The Macedonian Orthodox Church: ecclesiastical and geopolitical stakes in the Western Balkans

The Macedonian Orthodox Church: ecclesiastical and geopolitical stakes in the Western Balkans




On August 1st 2017, with official ceremonies and solemn declarations, the governments of Bulgaria and Macedonia signed a Friendship, Neighborhood and Cooperation Agreement between the two countries. The Bulgarian public welcomes this treaty as the opening of a new page in the relations between the two states. One of its most important clauses for bilateral relations states that Bulgaria will share its experience and support and assist Macedonia’s accession to the European Union and NATO. However, the treaty has yet to be ratified by the two parliaments and has not entered into force.


Setting these events in the current political context is important for understanding the political aspects of the problem with the canonical recognition of the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC) in its entirety. The autonomy of the MOC was originally proclaimed in 1959 within the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and was duly recognized by the latter. It was a politically motivated act directly related to the construction of the new Macedonian national identity. Nearly a decade later, in 1967, MOC unilateral proclamation of its own complete independence (autocephaly) , without complying with the church canons, led to a schism and the isolation of the MOC from the rest of the Orthodox world. Following the proclamation of the Republic of Macedonia’s independence in 1991, the MOC received full support by the new state authorities, including a constitutionally guaranteed status (Article 19 of the Constitution of Macedonia). In the new political situation whilst the MOC has been established as a key partner of state institutions in building and maintaining the idea of the Macedonian nation, attempts to find a canonical way out of its state of isolation over the last two decades have been made but so far they have not produced the desired outcome.


In the last month there have been further developments on the issue. The MOC sent a letter to the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church(BOC), expressing readiness to recognize the Bulgarian Patriarchate as its Mother Church, to be followed by the recognition of its autocephalic status. [1] Within the current winter meeting of our Holy Synod, there should be an official response. No matter how complicated the case is from a canonical point of view, the BOC Holy Synod must have the vision and responsibility to make the right decision.


There are several possible scenarios of varying degrees of probability within canonical law. The first one is that that the BOC Holy Synod will accept the MOC proposal in full and recognize its autocephalous status immediately. The positive side of this action is, above all, its public support, which is justified by historical and political arguments. The recognition of the BOC as the mother church by the MOC is a distinctive achievement of the historical ideal of unity with the Macedonian people in the spiritual realm, a recognition of the common spiritual, cultural and national roots of the two countries. The risk of this approach is possible tension with the SOC and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which historically (at different periods) has claimed the status of mother church of the MOC. It is this special status that enables the granting of autonomy or autocephaly to the newly established church jurisdiction, according to canons.


The second possible approach is for the BOC to completely refuse to enter into such a dialogue, citing the strict follow-up of the Church canon. This approach will represent a deliberate revocation of the hand extended by the MOC and will provoke tension leading to a permanent deterioration of the relations between the two churches. A lack of response will lead to greater engagement in the process by other churches (e.g. the Moscow Patriarchate) which want to have influence in the region. Moreover, Bulgarian society will not approve such an approach, given the historical and romantic sensitivity to the problems with Macedonia. Furthermore, the canonical arguments cannot be easily understood by the general public. Therefore, this scenario is less likely.


The third and probably the most realistic scenario is a lengthy discussion within the Holy Synod of the BOC and ecclesiastical diplomatic consultations with other Orthodox churches (especially with the SOC, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)), which could lead to enhanced dialogue and mediation by the BOC in support of the ultimate settlement of the MOC autocephalic status. The sending of the letter itself was preceded by informal conversations between senior representatives of the two churches, and it is highly probable that there is widespread ecclesiastical support for such a deed.


As we know from our history, the building of an independent and autonomous (autocephalous) Orthodox Church is also a condition for national independence and sovereignty. This is because of the historically formed relationship between church, state and nation in Orthodox Southeastern Europe. From a dogmatic ecclesiastical point of view, the synthesis between national and Orthodox-Christian identities is too problematic as it leads to a division between Orthodox Christians on national and ethnic principles (called ethnophilism and officially condemned as ecclesiological heresy at the Council in Constantinople in 1872 on the occasion of the “Bulgarian schism” and the proclamation of the Exarchate [2]). From a state political point of view, however, the creation and maintenance of an Orthodox Church independent of a direct external intervention is an important component of state sovereignty. This position is historically substantiated. Let us just recall the political significance of the Protestant Reformation – the creation of independent states and state-controlled churches in Northern Europe (Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican) contrast to the claims for universal political and spiritual domination by the Vatican.


The problem with the MOC is precisely such a similar ecclesiastical political and geopolitical knot, the unraveling of which has important regional significance. The positive resolution of this issue – the restoration of the full canonical communion of the MOC with the rest of the Orthodox world as an autocephalous church  will also have a strengthening effect on Macedonian statehood and will open it up to more active regional partnership and cooperation. The decade-long situation of schism and non-recognition of the MOC, the attempts to impose a parallel canonical ecclesiastical organization under the jurisdiction of the SOC, reinforcing nationalist feelings on the one hand, but eroding trust in the institutions on the other, create conditions for division inside the society. The external factors that interfere with the country’s politics have an interest that Macedonia has weak institutions and poor statehood.


In the case of the MOC, the appropriate canonical response, i.e. obtaining autocephaly from the SOC – is not necessarily best from a state-policy point of view. In recent years, the Moscow Patriarchate has been actively intervening and trying to mediate, apparently in an effort to preserve its influence in the region and as an instrument of the Neo-Imperial policy of the Kremlin regime. However, if the MCC gained a canonical recognition through Moscow, it would create a relationship of trust and cooperation that would turn into political influence aimed at diverting Macedonia from its European and Atlantic integration goals. Let us not forget the openly pro-Russian policy of the VMRO-DPMNE regime, which was in power in Skopje until recently.


These conclusions are also supported by information contained in the report of the Macedonian intelligence services published this summer. The document directly claims that Russian agents and diplomats have been involved for nearly a decade in spreading propaganda and provoking instability in Macedonia as part of a Balkan-wide campaign against NATO enlargement. These hybrid and subversive actions involve not only the relevant Russian federal agencies and diplomatic representatives, but also the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), through which there is direct propaganda activity supposedly to protect and strengthen the “Orthodox Slavic Brotherhood” and the cultural and political relations between Russia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro. A very important detail, according to the report, is that part of the propaganda and subversive actions of the Russian services in Macedonia are coordinated by agents of the Russian services in Sofia and Belgrade.[3]  From the Bulgarian side there was no formal reaction to these findings.


We must not forget that the main goal of Russian policy in the region is that it remains fragmented and not fully integrated into the EU and NATO. With regard to the Western Balkans, Russian plans have been successful so far. At first glance, some of Russia’s actions and its ecclesiastical-political instrument, the ROC, may seem positive, such as supporting the canonical recognition of the MOC. However, the ultimate goal is to enslave Macedonia and keep it in the orbit of Russian influence, including by the constant reminder of the “spiritual brotherhood between the two Slavic peoples” and by exploiting the image of Russia as a protector of all “Orthodox Slavs” (against Islam or the decadent anti-national and liberal West). In Bulgaria we know best how this propaganda mechanism has been operational for more than a century.


Simultaneously, the most natural and historically justifiable partner in this process – the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (not only because of the common medieval history, but also because of the legacy of the Bulgarian Exarchate) – practically isolates itself and refuses to participate in this process. This leaves room for the intervention and influence of the ROC and consequently, of the Russian state. In recent years, there was only one public attempt by the BOC to support the MOC. It was in 2014 at a joint celebration of the Feast of the Holy Brothers Cyril and Methodius with the participation of the Macedonian Archbishop Stefan, along with several bishops in the Mass at the Patriarchal Cathedral “Alexander Nevsky” in Sofia.


The Ecumenical Patriarchate, on the other hand, despite being the mother church of all Orthodox churches in the region from an historical and ecclesiastical and canonical perspective, does not engage sufficiently actively in the process. Its cautious position is justified by ecclesiastical diplomatic arguments – the SOC supported the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the Pan Orthodox Council in Crete in 2016 and Constantinople can not risk a new division in the Balkans in the context of already exacerbated relations with the BOC and the ROC that did not participate in the Council.


The problem is even more complex, given that the Serbian Church itself has bishops and patriarchs who are more liberal and pro-Western and support the European course of Serbia as well as others whofavour Moscow and share conservative-nationalist positions. The intervention of the ROC in the region and its ambition to be an arbiter in solving church disputes in addition to bringing in internal divisions and tensions in individual Orthodox churches, also pursues a longer-term goalof limiting the influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (which enjoys the powerful support of the strong Greek lobby in the US and American political circles) and weaken it as a symbolic spiritual center of Orthodox Christians around the world. After the Council in Crete, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the main proponent for Orthodoxy open to democratic values, international cooperation and the protection of dignity, freedom and human rights. [4] In contrast, the ROC actively legitimizes Putin’s authoritarian regime and adheres closely to the Kremlin’s cultural, political and geopolitical doctrines (building the “Orthodox Slavic Brotherhood” to become a political alliance, the existence of a “Russian world” beyond the borders of Russia, whose protection can justify political and military intervention in other countries).


In the light of the new bilateral government agreement and in addition to Bulgaria’s support for Macedonia’s accession to the EU, the Bulgarian Church should support the MOC by recognizing its autocephaly and its inclusion in the relevant ecclesiastical diplomatic formats in the European institutions at the representation level of churches, for participation in inter-church dialogue to solve problems and challenges common to Christian churches.


One does not need to be a church nationalist to have been deeply moved when the anthem “Rise Oh Dawn of Liberty” was performed by the monastic brotherhood of the Bigor Monastery of Saint John right after the signing of the Friendship Agreement between Bulgaria and Macedonia [5]. The historic injustice in the relations between the two countries can be rectified but unfortunately the BOC Holy Synod has not responded so far. It is unclear yet whether this time it will rise to the height of the historical moment or will continue to dwell in the blessed isichy while the Russian Orthodox Church reaps what it has not sown. The role of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church must be active rather than passive, based not only on the historical link but also on a common future in a democratic and united Europe.


There is no easy ecclesiastical or political answer to the questions raised, but it is certain that Macedonia should soon have an autocephalous church recognized by the Orthodox world. Bulgaria and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church should actively support this process. Strengthening Macedonian statehood and independence, along with the integration of the country into the EU and NATO, is the only way to counteract Russian geopolitical interests in the region and would represent a pledge for the partnership and welfare of these two close nations.


Dr. Atanas Slavov, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski




[2] Archim. Grigorios Papathomas, ”Ethnophilism and the Church Diaspora (a causal relationship)“:,100522/catid,281/id,15278/view,article/.


[4 ]Slavov, A., “Universalism, Council, Freedom: Political-Theological Visions of the Council in Crete”: Christianity and Culture, issue 117/2016, P. 73-81


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