“There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers.
We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.”
Being an academic researcher I am not used to writing in popular style. Less I am used to writing as a journalist. Nevertheless, being an expert in theology I shall try to analyze the famous case of the proposal of the “Macedonian Church,” comparing it to the Bulgarian one.
First of all, I cannot agree with many Bulgarian analysts that the Patriarchate of Bulgaria must acknowledge the “Macedonian Church” as such. On the other hand, I do agree that the question is of a geopolitical importance and not just a local one. Second, I am absolutely astonished by Bulgarian society and its intellectual and political representatives, as well as officials, who discuss this question on an emotional level and raise reminiscences of the 19th Century. In my opinion it creates an image of a very old-fashion society that lacks any element of modernity and modern Western criteria of religious freedom and separation of church and state. Such I have a few important objections in this case.
According to the canonical tradition of the Church, not only the Orthodox but the Catholic one, the Mother Church is the local Church from where, in the early Christian centuries, came apostles to baptize bishops for the founding of another Church. For instance, the Mother Church of the Church in Carthage is the Church of Rome because missionaries came into Carthage from the capital Rome to bring Christianity in the late 1st or early 2nd century. According to the same principle, the Mother Church of all the local Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe is the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Bulgarian Church appeared in 1870 as an Exarchate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the territory of the medieval Church of Târnovo and the Church of Ohrid, which was closed a century earlier. After considerable expansion, favorited by the Ottoman government and Russian diplomacy in 1872, it was expelled from Orthodoxy by a local Council of Constantinople. Between 1872 and 1945 this Church was not acknowledged internationally because it was based on ethnic principle which, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, is heresy (or false teaching). The so-called National Exarchate of the Bulgarians in the Ottoman empire became a political tool for expansion, nation building and it was not accepted until 1945, when it officially gave up its nationalistic appetite. As for the Church of Târnovo, it was an archbishopric on the territory of modern Northern Bulgaria and in 1235 it was elevated to Patriarchate by a local Pan-Orthodox Council in Lampsacus. It was then reduced to a Metropolis sometime after 1404 because of a considerable decline of Christian population in the region, perhaps because of the plague. Nevertheless, like other medieval churches, this one did not have an ethnic character and it served as a sacred legitimation of the local kings.
The case of the so-called “Macedonian” Church is very specific. If it is a successor to the medieval Archbishopric of Ohrid, that means it has a very ancient history. Actually this pretension is fixed in its official constitutive documents. Being a successor of the oldest Church of Prima Justiniana, the Archbishopric of Ohrid was acknowledged by an Ecumenical Council in the 6th century and as such it obtains a strong authority and apostles’ succession. It makes it more authoritative than the Church of Târnovo. This specific status was reaffirmed by the Byzantine emperor Basil Tsimesches in 1018 or 1019, after he took Ohrid – then capital of the 1st Bulgarian kingdom. It was not a national but a local Church and its bishops were Christians from different ethnic groups during the centuries. The same one could also say for the other local Churches in the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Archbishopric was named after the town of Ohrid (Achris) and the territory on which it was operating – the new Byzantine province of Bulgaria. If the Church of Skopje today claims that it is a successor of this Church, it has to give up its ethnic character guaranteed by the Constitution of FYROM, the Law on Religious Groups and by its ecclesiastical documents. In such a case a question of the borders of this local Church would not appear. The real situation presupposes that its territory is the land of FYROM. In the past it was a huge church on the territory of a small part of modern Greece and large parts of Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Romania and FYROM (in some historical periods it went further in west, as well as north to Moldova). On the other hand, it is clear that this church would have its closest relationships to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and would observe its hierarchy as a Mother. Here we do not need to explain the role of the Serbian Church, which became a dominant one in Yugoslavia in 1920 and, with political help, took dominance over the region for almost a half century. In its constitutive documents it also claims that its ancestor, the Church of Pec, appeared on the territory and as its successor, and with the crucial help of the Church of Ohrid. And it is a historical truth. The Church of Târnovo also appeared on its territory after 1185.
Nevertheless, the Church of Skopje today turns to the Bulgarian Church for acknowledgment and later to Constantinople. It claims that the Bulgarian Exarchate was the common past of these two Churches and on this base the Bulgarian one could become its Mother Church. That puts this discussion on a very problematic terrain. The Exarchate was a part of the problem of the Balkan nationalistic crisis of the late 19th and the early 20th century. It is very well known among the foreign diplomats in the region. It could provoke unexpected opposition from Western diplomats and push back the relationships among the member countries of the EU and NATO in the region. After a difficult past of misunderstanding of relations between national and religious identity that comes from the Ottoman legislative system, the region of Southeastern Europe suffers a certain instability as to religious institutions. The case of the Church of Skopje is of the clearest in this respect. If the constitutions of the member countries of the EU guarantee equal legislative status for all religious communities, the Constitution of FYROM guarantees very pre-modern status of the “Macedonian Church”. If FYROM is going to join EU, it first must change its Constitution and its Law on Religious Groups, and it must separate national from religious identity.
Surprisingly, in Bulgaria appeared the same syndrome of identification with church and nation in respect to question of the “Macedonian Church”. We can point out that, on the basis of the old-fashioned education system, many public figures and intellectuals who could not be associated with Christianity have taken clear nationalistic positions in this respect. It is also obvious that all of them observe the case just from a one-dimensional perspective and do not take into consideration the possible underwater stones that could appear in the situation. Revisiting the theme of the Bulgarian Exarchate could be very painful for many people who suffered not only Bulgarian occupation of territories of Greece, FYROM and Serbia in WW 2, but also the role of the Exarchate in the waves of violent “baptizing” of Turks and Bulgarian Muslims and the pressure on the other minorities in the country before WW 2. Last but not least, in this situation one can remember the pro-Russian role of clergy of the Exarchate since the 19th century and to extract ambiguous implications from all these reminiscences. On the other side there is a certain asymmetry between the constitutions of Bulgaria and FYROM. The Bulgarian one indicatively fixes separation between Church and State in its articles 37-40. FYROM’s constitution is a bit ambiguous in this respect.
Unlike many colleagues I cannot say anything definitive on the geopolitical implications of an eventual acknowledgment of the Church of Skopje by the Bulgarian Patriarchate. International isolation of the two churches is the only possible outcome in this situation. Some patriotic voices in Bulgaria revitalized oppositions against Serbia, having in mind the early 20th century. Others observe such an act as the blocking of the Russian influence. In my opinion, the famous letter from Skopje to the Synod in Sofia could lead only to the mixing of politics and religion and rising tensions on the Balkans. Who has interest in this kind of tension and mistrust in Southeastern Europe? Such tension can only place serious obstacles in front of Skopje’s EU and NATO future. In a moment when PM Zoran Zaev has very warm relationships with the leaders of the neighboring countries, a religious and nationalistic interpretation of the event could block the path of FYROM.
It is very important in this situation that we hear from the ecclesiastical leaders of Skopje if they have territorial pretensions to foreign countries and how they deal with nationalism. PM Zoran Zaev was very clear in his words when he asked the leaders of some neighboring countries to excuse the heavy nationalistic and territorial appetites of Macedonia’s previous leaders. Another important question is the communist past of many bishops of the churches in the former Yugoslavia. Many of them studied and lived in Yugoslavia and perhaps have fails in Belgrade in the archives of the Yugoslav State Security. Perhaps they are available even today. Until they declassified, no one can be sure of their motives and non-transparent dependences. They can produce a serious obstacle for the EU membership of the country. In Bulgaria a similar situation was solved a few years ago.
It is also of certain importance the fact that if Bulgarian Church declares its official acknowledgment of the Church in Skopje as a “Macedonian Church”, it will be an obvious sabotage of the famous agreement between Mr. Zaev and Mr. Tsipras about the name of the country. In a few months FYROM can obtain a new constitutional name. How can the Church remain with the old one?
What was astonishing over the last few months, in this respect, was the lack in the Bulgarian public space of the sense of an objective and modern Western approach to the question in subject. If the letter from Skopje was written just to show how Bulgarian society reacts to a clear religious subject with national emotions form the 19th century, it was successful negative advertising for Bulgarian society. It showed that it does not share the Western principles of separation of Church and State. Neither the supporters of a positive reaction of the Bulgarian Church, nor their opponents took into consideration the principle mistake of the bishops in Skopje and the possible mistake in Sofia. Here I do mind the theological/canonical dimension which is absolutely clear: it bans any nationalistic understanding of the Church.
Nevertheless, for the people who are familiar with the situation in Skopje it is not a surprise to discover that some bishops in Skopje frequently express extreme nationalistic and anti-Western positions, using fake news from the international anti-Western contingent. They are real opposition to concessions in respect to the name discussions with Greece. The Church in Skopje was for more a decade a strong opponent to the EU and NATO perspective of FYROM. It was not just Russian dependence, but a real conservative, anti-Western movement, which is related to the legal status of this Church. EU membership will lead to a loss of its actual legislative privileges, and it will be put in a concurrent position to a strong Protestant and Catholic presence in the country. It should not be underestimated that EU legislation for religious communities and human rights will also lead to state acknowledgment of the Serbian Archbishopric of Ochrid. Its leader enjoyed massive international support from human rights organizations (including the US State Department, Helsinki Committee, Amnesty International, Human Right Watch etc.) after his imprisonment in Skopje a few years ago.
On the other hand, it is fact that in personal contacts the bishops from Skopje do not have bad relations with Belgrade. It is just the opposite. Their connections with Moscow are also very warm. Some of them are not deprived from personal contacts with bishops in Greece, Romania and Albania. Hence the internal connections and complexity of the subject in question makes the puzzle difficult to solve, at least from theological and canonical point of view. Similar problems just do not exist in a modern secular society without privileges for a dominant religious group. The basic question is: Who gave the idea to the bishops in Skopje to ask Sofia for an impossible solution of the problem? And why was it represented as a political one?
All these problems are appearing in front of a Bulgarian society which is permanently jumping from crisis to crisis. It appears the next one will put the Bulgarian Church in a difficult situation. The Bulgarian Church does not have a powerful position in international relations after its refusal to take part in the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Crete in 2016, and it cannot expect support from abroad. Nevertheless, if the question was left just as a religious subject, it could not make any impression and could remain as a specific theological casus that needs reflection and discussion, good will and respect from all the sides. Now that the casus was put in the center of the media in Sofia, it has already become an international problem without a positive solution for all the sides in the casus.
For the Bulgarian government, as well as for the governments of the other countries in the region, the EU and NATO membership of FYROM is of substantial importance. It will bring stability and prosperity to all the countries in the region. There is a serious chance the problem with the name will be solved and soon the country will accept a proposal for NATO membership. In these circumstances a religious debate involving nationalistic reminiscences from the 19th century is not useful for anybody except for those who do not want to see the Balkans peaceful and prosperous member countries of NATO and the EU. In this respect the bishops in Sofia, with their non-active reaction, just reduced the possible damnum. The nationalistic pressure exercised on them is a short-sighted policy, which benefits only anti-European interests. Bulgarian society must become accustomed to being European and Western and stop looking backwards. The same would be valuable for the neighbors in Skopje, if they would like to become a society of prosperity.