Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church is electing a new leader and a new relationship with the world

ISTANBUL (RNS)—On Sunday, leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church will gather in Sofia to decide on their new spiritual head — the Patriarch of All Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian Church’s last patriarch, Neophyte I, died in March, and according to church law, his successor must be elected in four months. The election will be held by a 140-member council of church leaders on June 30.

Coming just a few weeks after Bulgaria held national parliamentary elections, the choice for a new patriarch has been the subject of national attention.

Though the church is fully separate from the state, its constitution names Eastern Orthodoxy as the “Traditional religion of the Republic of Bulgaria,” and 85% of Bulgaria’s 6.5 million citizens identify as Orthodox Christians.

The new patriarch will be elected by a council made up of clergy and lay leaders coming from each of the church’s 14 eparchies, two of which represent the church’s diaspora (one serving in Europe with a metropolitan, or provincial leader, based in Berlin, and the other covering North America and Australia with its metropolitan based in New York City).

Church law dictates that candidates must be over 50 and have served as metropolitans for at least five years. Of the 14 metropolitans, nine meet the qualifications, and after 42 rounds of voting, three were finalized as candidates for Sunday’s elections.

They are metropolitans Grigorii of Vratsa, Daniil of Vidin and Gabriel of Lovech.

“They have many, many different views on many, many things,” Smilen Markov, a Bulgarian scholar of Orthodox Christianity at Oxford University, told RNS.

Markov stressed that the election was not a single-issue vote, but that the electors would be making their choices on many factors, from debates over liturgical language to monastic issues.

However, he noted that in the Bulgarian Church, much of the patriarch’s role is as an outward-facing leader and that the next patriarch will likely be remembered for how he addresses modernity and the wider Orthodox world.

According to Markov, among Orthodox scholars, the Bulgarian Church is known to have far less of an international or social presence than other major churches in Southeastern Europe, such as the Romanian and Serbian churches.

“One of the challenges is to overcome this self-imposed isolation,” explained Markov. “We live in a pluralistic society, in a liberal society, and we have to learn how to work within the two. (The church) has to learn the grammar of talking to the European institutions, it has to learn the grammar of talking to global institutions, it has to start talking about environmental problems and about human rights because these matters are very pertinent to the mission of the Orthodox Church.”

Eastern Orthodoxy is a fellowship of over a dozen independent churches — known as “autocephalous” in Greek — each led by its patriarch and ruling a defined geographical region.

Bulgaria, red, in eastern Europe. (Image courtesy Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Bulgaria, red, in eastern Europe. (Image courtesy Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Historically, Constantinople was the center of the Orthodox Christian world. The Patriarch of Constantinople wears the title “ecumenical” and is styled the “Primus Inter Pares,” meaning “first amongst equals.” Constantinople is considered by many to be the “mother church” of the other Orthodox churches, and the ecumenical patriarch has traditionally served as a mediator between the major churches.

Since the outbreak of full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine in 2022, churches across Eastern Europe have been riven over their connections with the world’s largest Orthodox body, the Moscow Patriarchate.

Russia broke communion with Constantinople and several aligned churches in 2018, in response to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s move to grant autocephaly to Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians — organizing them into a semi-independent church under the Constantinople Patriarchate. Since then, Bartholomew has lent his support to other Orthodox parishes seeking to exit from the Russian Church, such as those in Lithuania, and brought them under his wing.

The gap between the Russian Church and the other Orthodox churches has continued to widen, as Moscow Patriarch Kirill is increasingly seen as a mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin. In March, Kirill declared the Russian invasion to be a holy war, and last summer, the Russian Orthodox Church’s top-ranking priest in Bulgaria was expelled from the country on charges of espionage. Russia has frequently been accused of using its church as a sort of shadow foreign service.

According to observers, Russia is keeping a close eye on Bulgaria’s patriarchal election.

“The Russian Orthodox Church is starting to lose ground in Bulgaria, which is why it is offering support to those metropolitans who stay on the Russian side,” Goran Blagoev, a Bulgarian journalist and historian, told Balkan Insight.

While the Bulgarian public and government have largely supported Ukraine since the Russian invasion, the church has been more divided.

More than five years on, the Bulgarian Church has not taken a final position on Ukraine’s autocephaly, and many view the church’s leadership as divided into Russophile and anti-Russia factions.

Priests read prayers in honour of St.Haralampus, as believers gather around candles stuck to jars of honey, arranged in a cross shape, during Mass for the 'sanctification of honey' at the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Church in the town of Blagoevgrad, south of the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church marks the feast of St. Haralampus, the Orthodox patron saint of bee-keepers, by performing a ritual for health and rich harvest. (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova)

Priests read prayers in honor of St. Haralampus as believers gather around candles stuck to jars of honey, arranged in a cross shape, during a Mass for the ‘sanctification of honey’ at the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Church in the town of Blagoevgrad, south of the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church marks the feast of St. Haralampus, the Orthodox patron saint of bee-keepers, by performing a ritual for health and rich harvest. (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova)

Last month, when a group of metropolitans traveled to Istanbul to attend a celebration at the ecumenical patriarchate that the head of the newly autocephalous Ukrainian church would also be attending, they were blasted by other church leaders, including Metropolitan Gabriel of Lovech.

When Metropolitan Epiphanius, the head of the Autocephalous Ukrainian Church, attended the funeral of Bulgaria’s former patriarch, Neophyte, it also incensed some church leaders and pro-Russia figures in Bulgaria.

Russia’s ambassador to Bulgaria called Epiphanius’ presence at the funeral “an absolute provocation on the part of the Phanar,” referencing the neighborhood of Istanbul where the Ecumenical patriarchate is based.

According to Markov, however, these kinds of reactions are out of step with the Bulgarian public, including its Orthodox faithful.

Bulgaria’s church and country have long had a complex relationship with Russia. In the 19th century, the Russian Empire supported Bulgaria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. When a new patriarch is ultimately named, they will be enthroned in Sofia’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral — named for a Russian prince and saint.

However, Bulgaria’s half-century of communist rule, as a satellite state of the Soviet Union following WWII, soured most Bulgarians’ view of Russia.

During the communist era, the Bulgarian Church was tolerated as long as it continued to cooperate with the state’s secret service, the Bulgarian KGB.

“It was really infiltrated as a system by the secret service” said Markov. “This was not a strategy that was designed here in Bulgaria but in Moscow — how to calibrate a church into a tool of the communist system.”

The full details of the church’s relationship with the regime were revealed around the same time that Neophyte was enthroned as patriarch, and many feel that his main legacy was his work to rid the church of that stain during his leadership.

His successor will likely be remembered for how he positions the church externally, Markov said.

“There are all sorts of influences,” Markov said. “Russian Influence is everywhere; it won’t disappear no matter who will be elected. So it’s not something that is to be decided on one choice, on one person.”

Source link

Related Articles

Do you run a company that want to build a new website and are looking for a web agency in Sweden that can do the job? At Partna you can get connected to experienced web agencies that are interested in helping you with your website development. Partna is an online service where you simply post your web development needs in order to get business offers from skilled web agencies in Sweden. Instead of reaching out to hundreds of agencies by yourself, let up to 5 web agencies come to you via Partna.
Back to top button