1992, an alternative clerical organization called the Movement for Reunion of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church met with Prime Minister Philip Dimitrov and other representatives of his government in an effort to solve the problem, but they met with no evident success. A Bulgarian High Court decree on Nov. 5, 1992 confirmed the Council of Ministers Department of Religious Denominations' decision, thereby sanctioning the alternative Holy Synod with Metropolitan Pimen as its recognized presiding bishop. The UDF's government supported the High Court's decision.

Events occurring between May 19 and Nov. 5, 1992 denoted a process of gradual separation (schism) that took place first within Bulgarian Orthodox Church's hierarchy and clergy, then within the laity. Both sides of the divided synod claimed to be the ruling body within the Church. The majority of parishes and parish priests within the Church, as well as two-thirds of the metropolitans and bishops, defended Patriarch Maxim and his synod while some leaders of the Priest Union, and UDF's government headed by Philip Dimitrov, seemed to support Pimen's side. Ongoing government intervention in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church's affairs apparently contributed to subsequent widening of the schism, resulting in further deterioration of ecclesiastical life and an increase in civil disorder.

After he became a bishop, Sabev gradually separated from the group which had consecrated him. He gave as his reason Pankratiy's and Kalinik's participation in ecumenical services, of which the more conservative Sabev disapproved. Not seeing "signs of repentance" from the side of metropolitans Kalinik and Pankratiy, Sabev separated from them and founded a new archbishopric in Ternovo. Subsequently, he lost much of his personal political influence; the ecclesiastical body he founded exists today, but with diminished influence. Several attempts at reuniting the two synods have not succeed. Most notable among these was an attempt in 1988, when the Panorthodox Council was convoked in Sofia. Orthodox patriarchs and archbishops from all over the world gathered in Sofia to try and resolve the schism within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The council recognized all of the consecrations effected by the alternative synod, invited all of the bishops to join Maxim's synod and declared the schism to be over. Metropolitans Pancratiy and Kalinik repented and returned to the earlier synod under Maxim, but Pimen remained in the schism until his death in 1999. Pimen's alternative synod continues to exist, although only a small group of clergy remain involved. After decisions of the State High Court, currently two different bodies under the name of Bulgarian Orthodox Church exist juridically. A third ecclesiastical body, known as "The Bulgarian Orthodox Church of the Old Calendar" also exists, but it is not in communion with either of the other two recognized church bodies.

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[m. youroukov]