Several months ago, in an article entitled “Orthodox Split Deepens” we reported that the Bulgarian Parliament had passed a controversial bill concerning religion. The problems with the legality of the new Confessions Act came into clash with reality when in July 2004 the police raided 250 Orthodox churches arresting several priests from the so-called Alternative Synod. Several developments have followed.
As it becomes obvious that the new Confessions Act is already failing to respond to the social and spiritual needs of Bulgaria’s postcommunist context, it is unfortunate that its malfunctions prevent an atmosphere of religious freedom, pluralism and tolerance where everyone can experience the right to believe. Thus, the Bulgarian Confessions Act of 2002 cannot and should not be the legal text operating in Bulgaria when the country is accepted into the European Union.
The Act has shown itself insufficient and even harmful for the existence and practice of religion in Bulgaria, as well as to the right of every Bulgarian to freely choose to believe. None of the traditional confessions has experienced positive results from the practice of the Act , as it remains the only Bulgarian law that regulates personal convictions and conscience. In this sense, the Act clearly introduces and enforces discrimination.
The statements made by the Confessions Act’s authors and supporters that its principles of establishing state religion are not a precedent in Europe, but have been implemented and practiced in many Catholic and Protestant European countries is also invalid. The reason is simple and obvious. None of the said countries has passed through half a century of Communist Regime or has worked in a postcommunist context, where not only politics and economy, but the very mentality of the people has been flooded by totalitarianism creating a contemporary reality which has no Western European precedent.
The mentality of the Church is no different. Forced to be indifferent to politics under Communism, the Church remains distanced from culture and society to the point of a minority complex. In that oppressive context, the role and functions of the Church were imposed and strictly regulated by the government. As a result, today the church is failing to recover and reclaim its Biblical identity becoming simply a state institution with predetermined interest in strictly regulated areas of social life.
The Confessions Act of 2002 in Bulgaria attempts a return to an older autocratic style of government, turning the postcommunist Bulgarian context into a postcommunist regime. In the journey toward democracy such approach is without excuse. The state cannot and must not attempt regulatory interference in the rights of the church through the predetermined legality and the pressure of public opinion. It cannot and should allow tradition to dictate special privileges for any denomination. And when the state fails to be the initiator of actions against discrimination and oppression, the Church must and should assume this role.
After the unfortunate police actions, on October 18, 2004 the oppositional Democrats for Strong Bulgaria presented in the Parliament with recommendations for changes of the religious law. Less than a week later, perhaps as a response, the government announced the formation of a new special confessional commission. The commission will combine representatives from several government departments including Christian Dialogue (Continued)
internal affairs, finances and health. The idea strongly reminds of Kremlin’s Interreligious Council, but unfortunately does not include representatives of the religious denominations.
The search for a democratic paradigm which integrates religious freedom and freedom of conscience is not over either. Religious pluralism in Bulgaria will occur, unfortunately, in the already forming postmodern context. The time has come for the Bulgarian Church to rediscover its identity through revisiting its Biblical theology. There, common theological presuppositions presented within the faith of all Bulgarian Christians will lobby religious tolerance and create a healthy environment for the implementation of a new paradigm for ministry which successfully incorporates interdenominational partnership.
The first step toward such a paradigm may have been made as Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant believers came together on October 23, 2004. In an “Universal Character of the Christian Church” round table discussion they considered the possibility of the establishment of religious community where Christians from various denominations can come together for worship in freedom from fear and according to their religious convictions.
By Viktor Kostov
About a month ago I asked for titles related to freedom of religion and church and state relations in one of the bookstores for legal literature in the Sofia University. The saleswoman, with red-dyed hair and heavy make-up, looked at me as if I were a lower species and literally turned her back to me with the words “I sell only legal literature! All kinds come to this store!” I tried to explain to the lady that the subject I am interested in is actually law of the highest, constitutional order. She answered that she is not even interested in knowing what I have to say and pointed me toward the exit. It may sound unbelievable, but this is a true story.
Also true is the sad realization that ignorance, especially of the arrogant kind and which takes pride in its own self, bears the bitter fruit of a job poorly done. Such are things with church and state relations and freedom of religion and the Law on Religious Confessions in Bulgaria today. The bitter fruit of the hastily put together Religious Law and the disregard for freedom of religion came to a head on July 21, 2004, when the prosecutor’s office raided the so-called “alternative Synod” of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
“Return of communism,” “unseen aggression,” and “brutal actions” described the situation, by the supporters of the alternative Synod and its leader, in which Orthodox priests where driven away from their temples where they minister. Unfortunately, this aggression was only a matter of time, given the fact that the state, represented by the executive branch and in part by the legislature, took one side in the argument between the two fractions among Orthodox Christians.
Why couldn’t it happen any other way? Because political interests were again radically involved in an internal religious affair. In the new democracy, it turns out, prosecutors are still bound by the law to the extent to which it is interpreted by the ruling political party. The prosecutor’s office is part of the broken-down Bulgarian justice system, in which your chance to predict the development of a legal case, on the basis of the facts and the law, is minimal. The combination of factors, among which is the mood of the young female judge, just out of law school, or of the clerk at the registrar’s desk who patronizes attorneys and calls them “colleagues,” makes the system unpredictable for the regular applicant. Is it possible in this heavy-to-move, hardly working system to conduct a coordinated campaign, in one single night, and in the whole country, unless the prosecutors’ offices have acted by a clear and insistent political order. Inokentii (the alternative Synod patriarch) insists, that the Chief Prosecutor Filchev, has personally gathered and instructed the prosecutors from around the nation how and when to act. The prosecutors’ statements that they just followed the law, engaging the police in the takeover of 250 properties, can sound credible only because of the position of these people. However, if we put two and two together, and look at the picture beyond the dust that the prosecutor’s office is throwing in the public’s eye, it becomes clear that not the law, but a political assignment is what has put the rusty machinery into action.
There are several arguments for this statement:
1. The Bulgarian Law on the Religious Confessions does not enlist special rights for the prosecutor’s office to intervene. In other words—the prosecutor has not read his or her law books or purposefully tries to sway the public—bad in both cases. With this in mind, the statements that the prosecutors, who locked out priests and laypeople from their places of worship, are “just doing what the law says” sounds ridiculous. A reason, for the prosecutor’s office, to intervene in the worship services, interrupt them, drag people out and seal the properties, without giving the slightest concern to the way such actions would effect believers, is in not found in the Religious Law. At the same time, the law upholds guarantees for the protection and the sanctity of the right to freedom of religion. Why didn’t the prosecutor decide to uphold the law in that part, which protects the believer and his beliefs? Why did the prosecutor not think about the damage to be done to the souls of the people, if he/she would seek only for the formal grounds for the execution of the political order? The answer is obvious: the purpose of the prosecutor was to protect himself, and his job, not the law or the citizens. The fulfillment of political assignments by the prosecutor’s office is a bad sign for the return of Soviet-type methodology of state rule.
2. The grounds for action of the prosecutor’s office and the police in Sofia was not the Law on Religious Confessions but a complaint by patriarch Maxim of “intrusion”—the legalese for “someone has settled into another’s property and does not want to leave.” The prosecutors should have had a different approach in this case of “intrusion” alleged by Maxim. This case was not about a domestic dispute, a drunken brawl or the eviction of old renters in favor of the new owner. The case affects the rights and legal interests of people as they relate to the freedom of religion and are protected by the law of highest rank. Ministers and believers in the whole country are affected. The reading of the Law on Religious Confessions, of the constitution of Bulgaria and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ratified by Bulgaria and in effect in Bulgarian law) in this case was mandatory. A careful reading would have made the prosecutor’s office realize the delicate situation it finds itself in –
That it is in danger of violating the constitution, the Convention and even the Law on Religious Confessions, regardless of how bad it is. We all had to listen, instead, to the stubborn assertions that the law was upheld. Unfortunately, it could not have been any other way, because the letter of the law was obviously a good reason not to apply the spirit of the law, which is to do justice based on truth and impartiality.
3. Highly organized effort. The attorney for the alternative Synod, Ivan Gruikin, rightly noted that in its effort against crime, the prosecutors enthusiasm for upholding the law is much less vehement and uncoordinated as opposed to the struggle against the “dangerous” believers and priests (after all, they could say a prayer or conduct a liturgy). A serious effort of the whole state prosecution institution is necessary in order to force priests and worshipers from 250 Orthodox churches and properties from all over the country, only within a few hours, to interrupt their services, expression of faith and fellowship with God. The freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, and the feelings of people in this regard, which are protected not only in the LRC but in the Bulgarian Constitution as well and in the European Convention, were trampled on in a reckless manner.
4. The Directorate “Religious Confessions,” which is with the executive branch of the government, in the face of professor Zhelev, did not intervene to prevent the hasty actions of prosecutors and police. The Directorate has the duty to do that according to LRC (art. 35, para. 7 “observes the upholding of religious rights and freedoms by the responsible state officials” or “observes that officials do not violate the order of religious rights and freedom.” Just to the contrary, Zhelev expressed opinions in favor of the recognized-by-the-state, i.e. the ruling party, synod of patriarch Maxim. His words, quoted in several online news publications were: “Lets hope that the priests (of Inokentii’s synod) will come to their senses and will return into the canon of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.” Such an attitude is an impermissible taking of sides by the state in an argument which the state cannot solve. It only confirms the impression that Zhelev, the prosecutor’s office and the police are working together for one of the parties in this church dispute. The director did not see a problem that worship services are being interrupted, that priests are being dragged to the streets by force, that there are confused, upset and hurt people, who do not really understand what, in the world, is going on. The Directorate “Religious Confessions” called for the return to the true faith, instead. Just like a director should do.
What is the reason for this blatant failure of the post-communist democracy in Bulgaria? The government leaders’ flirtations with the Orthodox Church and that of the Orthodox Church with the government played a bad joke on everyone. Bulgaria has a years old tradition imported first from the Byzantine Empire, then cultivated in a Russian and Soviet fashion, and re-imported from the north. This is the doctrine of “symphony between church and state.” If you ask well-informed Orthodox believers they would object that this is a doctrine that is typical for Eastern Orthodoxy. They would say that the Eastern Orthodox church does not seek recognition from the state. Simultaneously from history and from contemporary events, we see that the Orthodox institution has liked the support of state authority and the reverse, the state authorities have liked the support of the masses secured by the respect shown to the Orthodox church, and this has been a priority in government policy. In this respect, the state needs a united church and the church needs a strong state authority to back it up. At the same time, neither of these is needed in the contemporary free civil society.
The symphony doctrine, however, does not work well in the environment of post-communist democracy aiming at the western European, and to some extent to the American, model of free market and personal freedom. It is impossible for the government to secure the freedom of religious choice if at the same time it is striving to establish a single religious institution as its own political choice. There are two possible models of church-state relations, which are at odds at this very moment in the Bulgarian society. The first model is the one of the Russian-Byzantine practice where state-czar (president)-fatherland-people are one, and anyone, who is not of the Eastern Orthodox confession and does not support the king is a national traitor. This is the model of the historical heritage. The second model allows people to freely believe in God, to associate because of their faith and preach it, while the government guarantees them liberty, as far as they do not commit crimes and do not hurt or kidnap others. This is the model of the contemporary, postmodern civil order of individual freedoms. On the other hand, the Bulgarian model has always strived to the “golden middle”—do unto others so as to always get the benefit yourself. (Something rather different from the Golden Rule of Christ—do unto others as you want them to do unto you.) Therefore, the raid of the state against the Eastern Orthodox church led by Inokentii is an expression of this desire to “have the cake and eat it, too”, of a mechanical blending of Eastern tradition with Western image. This saying does not work in free societies, because in a place where there is freedom of speech and information, narrow-mindedness in a person’s character or in an organization’s philosophy of management cannot pass by unnoticed and unpunished by the public’s opinion. After all, in this case fundamental human rights and freedoms where brutally violated, and the democratic reforms in Bulgaria are being threatened.
From the very beginning, along with many other critics, I maintained that this new Law on Religious Confessions (2003) is a time-bomb, that it was written double-mindedly, with a great dose of opportunism and with a complete lack of understanding of the actual value of this most precious civil liberty of man—to believe in God and to worship Him. Now this time-bomb has started to inflict injuries. The church and state symphony is turning into a chaotic crescendo. If this forceful way, with such disregard for the consequences, was used to treat some of the Eastern Orthodox believers and their leaders, which are a significant part of the religious communist in Bulgaria, what treatment can we expect for the lesser number of Christians from other denominations?
The dispute, as it is put between the two Synods and their supporters, cannot be decided favorably unless one of the rivals loses all. Both groups are fighting for the recognition forcefully put in place by article 10 of the LRC. The text sets the standard that there is only one true Orthodox church in Bulgaria.
A disgruntled and overwhelmed young priest, from Maxim’s group, shown on a news report on TV, gave the solution to the problem—the schismatics had to repent and return into the realm of the true church. And who, actually, is to decide who is a schismatic and who is in the right faith? This dilemma has primarily spiritual dimensions. But because of political appetites and state-inflicted disregard of freedom of conscience and religious liberty, the issue has become a political one: the status of “schismatics” has been granted to the alternative synod by the government and the prime-minister favoring Maxim and his synod.
The solution of the dispute is not in the “repentance”, as a political category, but in repentance as the turning of the heart from selfishness to the what is righteous and true. The question remains: how should people repent if they are not convinced that repentance for them should include submitting themselves to the leadership of a patriarch in whom many see a servant from the former communist regime? At the same time, they have no legal opportunity to register an Eastern Orthodox church of their own—the law states that the Eastern Orthodox church in Bulgaria is only one. Aside from its real estate value, the sealed church properties are also communities of believers, whose souls cannot be emptied by a decree from the prosecutor’s office.
It is sad that this is happening at a time when Bulgaria needs a true resolve as a nation in its trials against war on terror. On the other hand, the conflict between the church and the state is positive since it brings the division and rivalry into the open. It is easy to heal an open wound, even at the price of shame for those who easily resort to force when its not needed. This way of bringing about “unity” is a trademark of terrorists and communists alone. It cannot be applied by the authorities of a democratic nation, as Bulgaria strives to be such. Bulgarian rulers must shake-off their wolf’s appetite to control the faith and the conscience of people and let their disputes hang over their own consciences.