Almost a decade ago, we presented a theological proposal for ministry in postcommunist countries, which has gained by far a prophetic value in our context of ministry. A strong point in the exposition was a response to the narrative, relational, spiritual paradigm often discussed in Pentecostal theology, to which our research proposed a more Eastern and more experiential model which includes prayer, persecution and power.
The thesis used this triangular formula to show that the Wesleyan quadrilateral is too logical to apply to the Pentecostal mindset and especially the Eastern Pentecostal one. Thus, it is more enforced on than emerging from the Pentecostal theology and is but a step toward understanding the Pentecostal experience.
At the same time, postmoderns relate to the spiritual mystical experiential nature of early (the research called it “primitive”) Pentecostalism, but are indifferent to a more denominational structure that marginalize the spontaneity and almost irrational unexpectancy of the Pentecostal ordus liturgia.
Applying each of the above models creates a number of dilemmas in the Bulgarian context of ministry. One of the main problems is that the Bulgarian church needs much growth before even recognizing some of the above trends. Additionally, Bulgarian clergymen have little training in distinguishing current social changes, which affect their congregations daily. Actually, in most cases there is strong negation against the relevancy of social reality on church life; almost like during the time of the Regime, when congregations were practically closed, underground communities, defined not only by the persecution against them, but by their own identity as well.
At the same time, the respective western partners of the Bulgarian evangelicals fail to properly apply their knowledge on the subject in the Bulgarian context of ministry. This inability closes like a magic circle the relationships between the said social agents and creates church crises of unprecedented magnitude, which often result in a death spiral within the community of believers. Thus, the Bulgarian church, ministering in a post communist context, continuously struggles to find its identity through which it can minister effectively in and to a postmodern world.
In the struggle where postcommunism meets postmodernity in a battle for survival and even world dominion in which, Eastern European churches become unfortunate victims on an altar where the secular antitheism and the nominal orthodoxy cross their sacrificial axes. And this cycle can be broken only when Eastern European evangelicals refuse the identities forced on them by postmodern and postcommunist (both postChristian at best) social structures, and discover their own roots in the Pentecostal identity of the Bible, the spirituality of which alone has the power to transform both postmodernity and postcommunism. And there lays the key for effective ministry among Eastern European in the 21stcentury.
“Postcommunist Believers in a Postmodern World” deals with the current condition of church-state relations in the country of Bulgaria. This study explores the postcommunist changes in Europe which led to the creation and adoption of the Confessions Act of 2002, a set of new legal definitions for the practice of religion in Bulgaria. Focusing on Bulgaria’s postcommunist period, this paper describes the role of the state in the evangelical revival and the Eastern Orthodox crises during the stages of adoption. This research analyzes the failure of the new legal provisions to resolve the problems faced by Christian communities throughout Bulgaria as well as the tensions created for the practice of freedom of religion and human rights. The conclusion of the paper is a call toward a new democratic paradigm for the practice of religion in Bulgaria.
The research I am presenting today explores the processes and dynamics which have led to the proposal, acceptance and implementation of Bulgaria’s Confessions Act of 2002. Following the chronological order of events, the paper will show the inability of the new legal definitions to resolve the problems and limitations which Christian communities in Bulgaria have been experiencing. The tensions which the new law have caused to the practice of freedom of religion and human rights in democratic Bulgaria will be identified and analyzed as the research calls for a timely resolution and a new paradigm for religious tolerance among postcommunist believers.
Slide 2: Bulgaria is located in Southeastern Europe, bordering the Black Sea, between Romania, and Turkey. A population of eight million lives in an area of approximately 43,000 square miles which is slightly smaller than the state of Tennessee.
Slide 3: Bulgaria accepted Christianity as its official religion in 864 AD under the rule of King Boris. Christian faith spread rapidly through the land revitalizing spiritual, economical and political life and setting the stage for the Golden century of Bulgarian culture. By the ninth century Bulgaria had spread over the larger part of the Balkan Peninsula, but in 1396 fell under Ottoman occupation. The Turkish Yoke over Bulgaria lasted nearly half a millennium until 1878. During these dark centuries, the Eastern Orthodox Church played a significant role in the preservation of Bulgarian culture. Having fought on the losing side in both World Wars in the 20th century, Bulgaria fell within the Soviet sphere of influence and became a People’s Republic in 1944. The established Communist Regime proclaimed liberty and solidarity while limiting human rights and religious freedom. The new laws demanded conformation with government policy from all religious denominations. Churches which failed to comply were severely persecuted, properties were confiscated, pastors were imprisoned and religious activities were banned. On his first official visit to West Germany in May of 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev informed Chancellor Kohl that Moscow was no longer willing to use force to prevent democratic transformation of its satellite states. On November 9 that same year the border between Eastern and Western Germany was opened. A day later the Bulgarian communist leader of over 30 years resigned and the change toward democracy began. This meant the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
Slide 4: The first steps toward freedom were sporadic and unplanned as were the first waves of revival among the evangelical believers. Although long prophesied and fervently expected, the freedom caught the Bulgarian church unprepared. Nevertheless, evangelistic meetings in towns and villages began immediately with church no longer being underground. Dr. Penov, a professor at the Sofia University and a Parliament expert on human rights and faith confessions in a recent interview confirmed that the members of Protestant churches in Bulgarian exceed 100, 000. At the same time the Catholics are 70,000 strong and Eastern Orthodox are 6,000,000. Because of Bulgaria’s strategic location, today the country is becoming an important frontier in the war on terrorism. Since this war involves religion, Bulgaria is becoming a religious frontier as well. Such is not a precedent on the Balkans, which through history have served as religious frontiers in the Far East mission campaigns, medieval crusades, and Byzantine Christianization. Based on these historical presuppositions, today both Bulgarian culture and democracy demand a clear stand on religions.
Slide 5: Pressured by the deadlines for acceptance in NATO and the European Union, the Bulgarian Government made attempts to provide legal solutions for the rising religious tensions. In the period from 2001 to 2002, three drafts were proposed to replace the Communist Law of Religion which had been the single guideline for the practice of state and church relationships since 1949. The draft which received most attention was submitted by the New Time political formation within the leading party of the former Bulgarian king. Several Religious Freedom and Human Rights concerns became obvious even before the Bill was ever passed. Regardless of the protest and warnings of over 40 religious, secular and non-government organizations in and outside of Bulgaria, on December 20, 2002, the bill was passed by the Bulgarian National Assembly, published by the State Newspaper on December 29 and became effective on January 2, 2003 as the Bulgarian Confessions Act. The Religious Freedom and Human Rights concerns, however, remained within its text. They are:
1. Status of Religious Confessions
2. Registration with the government
3. Relationship between Church and State
4. Religious Activities
5. Religious Freedom
The paper overviews in detail these 5 areas as follows:
Slide 6: Status of Religious Confessions
1. The Confessions Act presumes, but does not provide a definitive statement of traditional and non-traditional religious confessions.
2. It designates the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as a traditional religious confession. The special privileges granted to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church provide for a lack of equality between the religious confessions, which is in contradiction with the Constitution of Bulgaria and Article 9 of the European Convention.
3. The act allows the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to act independently from the state. This contradicts the historical tradition of the Orthodox Church. It also allows it to reform itself to the point where it has little to do with the structure, function and identity of the religious formation described in the law.
4. The Act does not address the religious needs of minority ethnic groups
Slide 7: Registration with the government
1. All denominations, with the exception of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, must register with the Sofia Municipal Court.
2. The Act makes no provision of the requirements which the court uses to grant such registration.
3. It is not clear what type of limitations or bans of religious activities are to be applied for reasons constituted by the Act.
4. The Act provides no definite procedures in cases when the court fails or refuses to register a religious group. This gives the court undefined control over the existence of a given confession.
5. There is no procedure for cases in which the court’s decision may be influenced by public opinion.
6. The role of the Directorate of Religious Affairs in the registration process is mentioned, but not clearly defined.
7. The lack of experts on all confessions within the Directorate’s structures also remains unaddressed.
8. Registration is granted only to organizations with an enforced centralized structure.This is against the traditions and bylaws of many of the confessions in Bulgaria and creates new problems on the local level.
Slide 8: Relationship between Church and State
1. The opinion of the Directorate of Religious Affairs is presumed as expertise on religious groups and denominations.
2. The Bulgarian Government provides financial support for the traditional confessions, mainly the Eastern Orthodox Church.
3. There is no concern with the tendency by certain regional authorities to enact regulations in order to limit religious freedom.
4. The coexistence between the state and the Eastern Orthodox Church, called “symphony” in the Byzantine tradition, is enforced as a rule on Protestant confessions. This is a contradiction with the traditions of virtually all Protestant denominations, which historically have declared separation of church and state.
5. The very fact that the law purposes to solve the problems within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is based on the presumption that the church is not a sufficient agent in solving its own problems. Therefore assistance from the state is necessary as it possesses the power to create the needed legal supplements.
6. The Act allows government interference in the affairs of all religious denominations.
7. The Act enforces the registration of religious communities and organizations. However, once registered, they are guided through predefined channels where the state has liberty to execute maximum control. This raises the question of the actual existence of religious liberty under the new Confessions Act.
Slide 9: Religious Activities
1. Public worship is prohibited without denominational registration.
2. There is no category concerning foreign missionaries and their activity on the territory of Bulgaria.
3. There is no provision for chaplaincy or pastoral care in the army, prisons, hospitals and care institutions.
4. Formation of political parties along religious lines is prohibited. This may exclude religious communities from important policy debates on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and cloning, which have a direct relation to the values they defend
5. Denominational hospitals, social centers and educational institutions are encouraged, but done so without creating actual opportunities for their realization.
Slide 10: Religious Freedom
1. The Confessions Act does not provide an atmosphere for preventing discrimination and harassments against “non-traditional” religious minorities.
2. Neither definite procedures (delays, appeals, nature and role of the Directorate of Religions), nor substantive criteria for registration are clearly defined.
3. The Act fails to recognize explicitly the freedom of conscience, as well as the right not to believe, and does not clarify the rights of the believers within unregistered religious communities.
4. The Act regulates the right and practice of belief, while the right and practice of personal convictions of Communist or atheist types are not regulated by such legal document.
5. The Act implies a limitation clause as it demands that, “Freedom of religions shall not be directed against national security, public order, people’s health and the morals or the rights and freedoms of persons under the jurisdiction of the republic of Bulgaria or other states.” Such reading is problematic, as it enforces standards not found under Article 17 of the Vienna Convention.
Slide 11: Church in the Hands of an Angry State
Religious freedom and human rights advocates warned that the attempts of the state to establish a totalitarian order in the church after fifteen years of democratic transition are unacceptable and may lead to further religious and political conflicts. Unfortunately, their warnings remained unheard.
Slide 12: It was during the development of this research, that such warnings became reality. On July 21, 2004, in a preplanned action upon the Chief Prosecutor’s order, the police stormed through 250 churches in a controversial raid to restore ownership to the official Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Father Pissarov, priest at the Dormition Orthodox Church in the capital Sofia locked the sanctuary doors to prevent police from entering. The special force’s team first scattered the citizens who were protesting around the church and then using a police vehicle pulled the temple doors open. Although the priest was unarmed and did not resist the arrest, five policemen held him on the ground while others were kicking him in the face with their army boots. Father Pissarov was hospitalized with a serious concussion, broken teeth and torso injuries.
The controversial police actions revealed 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 freely 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. Forced to be unconcerned with political and social issues under Communism, the Church remains distanced from culture and society to the point of a minority complex. In the totalitarian 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 and is becoming simply a state institution with dictated interests in predetermined areas of social life.
The Confessions Act of 2002 attempts a return to an autocratic style of government, turning the postcommunist Bulgarian context into a postcommunist regime for the religious communities. In the journey of democracy such approach is without excuse. The state cannot and must not attempt regulatory interference with the rights of the church through predetermined legality and pressure of public opinion. The government cannot and should not allow tradition to dictate special privileges for any denomination. When the state fails to be the initiator of actions against discrimination and oppression, the Church must and should assume this role. And these should be the foundations of practicing religious freedom in 21st century Bulgaria.
In conclusion, please allow me to say just a few words about the rather shocking photos in this presentation. The three pictures seen here are from the mentioned police raid. The background picture is of the skull of a monk by the name of Gregory who died for his faith in 1979.
I am not a political figure and I do not have the power to change the laws in Bulgaria.
I am not a legal expert and I do not have the knowledge to draft a more suitable legal paradigm for the practice of religion in my home country.
I am not a publicist and I cannot influence public opinion.
I am not even an Orthodox priest and I can very easily satisfy my internal urge for justice by saying, “This is none of my business.”
I am just a simple preacher from Bulgaria belonging to a church which has suffered half-a-century of Communist persecution and I am simply asking the question “is it true that if I don’t speak now, when they come for me, there will be no one left to speak.”
I saw this conference as an opportunity to speak against the factors which threaten religious freedom in my home country and manipulate the Bulgarian people to return to another totalitarian regime. Therefore, today in the city of Birmingham, which has become a monument of human freedom, I present the case of all Bulgarians who desire religious tolerance, democratic pluralism and equality for all and I ask for your prayers, support and active participation in the process which will guarantee religious freedom for postcommunist believers in postmodern Bulgaria.
The future is not what it used to be!’, shouted a Czech rock singer in 1990. He captured what many of us felt – the times have changed. Big banners proclaiming that ‘we are building a communist society’ were torn down from the façades of schools and factories. The alleged straight line of history – from capitalism through socialism to communism – was broken. Now, after six more years, most would agree that this line was nothing more than wishful thinking, an inverted utopia.
Solidarity trade unions in Gdansk, the opening of the western borders of Hungary, demolition of the Berlin Wall, and finally the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia were not only political revolutions. The most significant change took place in our minds. A change so profound and sensitive that we are still too much ‘in it’ to evaluate it objectively. But we cannot avoid doing it anyway. It is like a piece of modern art – we have to see the frame to enjoy the picture.
Under communism modernity used to be identified with the Western world. Modern technology, modern fashion, modern music – although they had their ‘Eastern’ equivalents, those who wanted to be ‘really modern’ went for Western style (which was, for understandable reasons, usually not easy at all). Only after the regime that aspired to bring about the end of history came to an end, we discovered the obvious – that there could hardly be a more typical example of the modernistic project than communism with its ‘scientific atheism’, ‘historic materialism’ and social engineering. Modernistic assumptions had profound impacts on public life, culture, ethics and, to a very large extent, on the church. They are the shadows of the past, stretching over our largely post-modernist landscape, thus creating a unique blend of ‘post-communist post-modernism’.
What are the main characteristics of these times of transformation? Let me suggest some of them, dealing primarily with the church’s attitudes to the secular world.
Strong Authority Structures
The pastor of my church invited my friend and me for Sunday lunch. It was sometime in 1985, when some of us tried to communicate the gospel to our fellow university students. After lunch, this thoughtful and brave man said: “If the secret police question your activities, tell them that whatever you do (especially with regard to talking about God on the campus), you do because I asked you to do it. Tell them I am personally responsible for it.” This pastor created a space for evangelism, and bravely and without fear put himself into the position of responsibility before the state. However, in order to fulfill this responsibility, he had to be informed about all activities of all church members – including relationships with one’s boss or neighbours, family problems or one’s children’s performance in school. He often had his say when young people in the church were choosing their professions or education, and personally knowing some government bureaucrats, often helped them to get a good job or to be accepted at a university (for which one had to be politically screened). One of my friends – a very gifted violinist – had to study chemistry instead of music, because the pastor told him that to be a musician is not good for a Christian.
People in leading positions in church were well informed not only so that they could deal with the hostile government. They often assumed an extended control and power over the lives of their ‘flock’. Independent activity by church members was discouraged. The Church was more easily controllable when it was uniform and managed from one centre.
Some church leaders used their authority and power more wisely than others, but only a few could imagine a church without strong authoritarian leadership. It was both an impact of, and a reaction to the rigidly totalitarian structure of society. It was also an expression of anxiety and fear that the church would not survive into the next generation – which was what communist ideologists were saying, and Christians sometimes found it hard not to believe them. It is a paradox that many young people, growing up in evangelical churches, left them not because they lost faith, but because they wanted to protect their privacy and be free to make their own decisions.
Private Faith – Lack of involvement in Society
Most communist ideologists did not have much against ‘religion as such’. The problem arose as soon as religion critically spoke about ‘non-religious’ issues, especially politics. Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter) was tolerated if it stayed in one’s private sphere, or, in more liberal circumstances, in family or church. Keeping in mind the fact that there were times and places where one could end up in a concentration camp for just ‘being’ a Christian, it was a great improvement.
The division between public and private, with our religious affections belonging clearly to the latter, is deeply embedded in our minds. Of course, it was not communists who first came with this idea. It has been a central part of the modernist view of the world, however only the Communists had power to ‘design’ society accordingly.
Most Eastern European Christians accepted this division as one rule of the game. Several generations of Christians under the communist regime were taught they should be apolitical, they should use whatever opportunities to spread gospel. To be light and salt was understood almost exclusively as to give a good example by one’s behaviour.
Fear of Society – Minority Complex
The result of a lack of involvement in culture and society led to broken communication with non-religious people. The Church has not developed the language needed to communicate with those outside her own circles. Inability to communicate led to a fear of the non-Christian world. Believers tended to see themselves as a marginalized minority: with fixed rules, defensive attitudes, unwillingness to change, strong loyalty to the group, etc.. These were defensive mechanisms through which the minority has learned to survive and to keep its identity intact. One cannot say these are the result of persecution as they can be found where persecution does not exist; however, persecution certainly intensified the process.
There is a tension hidden in these attitudes. Evangelical Christians feel responsible for communicating the gospel to secular culture. They feel uneasy, if not threatened, when they have to step out of the safe environment of their churches. So they create ‘special events’, they try to export the church atmosphere and culture to the secular world, only to find out, by and large, that they talk to themselves again. This fosters their feelings of alienation from the world.
Modern Christians in Postmodern Culture
The three issues above – authority structures, privatization of faith, and fear of society – are, among others, marks of the strong influence that the communist version of modernity has had on our Christian community. Evangelical Christians have taken so many modernistic assumptions for granted that we often cannot tell the difference between them and our Christian convictions. While they might have helped us to survive red modernism, now it is over, they are now our burden.
The Church in post communist Europe finds itself in a period of profound transformation. Old authoritarian structures are not able to keep it together, An exclusive attitude to the world outside is no longer sustainable, defensive groups of believers are being marginalized even more.
Evangelical churches, especially their official establishments, are not very sensitive to these trends. Their main goal seems to be ‘to keep it as it is’. They hope for a major revival, with hymnbooks from the 19th century being taken from the shelves again, and enthusiastic evangelists ‘boldly preaching the Word’ on the streets. Why else would God have given us freedom?
There is a growing number of thoughtful people from all denominations who do not want to take either the assumptions of modernity or postmodernity for granted, who want to think them through and understand them, while, at the same time, re-discovering evangelical worship, community, spirituality and responsibility for public life. Whether in modern or postmodern culture, they want to seek a Christian alternative – so that the Gospel, and not our cultural assumptions would be the offence.
God gave us freedom. We did not deserve it. We enjoy it and we try to live and act responsibly. We hope God will bless us and help us in our time after modernity.