20 October 2015
A Bulgarian Orthodox priest holds a vestment as he waits for Patriarch Neofit at the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia on 11 April 2015. (photo: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images)
Geography has helped shape the history of the peoples of the Balkans. This peninsula in the Mediterranean lies at the crossroads of the ancient Greek and Latin civilizations of southern Europe, a juncture where Orthodoxy and Catholicism mingle, where Islam meets Christianity, where Asia and Europe collide. For millennia, these Balkan encounters have sparked major cultural and political movements. Bulgarian Orthodoxy, despite centuries of setbacks, is one such example.
Closely aligned with the fate of the nation and its peoples, the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria has endured significant difficulties for much of its history, which dates to the baptism of Tsar Boris I in the year 864. These challenges have included the rise and fall of independent states, schisms, Ottoman domination and Greek oppression. Just in the last century, the church has sustained three regional and two world wars; abdications, assassinations, executions and rigged elections; isolation from the rest of the Orthodox world; 45 years of Communist control; and internal discord and schism. Dramatic demographic decline — Bulgaria has lost 14 percent of its population in the last two decades and, in some years, the number of abortions exceeds live births — has taken its toll on the church’s role and effectiveness in the 21st century.
Men dance in the icy winter waters of the Tundzha river in the town of Kalofer as part of the Epiphany Day celebrations on 6 January 2015. (photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)
While today some 82 percent of Bulgaria’s 7.3 million people identify themselves as Orthodox, most do not follow the rites of the church. Some observers believe up to half of the population is agnostic or atheistic. Bulgarian Orthodoxy, they contend, has become an ethnic or cultural symbol.
A general council, held in July 1997, attempted to address the role of the church in post-Communist Bulgaria. Under the guidance of its patriarch, the council called on the government to allow it to develop freely and publicly, utilizing mass media, catechesis in state schools and the restoration of chaplaincies in the armed forces, prisons and hospitals. The council also addressed the urgent need for the spiritual renewal of the Orthodox faithful and focused on the development of formation and catechetical programs. But the resurrection of the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria — unlike the Orthodox revival in Romania, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine — remains arduous.
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