European Interreligious Forum For Religious Freedom

The Religious life in today’s Bulgaria


Written the Friday, April 5th 2013 à 22:37
Rev. Petar Gramatikoff





The Religious life in today’s Bulgaria
Religious freedom is guaranteed under the constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria. 

But in practice the government has restricted this right to just a few religious groups, although such a restriction is in fact contrary to the constitution. 

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is recognised as a traditional religion. But in addition, the Muslims, the Catholics and the Jewish community all receive state support. 

Religion: Bulgarian Orthodox - 85.7%, Muslims - 13.1%, Catholics - circa, 80,000 (of whom some 30,000 are of the Eastern rite), Protestants - over 80,000, Jews - circa 5,000. 

The Orthodox Church 
Around 85 percent of the population today belong to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. 
During the centuries of Turkish rule the Bulgarian Church was subordinate to the Byzantine Church. 
Along with the growth of national awareness in the 19th century the Bulgarian people also fought for the independence of their Church.
In 1870 an independent Bulgarian exarchate was established; however it was excommunicated by Constantinople. 
This schism was only overcome in 1945. In 1951 the office of the patriarch was once again established.

Rila monastery
The Orthodox Saint John of Rila (or "Ivan Rilski" in Bulgarian) is patron saint of the Bulgarian people and as such he is held in great reverence. He lived from 876 to 946 as a hermit in the Rila mountains, where he later established a monastery. St John of Rila and the monastery founded by him are known today far beyond the frontiers of Bulgaria. This monastery played an important role in the development of the Bulgarian national identity. During the Ottoman Empire the monastery became a centre of cultural and and social life. Under communism the lands belonging to the monastery were confiscated and the monastery itself was turned into a museum. 

Catholic Church 
In Bulgaria today there are two Latin-rite Catholic dioceses and one Eastern-rite exarchate. The Catholic Church in Bulgaria has always existed as a minority Church. The approximately 80,000 Catholics represent only around 1 percent of the total population and live predominantly in the south of the country. In the 13th and 14th centuries Franciscan missionaries established their first communities in western Bulgaria. In 1779 and 1789 the Holy See established two dioceses for the Latin-rite Catholics. The Catholics of the Byzantine rite originally came into the country between 1912 and 1918 as refugees from Macedonia and Thracia, where in 1859/1860 a union had been established. In 1926 they were granted their own apostolic exarchate. Between 1925 and 1934 Archbishop Angelo G. Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII was apostolic visitor, or delegate, in Bulgaria.    

The persecution under communism 
The Soviets occupied Bulgaria in September 1944. In 1946 they succeeded in establishing a People's Republic. Since the takeover of power by the communists, the Catholic Church was persecuted. The constitution of 9 December 1947 and a whole series of laws and measures were aimed at the destruction of Church life. All foreign religious were expelled from the country. The leaders of the Church were liquidated, while all the priests were arrested. Church properties and lands were confiscated, with the exception of the church buildings themselves; the Church institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) were closed. Church activities were restricted to the interior of the church buildings. Since the presbyteries had also been taken away from them, the priests themselves had to live in their churches as well - for example in the sacristy or on the organ loft. 
In order to survive, the Church went underground. Show trials were staged in order to intimidate the people. From 1962 the onwards the Vatican's Ostpolitik was aimed at restoring the hierarchy and a minimum of Church life once more. Following the political changes in 1989/90 the Church was finally granted religious freedom. Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Bulgaria were resumed once again. 

The situation today 
The religious communities are still at the stage of rebuilding. Most of them do not have suitable premises for their religious life and apostolate. They are working above all in catechesis and in the social field. They care for the old and the sick, for social outcasts and for all who are in need. 
Today the post-totalitarian society in Bulgaria has two alternatives toward treating the religious entities in the country and religion in general. One way is returning to the model of religious monopoly. A model we know from the historic past of our country, determining Bulgaria as Christian state, pointing the Orthodox Church as exclusive representative of the country’s Christianity. This might lead toward a new form of totalitarianism in the state on religious background. This way of balkanization deforms the modern socio-cultural orientation of the believers of Orthodox Church community. Is Christianity linked only with the history and historic past or has a live spiritual power today? Is the Church need the political instruments of the State in order to revive its spiritual authority and place into the society? 
The other way is the way forward. On this way, the way of religious pluralism along with the processes of europeization and politic normalization, Bulgaria as a “secular state” without any discrimination to offer freedom to all religions as well as equal rights and obligations to all of them. In this way nobody will have a religious monopoly over the Bulgarian citizens and between the different religions and traditions will be cultivated equality and tolerance. 
Despite these difficulties, it is important to recognize the significant signs of renewal within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church over the last 20 years, mainly at the lay and youth levels. Three theological faculties have been opened, and several hundred new graduates in theology (both men and women) have been active in a spiritual revival, and contributed to the revival of a range of educational and publishing activities. A number of “parish centers” have opened, offering a space alongside the church building for spiritual, community and cultural activities that attract a significant interest among youth and intellectuals. 

Protestant churches and the Evangelical Alliance
Protestant mission in Bulgaria had its beginning in the 1860s. The first Protestant missionaries stemmed from the societies of the American Congregational Church and the Methodist Church. Protestants suffered harassment and imprisonment during the communist period. Today there are six main Protestant churches registered in Bulgaria: Congregational church; Union of the Baptist Churches in Bulgaria; United Methodist Church in Bulgaria; Bulgarian Church of God; Union of Evangelical Pentecostal Churches in Bulgaria and Seventh Day Adventists.Тhey count together 150 000 active members. An estimated 70% of Protestants are members of the Pentecostal churches.



Rev. Petar Gramatikoff


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