Bulgaria's Other Crisis
Photo by Sofia Photo Agency
As Bulgaria is gripped by a political crisis and mass protests, the country's religious elite is in the midst of transition too. After the death of Patriarch Maxim in November last year, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is about to elect a new leader.
Like the secular world, the church is mired in crisis. Alleged ties to dubious businessmen and to the communist-era secret police as well as the luxurious lifestyle of some of its highest-ranking bishops have damaged the church's reputation. An institution with a 1,100 year-old history, which survived centuries of Turkish domination and decades of communism, the church has recently seen its prestige and influence among the Bulgarian society dwindle. Over 80% of the country's 7.3m people declare themselves followers of the Orthodox Christianity but only 10% see churchgoing as an important part of their lives. What is more, only 40% state that they trust the church, down from over 60% a couple of years ago.
Most people in the Balkan country are rarely aware of the church unless it issues condemnations of pop-stars like Madonna, the annual gay pride parade or the St. Valentine's holiday (on that day most Bulgarians observe the day of St. Trifon, also called the day of the vine-grower, by throwing night-long wine powered feasts).
Recently however, Bulgarians showed renewed interest in the church, which was fueled by last year's revelations that 11 of the country's 15 top bishops were secret police agents during communist times. They were reporting to the notorious Darzhavna Sigurnost, the political police, who spied on people for suspected "anti-communist behaviour". The bishops also passed on information about representatives of the Greek and Macedonian churches. Observers note that 70% of the bishops belonging to the secret police is a higher rate that the number of agents in the foreign ministry of Bulgaria. "We were obliged to be in sync with the state for the good of the people," said metropolitan Kalinik (agent names: Rilski, and Velko) explaining his affiliations with the communist regime.
According to a recent Gallup poll, Bulgarians are even more appalled by senior clerics publicly showing off their luxurious lifestyle. Kiril, the interim patriarch, for instance, recently appeared in front of believers gathered for a major holiday in his controversial Lincoln MKZ hybrid limousine. The currently highest-ranking church representative in the country sprinkled the congregation with holy water, reaching from within the expensive vehicle. "It is not abundant to get as gift a car that is not luxurious," Kiril said of his ,000 Lincoln with a golden number plate. He claims he had to change his previous car, an expensive Peugeot, "in order to save on fuel". Another high-ranking bishop, Nikolay, the metropolitan of Bulgaria's second-largest city Plovdiv, attracted the public's attention by wearing a Rolex wrist watch.
Religious leaders are said to have close ties with dubious business circles. It is alleged that Kiril received the Lincoln car and other generous gifts in exchange for lucrative church lands near the Black sea coast. In recent years, the church has come up with a form of acknowledgment of controversial businessmen: awarding them with the title Archon, a hitherto unknown practice in the country. According to the church, the title is awarded "for donations which do not contravene Christian morals and good manners". Among the recipients is Petar Mandzhukov, an arms dealer, who reportedly donated €500,000 (0,000) for the building of a new church. The decision to introduce the Archon title was not unanimous, however. Metropolitan Nataniel Nevrokopski publicly dissented saying that it was "resurrecting the defunct practice of the Roman Catholic church to sell indulgences".
Even if its influence is declining, the church still has a role in the lives of Bulgarians who are mostly observing traditional Christian holidays and rituals. Thus, the controversies which surround the Bulgarian Orthodox Church have a negative effect on society. The result, according to a report by Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, is people who are confused in their religious convictions "by a church that is led and represented by a high clergy with a dubious public image, full of contradictions and internal dissension." Now the church is faced with a choice of a new leader from a list of three metropolitans, two of which were agents of the secret police. It's hard to foresee who will ultimately choose the future patriarch, says the Rolex-wearing bishop of Plovdiv Nikolay – "whether it will be bishop agents, the newly rich archons, the politicians, the ordinary Orthodox community or the Holy Spirit".
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