Father Popov: Senior Bulgarian Orthodox Clergy Are Thugs in Cassocks with Communist Ties
Father Lyubomir Popov is an Orthodox priest in Bulgaria's Black Sea City of Varna.
He was expelled from the temple "Athanasiy" and deposed by the ecclesiastical court at the Varna and Veliki Bishopric, but remains one of the most respected Servants of God in the city.
Popov was ordained deacon in 1978. From 1982 to 1998, he was a Coadjutor Bishop of Varna, and a Parish Priest since 1998. After the expulsion, he serves in a hall, suited as some sort of church, where people from all backgrounds and ages continue to flock.
He was a Member of the Great National Assembly (Parliament). Popov does not belong to any alternative Synod and other churches. He knows in depth and cares about the problems of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and is not afraid to speak openly about them.
After his expulsion from the temple where served, his followers filed claims with the Strasbourg Court, for violation of their civil and human rights. In January 2009, the Court dismissed two of the claims and granted one (for violated rights of religion) and gave the parties in the case a deadline of three months to reach settlement. The same day the Holy Synod issued a formal address, which criticized the intervention of the Court in Strasbourg in the canonical works of the Bulgarian Patriarchate.
Father Popov, are you surprised by the number of bishops whose files expose them as agents and collaborators of the former Communist State Security, DS?
I am surprised. I expected that all of them were Communist agents.
Well, it is not possible for all of them. Plovdiv Bishop Nikolay, for example, is simply too young to have been recruited?
Yes, Nikolay wasn't, but he is associated with former President Parvanov. All are connected with the Communist party. Gavrail's father was the keeper and guardian of Georgi Dimitrov. These people suddenly emerged in the Church, and then married some of "our" girls. And so it goes to this day.
Patriarch Maxim did not come out as collaborator of the Communist Secret Services?
Maxim's file was hidden or destroyed, when the regime decided that he will become Patriarch or when he became such. Didn't you see how glad and happy he was when it was announced that nothing came out about him? Maxim personally begged the Tsar (and former Prime Minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg) to not open the files.
Why did the bishops remain silent for such a long time and keep being silent?
They thought that Communism would be eternal, that it would last forever and the files will never be open. Such a pathetic story.
What are you expecting to happen to these people now when their files are a fact?
Personally, they probably will not do anything, but they will either capitulate or will become isolated, which they really do not mind, because the Church's funds will still be theirs. They only care about this. They take huge fees for services and think that nobody will find out or inquire about them.
Ordinary priests have no means. They get paid with candles, in kind, but the Holy Synod invited the Russian Patriarch and works hard to prepare for his visit. Russian Church representatives are secular-minded, they come here to eat and drink. I remember a similar story some time ago in the restaurant of the "Cherno More" (Black Sea) hotel in Varna - not only they ate and drank, but even stuffed their bags with food.
The bishops are illiterate people; they have no idea of Christendom. These are thugs in cassocks. They don't care if no one visits the temples. They manipulate people through the canon. They marginalize the Church, thinking that people are ignorant and don't understand.
According to the same canon, however, they should be excommunicated. The canon of the 30th apostolic rule says: "a man who took his episcopal rank with the assistance of government must be excommunicated." Not deposed, but excommunicated.
Bishops are elected and they have to go and will go. In Bulgaria, things happen slowly. Nikolay and the other 3 persons will remain though.
Will the files influence the election of the next patriarch?
Unofficial they will influence the election. He will be neither Kiril nor Gavrail. At least I hope. The Church does not have to have a patriarch – we can have a vicar, to represent it until new people come.
According to a recent poll of Alpha Research, only 17% of Bulgarians are scandalized by the communist past of bishops and 33% say they don't care?
If they are not interested in the files, then they are Christians of dubious quality. However, people are right to be discouraged by so many scandals. Church holidays are turning into ethnographic happenings.
Naturally, I must ask you – did DS try to recruit you?
Of course they tried, but most of them were lazy, they did not insist much; they did something mainly to justify their salaries. I was called in the regional militia (Communist police) office and they threatened me with deportation. They harassed my father because I went on a trip to Greece. They asked me questions about the Bishopric; they had no idea at all about things there and through me wanted to simulate work. They had me sign a declaration that I will cooperate with the State Security, and I refused. I told the Bishop and nothing more happened. Democracy arrived 3-4 years later.
How does a teenager decide to devote himself to God during Communist times?
I went to church for the first time with my grandmother, but she was not a church person in the true sense. I was 13 when I came to Varna. In junior high I became interested in the church doctrine, and gradually, through different ways, came to faith. For example, the sexton showed me some incriminated books, then I used the library of the Bishopric. My homeroom teacher in junior high strongly objected, she kept calling my parents to meetings and this motivated me even more. After military service, I worked at the post office. I was not accepted in the theological seminary because I wanted to enter there through equivalency exams, but studied theology in the theological academy and became a deacon. I met my wife in a circle of believers where we were discussing religious things.
Did the Communist regime exercise pressure on the Church?
I was ordained in 1978 under Bishop Yosif, who was in the Church before September 9, 1944. Because of him there were no problems; services were calm; people came. Communism is often exaggerated, it was not so scary.
Well, of course, there was pressure – the regime instated fear of open visits of temples, put pressure on priests, while senior clergy, as we found out, was replaced over the years with people loyal to the Communist party. After September 9, churches remained property of the Church, but many were declared historical monuments and closed for repairs, which became a way for closing them for service.
You say that it was not scary, but I think you weren't afraid? They certainly had been pressuring you – the militia, DS, your homeroom teacher, as you said?
Well, yes, I was dramatically expelled from the Komsomol (the youth Communist organization). At the first meeting my classmates voted against. Then the District Committee of the Komsomol came and held a second meeting; they said the Vatican stood behind me, and again five voted against. I was also expelled from high school and graduated from evening school.
Tell us something about the notorious schism in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church?
Schism (in Bulgarian the word is razkol) is disciplinary disobedience. Many are yet to understand the real reason for the conflict. It began with Kalinik, Pankratiy and Pimen - the most loyal people of the Communist Party. They were close to Andrey Lukanov. Schism is their deed, but why did the Communists do it, I don't know - whether they wanted to oust the Patriarch or have an alternative, and weaken the clergy by dividing it? By 1996, it became clear that this schism went too far and the right wing was taking over. Then the Patriarch called a congregation where the fight was between the Union of Democratic Forces, UDF, and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP. So, they decided to bring an end to this story and called the Ecumenical Patriarch to a Pan-Orthodox Synod in 1998. Kalinik and Pankratiy became again bishops, but others did not come back and created a Second Synod, which was tolerated until 2004, when the Tsar, in a well-planned action, took over the Church. Officially, it was announced that the Church had taken back its churches, but in reality they were confiscated and the clergy from the Second Synod expelled. We won the case in Strasbourg, but are still waiting for its rule to be executed and don't know whether we will ever see this ... The law remains unchanged, notwithstanding the Court rule.
What happened in Varna?
The expulsion in Varna happened a year earlier, in 2003. The police ostensibly summoned me for some reference. Everyone else left the church after me and locked the doors. Meanwhile about 40 people, close to Bishop Kiril, arrived, broke in and took over the temple. They brought locksmiths with them, changed the locks and we never again entered there. We wrote to the prosecution and it issued an order to further explore this matter, but nobody did. There was also a second such prosecutor decision. Nothing else happened until this day...
Tell us something about the lucrative Church properties everyone is talking about?
The properties of the Church are managed by four entities – the Holy Synod, the Bishoprics, the Church Boards, and the so-called Monastery Fraternities. These properties belong to them; the decisions are approved by the Diocesan Council. Bishops, themselves, should not dispose of properties and sell them. But they do.
In Varna, the Church has no large estates, but in Northern Dobrudzha, after it was returned to Bulgaria, the State gave lands to everyone, including the Church - about 100 decares of land per village, and now these lands have great value.
And Varna Metropolitan Kiril gives anyone the lists of these lands. He sells and distributes property illegally, meddling in the work of the Church Boards. He was the one who replaced the Church Board in the village of Rogachevo, which is near the beach, because its members refused to sell their property. Eventually, it was sold cheaply to some Ukrainian businessman. bTV journalist Genka Shekerova filmed an investigative report about this infamous case in 2007.
What is your comment on Kiril's notorious Lincoln?
What more can I say than what I said above? Of course, this is not something accidental. He gave something to get it. Furthermore, it is inappropriate for him and any priest to use such car.
Well, how can these deals, these wrongdoings be controlled when the Church is separated from the State?
The Church is a public body and subject to State control. The State has no right to interfere in the canons and the Church may not meddle in State affairs. But that does not mean that the Church can do whatever it wants. Can God's servants be allowed to violate the law and abuse resources? These are public resources.
Editor's note: With the onset of the Transition Period in Bulgaria, the Patriarchate experienced a serious crisis and split. A Second Synod was established, called by some "the Alternative Synod," headed by Nevrokop Metropolitan Pimen, challenging the legality of the election of Patriarch Maxim. This process is known as the schism in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. In July 1996, a congregation, organized by "the Alternative Synod," was held in Sofia, where Pimen was named Patriarch.
Then, an Ecumenical Congregation was held in Sofia in 1998, at the request of Patriarch Maxim, to resolve the dispute. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew arrived and expressed support for Maxim.
Pimen died in 1999, and in 2001, the State in the face of President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister and former Tsar, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, expressed unequivocal support for Patriarch Maxim. The Member of the Parliament from Simeon's National Movement for Stability and Prosperity, NMSP, Borislav Tsekov submitted the Religions Bill, to address the consequences of the schism and legitimize Patriarch Maxim. It was adopted into Law by the Parliament in December 2002. In 2003, the Constitutional Court confirmed that the Law on Religions is consistent with the Constitution.
In July 2004, the police and the Prosecutor's Office launched an operation for the removal of the representatives of the "Alternative Synod" from the churches and from the properties of the Patriarchate.
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