Who does the Bulgarian Orthodox Church serve – Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria or foreign geopolitical interests? This issue has once again come to the fore after the actions by the Holy Synod of the BOC in recent months. Through its leadership, the BOC has taken an unacceptable stance in a regional political conflict.
On June 13th this year, in a letter by Patriarch Neophyte to the President of Ukraine Poroshenko, it is requested of the Ukrainian Parliament not to vote on tabled draft bills on the introduction of general state requirements to the religious denominations in the country (Letter to His Excellency Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine, June 13th, 2017). The requirements to be voted on are intended to ensure that religion cannot be used for political purposes by foreign states and thus jeopardize the national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. The envisaged new regulation is clearly aimed at the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC(MP). The justification for such a reaction by the Ukrainian authorities is the systematic use of the UOC(MP) for conducting “patriotic” pro-Russian propaganda in respect of the military conflict in the Donbass and the annexation of the Crimea in violation of all the principles of international law. The use of the UOC(MP) in support of Russian geopolitical interests, although recognized by other Orthodox churches as canonical jurisdiction, is unacceptable in terms of basic Christian principles and is in conflict with the clear positions for the support of democracy, human rights, fair international order and peace adopted by the Pan-Orthodox Council in 2016 in Crete. (Slavov, A., “Universalism, Council, Freedom: Political-Theological Visions of the Council in Crete”: Christianity and Culture, issue 117/2016, P. 73-81).
An important aspect of the whole issue is that Patriarch Neophyte’s letter was written in response to an official call by Moscow Patriarch Kirill in early May, requesting international and Pan-Orthodox support for the protection of the UOC(MP) from the planned restrictive legislation. It is noteworthy, however, that whilst the patriarchs of Serbia, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria also responded to this call, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese did not. This is not accidental, given the fact that for centuries the Kiev Bishopric was in the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and not in Moscow’s. Therefore, a solution to the ecclesiastical conflict in Ukraine cannot be found without the active involvement of the Ecumenical Patriarchate or without a retreat from the ambitions of the Russian Orthodox Church to control all local orthodox churches in the region of the former Soviet Union.
The BOC Synod’s support of the UOC(MP) is a really disturbing fact, given the publicly known information, widely discussed among the Euro-Atlantic partners and published on the website of Gates of Orthodoxy (dveri.bg): “The problem with the political influence of the Kremlin through the structures of the canonical Church in Ukraine intensified following the disclosure at the end of last year of the correspondence of the Ukrainian director of the Institute for the CIS countries, Kirill Frolov, who revealed relations between hierarchs and priests in Russia and Ukraine with political and military centers in both countries” (“Prayer to the Verkhovna Rada in Kiev to prevent the adoption of the controversial draft bills”,18th May 2017:). The logical question is how could a church claim to be “canonical” if it serves as an instrument of the aggressive policy of a foreign state.
What is actually happening? The Bulgarian Patriarch has asked President Poroshenko to stop the adoption of laws guaranteeing the security and sovereignty of his country from external aggressive actions and propaganda influences, claiming that the UOC(MP) is the canonical orthodox church with which the BOC is in communion. In an unacceptable manner, the letter repeated propaganda statements of Russia’s imperial policy towards Ukraine – that Kiev is ruled by extremists, that freedom of religion is violated, that official authorities discriminate against the Russian-speaking Orthodox minority, and so on. The Patriarch’s letter, instead of calling for reconciliation, accord and unity among the various Orthodox communities in the country, has used unacceptable definitions of Orthodox Christians who are not part of the “canonical” UOC(MP), calling them “schismatics and extremists” and describing their Orthodox church as “self-proclaimed non-canonical structures”. The Patriarch’s position is obvious – the Russian and Pro-Russian Orthodox believers, who make up a significant part of the UOC(MP), are “our brethren” and the remaining Orthodox believers, who represent the majority of believers, are foreign, self-styled, schismatic and extremist.
By omitting the objective reasons and facts behind the conflict, the letter suggests that the Ukrainian authorities are to blame not only for discussing discriminatory legislation, but also for the “expanding fratricidal war in Ukraine”. The letter completely ignores the fact that the actions of the separatists in Donbass are fully prepared and conducted by military and paramilitary formations implementing direct orders from the Kremlin, that Russia has been penalized by the international democratic community, the European Union and the United States precisely for violating the principles of International law and the maintenance of separatist powers and governments in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea.
In its mission to fulfill political orders from Moscow, the Holy Synod ignored the history of our own church – the creation of the Bulgarian Exarchate, which for 75 years remained schismatic with respect to the Ecumenical Patriarchate from the point of view of the canonical churches but that was a decisive step in the process of gaining political independence for the Bulgarian people. The BOC is proud of its history, yet it refuses to recognize the right of the Ukrainian people to their own church and national and political self-determination. Instead of engaging in this dispute (if an engagement is at all acceptable) in the position of mediator for overcoming the schism and reunifying the Ukrainian Orthodox Christians in an autocephalous church established in accordance with church canons, BOC has chosen to take sides in the conflict and condemn those disagreeing with Russian geopolitical interests in the region. The Holy Synod has also omitted the fact that there is a significant Bulgarian minority in Ukraine, which probably belongs to the different Orthodox jurisdictions, including the “non-canonical”.
The letter further depicted an apocalyptic picture, claiming that any violation of the interests of the UOC(MP) “may prove destructive and ruinous for both the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian state”. Such a skillful rhetorical approach – presenting the attempt to legitimate the protection against foreign geopolitical interests and regulate state relations with the pro-Russian and “canonical” UOC(MP), as an existential threat to the Ukrainian state system.
Let’s not forget that the letter of the Bulgarian Patriarch was inspired by the call of Russian Patriarch Kirill to the brotherly Orthodox Churches to support the UOC(MP) by publicly opposing the proposed legislation, even though its main purpose is to limit the abuse of Orthodoxy by the authoritarian regime in Moscow.
Last but not least, the letter by the Holy Synod collides with the official Bulgarian state position of supporting the democratic processes in Ukraine, supporting the Ukrainian institutions and society on their way to full integration into the Euro-Atlantic community.
The double standard of the Holy Synod of the BOC is obvious – not a word about the violation of human rights and international law in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea in the regions directly controlled by Moscow; not a single line on human rights violations in Russia itself, the restriction of freedom of assembly, association, speech, political arrests and dissident murders, torture and beatings of Kremlin-opposed citizens, intellectuals, journalists, some of which are also Orthodox Christians within the canonical Moscow Patriarchy; no position against the instrumentalization and de-institutionalization of the Russian Orthodox Church itself, which undermines its freedom and independence from the authoritarian secular authorities.
Instead of engaging more actively in mediation to resolve a decade of church conflict in neighboring Macedonia (the official Macedonian Orthodox Church continues to be in schism and isolation from Ecumenical Orthodoxy), the BOC is involved in the dispute in Ukraine. With its absence from the attempts to overcome the schism in Macedonia, the BOC allows the Moscow Patriarchate to be a mediator in the relations between MOC and the Serbian Orthodox Church. In this way, the BOC here again stands on the side of Moscow in its attempts for regional influence.
To add to the letter itself, there have been more notable actions by the BOC in recent months, the most recent being the informal audience of members of the Holy Synod with President Radev, to discuss the relations between the BOC and the state, following the posting of the patriarch’s letter on the synod website. It may be assumed that the “Ukrainian case” and the possibility of Bulgaria also influencing an official diplomatic line for the protection of the interests of the UOC(MP) were also discussed at this meeting. On June 21st 2017, the visit was returned by President Rumen Radev, who visited the Synod Building. The official information disseminated stated that the discussion included the issue of legal changes “to guarantee the independence of the religious denominations in the country from outside powers and foreign states as well as the security of Bulgarian citizens and Bulgaria and to hear the views of the members of the Holy Synod headed by the Patriarch Neophyte on this issue” (21.06.2017: https://www.president.bg). It is interesting to know what Patriarch Neophyte and the members of the Synod proposed, having defended the Russian Orthodox Church vis-à-vis the actions of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine a few days previously.
Equally noteworthy and of a sustained negative effect is the decision of the Holy Synod to the effect that the BOC does not participate in the Holy and Great Council in Crete in 2016, taken entirely under the dictation of the Moscow Patriarchy (“Kalin Yanakiev: Bulgaria became part of the Church Empire of Russia”, Club Z, 22.06.2016). To this we must add the official prize and premium granted to Patriarch Neophyte in 2016 by the Fund for the Unity of Orthodox Peoples, which acts as one of the instruments of the propaganda of the authoritarian regime in Russia under the cover of cultural and religious initiatives (Matakiev, M. “Fund for the Unity of Orthodox Peoples” – official Russian agency for influence in Bulgaria”, 26.05.2017). We also need to take into account the public stance of individual bishops who are openly speaking against European democratic values leading to decline, against the Euro-Atlantic West as a colonizer of the Slavic-Orthodox peoples, destroying national and religious traditions, and in support of the “Orthodox-Slavic civilization” with a center in Moscow, etc., reiterating the pillars of Russian propaganda. In addition, the traditional involvements of the Holy Synod of the BOC with the former monarchic institution (the decision in 2016 to mention in the service Simeon the Second as King of the Bulgarians, honors that the official church attribute to the former monarch, etc.) which also erode the legitimacy and support for the democratic Republican institutions of the country, thus weakening its role as an ally in the EU and NATO.
It is clear that there is a certain systemic logic in the position of the BOC: always with Moscow, always side by side with the ROC(MP). There is almost no public support for human rights, for freedom of religion, for democracy – it is either totally absent or declared only if it does not affect the regime in the Kremlin. These attitudes among the senior leadership of our Orthodox Church are extremely worrying in terms of the constitutional and democratic order in the country. Given the high level of public trust in the Church (over 50%), the annual state budget subsidy (at least BGN 3 million), as well as the BOC’s episcopate’s guaranteed place in all state celebrations, official oaths, prayers etc., the possibility of influencing public attitudes and promoting foreign propaganda is significant.
Bulgarian institutions must pose a clear requirement to the BOC(BP) for loyalty to the democratic constitutional order and human rights, to the civilization choice of the Bulgarian society as belonging to Western liberal democracies. It is in the interest of both the state and the believing Christians and the Church itself to be consistently separated from the state so that it cannot be used as a tool for reactionary propaganda in the interest of foreign states or national populist groups in our society.
By Atanas Slavov, PhD