The Case of a NATO Chaplaincy Model within the Bulgarian Army

In April 2004, Bulgaria was officially accepted into the global structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The event followed a long series of historic developments that were accomplished despite the existence of highly antagonistic forces that opposed the very idea of Bulgaria’s membership in any Western alliance. Among these were internal and external political, economical and social factors that historically have forced the country to remain under the influence of the forces opposing the West.

Territorially, this tendency could be traced to the dramatic split of the Roman Empire even before the establishment of the first Bulgarian Kingdom on the Balkan Peninsula in 681AD.  The consecutive military, cultural and economical influence of Byzantium over the Bulgarian nation claimed the newly established country to the side of the East from its birth. This propensity was sustained through the two Bulgarian Kingdoms (established respectfully in 681AD and 1188AD). It was renewed with even greater strength when the Ottoman Empire overtook the weakened country of Bulgaria in 1139AD and for the next five centuries, the Orient claimed control of European Bulgaria.

In 1878, Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottoman Yoke by Russia, but only to remain under its political and economical umbrella for the next 111 years until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This event reaffirmed Bulgaria’s belongingness to the East as the country joined the Central Powers throughout World War I and deliberately remained with the Axis Powers in World War II.

Even when, on September 9, 1944, the Bulgarian Communist Revolution overthrew the monarchy and forced the country to move to the opposite camp of the war, Bulgaria’s allegiance remained with the Eastern of the Allies – the Soviet Union. This belongingness continued during the next 45 years to reform Bulgaria’s economical, political and cultural reality while transforming the Bulgarian mindset to a mentality which today remains the primary obstacle to Bulgaria’s integration in the free world.

As the country of Bulgaria is now a member of NATO and awaits acceptance into the European Union in 2007, international experts are working with various government institutions and consultant agencies to create an atmosphere in which the Bulgarian mindset can experience a new national revival in the 21st century. NATO’s involvement in this process serves as a catalyst both for reinforcing Bulgaria’s infrastructure and attracting international interest in the country’s affairs. Issues concerning national security, military involvement, international relations, economical development and ethnic diversity are continuously and carefully taken into consideration. However, one issue still remains untouched neither by NATO’s official position in Bulgaria, nor by the Bulgarian government. This is the issue of faith.

Three reasons make such topic of relevant importance. First, Bulgaria claims traditional and historical religious belongingness to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Furthermore, the centuries of religious wars on the Balkans have formed a complete dependency on ethnic religiosity, making faith the prime factor for animosity, hatred and genocide. Finally, the issue of morale and morality in the armed forces remains open for any military unit and will need to be addressed sooner or later in the context of NATO’s presence in Bulgaria.

This research will show how the above issues could be resolved by the presence of a NATO paradigm for chaplaincy within the Bulgarian Armed Forces. The paper will explore the current developments of chaplaincy in Bulgaria on three levels: church, society and government. It will then present the case of “underground chaplaincy” in Bulgaria and provide an appropriate solution to be implemented through the newly established Bulgarian Chaplaincy Association. The conclusion will outline the benefits that can be achieved by a partnership between local NATO representatives and the Bulgarian Chaplaincy Association who combine efforts to restore the spirituality within the Bulgarian Army through the legalization of chaplaincy ministry within its structures.

Historical Overview
It is true that clear documentation for the presence of chaplaincy in Bulgaria may be difficult to produce, especially according to any modern definition of chaplaincy ministry. However, it would not be unfounded to claim that the practice of military priests acting as chaplains in the Bulgarian Army dates back to at least Bulgaria’s national conversion to Christianity under King Boris I in 863AD. Having adopted virtually all the characteristics of a religious state from Byzantium, Bulgaria utilized priests and liturgy in its military forces.

During the time of the Ottoman Empire, the tradition of military priests ceased, as naturally Bulgaria had no army. However, foreign representatives continuously carried the ministry of chaplaincy through the Bulgarian lands. Around the 14th century, immigrants from Dubrovnik found a diaspora in Sofia. In 1486, they built the Patrum S. Franscisci Cathedral. The assigned priest also ministered as a community chaplain.  In the 16th century, German theologian Stephen Gerlah traveled through Bulgaria as a secretary to the protestant ambassador to Constantinople. Gerlah reports of the religious intolerance toward the Bulgarian population.

Every military force dispatched to Bulgaria arrived with a chaplain.  For example, British chaplains were active during the Crimean War.  In 1860, Principle Chaplain to the forces of the East, H.P. Wright reported an outburst of cholera in the General Hospital at the Black Sea port of Varna.
After the liberation from the Ottoman Yoke in 1878, the Missionary Herald reports: “The Protestant preacher from Adrianople is just in. …. The governor of Southern Bulgaria, who resides there, is a Russian general, and is a strong Protestant.  He has Protestant services (conducted by his chaplain) every Sabbath, at the government house.”

In 1879, the German prince Alexander Battenberg was enthroned in Bulgaria. The new monarch arrived with a personal chaplain, a Lutheran minister by the name of Adolf Koch.  Koch was instrumental in organizing a commune of German immigrants and holding regular protestant services in a specially designed building. The royal entourage, German families, Austrian and Swiss merchants and bankers and Russian officers, attended these services.

At approximately the same time, Bulgarian Orthodox priest resumed their  position with the armed forces in various conflicts. Orthodox priests actively participated in the Russian-Turkish (1877-1878) and the Serbo-Bulgarian (1885) wars. It was during this period that the Bulgarian chaplaincy tradition was reestablished under the title “garrison priest” and Vladimir Solovyov first discussed the theology of war. The role of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church continues to be present during combat throughout the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), often called the “Orthodox Holy War” and “The Last Crusade.” Orthodox chaplaincy is also present in the two World Wars, but the orthodox theology of war viewing Bulgaria as the “New Israel” was completely destroyed when Communism overthrew the monarchy establishing a new regime.  Religion was rejected as “opium of the masses” and the military chaplain for the next 45 years was replaced by the regiment’s politcommissar.

Current Context Examined
The fall of the Berlin Wall introduced a new reality that Bulgaria was not prepared to embrace. The end of Communism was unable to tear down the communist mentality. Today, an entire Bulgarian generation lives with the scars inflicted by their experience under years of the Communist Regime, while another generation lives with an immense historical gap that has formed a new political, social, economical and cultural reality.

Three points are worth noting about Bulgaria’s Postcommunist context. First, in the beginning of the 21st century Bulgaria is left with armed forces, which were organized and influenced by the Soviet model and still act accordingly. The bureaucratic infrastructure disallows and discourages any changes apart from carefully chosen decisions that keep the army’s activities to the minimum possible. The two main factors needed for any change to occur, namely decision-making processes and chain of command, still operate under an Eastern Soviet paradigm.

Second, atheistic morale has gained the status of a positive military qualification in the Bulgarian military. This may sound familiar for any given army; however, in most cases it replaces a religious attitude with an atheistic one. In the Postcommunist context, atheistic beliefs pervade and even when a soldier experiences a genuine need for spirituality, in most cases s/he has no religious root to which to return. This lack of alternative or spiritual choice results in a pessimistic morale, intensified by the required mandatory military services.

Third, a Postcommunist mentality with definite Balkan characteristics rules not only the army but also the country as a whole. The economical, political and cultural crises have remained an undividable part of Bulgaria’s reality in the past 16 years. There, Postcommunist mentality holds captive every progressive thought and idea.

It is natural to conclude that the active solider within the Bulgarian Armed Forces is left without much choice when it comes to his/her personal and spiritual development. A positive career development is possible only when pressed by the economical factors one accepts to be part of a highly inactive bureaucratic machine. On the other hand, any attempt for spiritual growth is constrained and receives little privilege to become fully expressed. Naturally, such dynamics decrease one’s motivation for further development due to the lack of morale emerging from a personal spirituality. And because an army without a spirit is no army at all, the current condition of the Bulgarian Army is in much need of revival.

The Case of Underground Chaplaincy
Recently, the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy listed the professional occupation of “chaplain” as a religious specialist under the National Classification of Occupations and Positions in the Republic of Bulgaria.  With such statements, Bulgaria claims religious freedom at all levels in its efforts to be accepted into the European Union. Nevertheless, the ministry of chaplaincy is not included in these efforts, as it remains unconstitutional in the Bulgarian Army.

As in many other areas of the Bulgarian reality, true religious tolerance is replaced by the unconditional monopoly of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Orthodox priests are often invited for holiday liturgies and prayer services and their activities are tolerated within the army structures. Marine base “Athea” has been equipped with an Eastern Orthodox Chapel for years, and ground was broke for the building of an Eastern Orthodox Church within the campus of the National Military University in Veliko Tarnovo last year. There have also been talks of similar projects to be completed in the Plovdiv Parachute Base and in the Bezmer Airbase near Yambol, which are among the three airbases that NATO will use on Bulgarian territory in the next ten years.

In regard to such developments, the nationalistic party VMRO proposed a new law of religions through a political platform, which proclaimed, “[Eastern] Orthodox confession is declared the official state religion.” According to the issued statement “sects must be outlawed …. and prosecuted” in order “to establish monopoly of the [Eastern Orthodox] church” and “to restore [Eastern Orthodox] military priests in the army.” 

At the same time any evangelical serviceman or woman who attempts to do ministry within a military compound, may face discharge and chaplaincy as a form of ministry remains illegal. The justification provided by the Bulgarian government is that evangelicals represent a small percentage of the Bulgarian Army.  Nevertheless, this evangelical minority remains the only part of the army appealing for the legalization of staff chaplains

In a recent interview, Sergeant I. I., Bulgarian Air Forces, stated “The chaplain has an important role in the army for increasing the motivation of the solider and the morale of the army. Christian values are still important in the army.”   In another interview, Sergeant I. G., First Infantry Battalion (Mission to Iraq) declared, “I think in the Bulgarian Army there must be more talk about the faith of the solider. The Bulgarian Army drastically needs chaplaincy ministry not only in mission, but at home as well. …. Every time we would leave the base on a mission, I always pray for God’s protection. This was the first thing I would always do.”

The above factors have formed a context for the development of underground chaplaincy which although officially unorganized, is becomes unconditionally effective in filling an important need within the Bulgaria’s Armed Forces. For example, a colleague and a personal friend of many years served in Sofia’s gendarmerie in 2001-2002. In the first month of his service, Private Miroslav Atanasov, an American trained seminarian, with the permission of the unit’s chief and the help of the Bulgarian Church of God, was able to freely distribute over 250 Bulgarian New Testaments among his fellow soldiers. The New Testaments were distributed upon the soldiers’ request accompanied with prayer, testimonies and counseling.  I was privileged to be personally present at Private Atanasov’s official induction ceremony where he was asked to give a speech. It was there where I witnessed a great multitude of his fellow soldiers and their families bestow him with the title, “Padre.”

Various other organizations within the country have also attempted to build the case for chaplaincy with the Bulgarian Army. After dealing with the never-ending bureaucratic red tape, they have adapted to the current situation and minister regardless of its limitations. The most active one amongst them remains the Ministry to the Military, an Agape-Bulgaria  department currently operating in ten large Bulgarian cities. The Ministry to the Military was established in 1997 with director of operations Grozdan Stoevsky, later replaced by national director Mladen Bouchukov. In the past seven years, this ministry has grown.  Currently, in each of the ten regions there are 10-12 people who participate in the organized meetings. Because of the legal restrictions, the network operates underground using various covers in the form of family retreats, cadet visits and training seminars.

Along with these “underground” activities, the ministry has tried to operate in the open with a number of effective events promoting chaplaincy ministry. A chaplaincy Euro Seminar in March, 2000 was followed by the visit of Chaplain (Col.) John Stefero, United States director of Military Ministry in October, 2001. In June of 2002, Agape-Bulgaria hosted the visit of former Deputy Commanding General of V Corps, United States Army Europe and Seventh Army, Major General Robert Dees.
In 2004, the Ministry to the Military printed the first camouflage New Testaments and Bibles in the Bulgarian language. For several years now, they have been able to give a copy to each of the Bulgarian soldiers going to missions in Iraq, until recently when resistance from Eastern Orthodox circles created certain restrictions to their actions.

Aware of the above situation, in the spring of 2006, Rev. Nikolay Nikolov, pastor of the Nova Zagora Assemblies of God Church and participant in the “underground chaplaincy” movement, visitеd the European Union Headquarters in Brussels to report the limitations imposed on protestant chaplain workers in the Bulgarian Army. His case was rejected on the bases that it did not violate religious freedom in the country.

The various restrictions in Bulgaria, however, have not been able to hinder evangelical ministry in the area of chaplaincy ministry. Victor Hugo has said, “No army can withstand an idea, whose time has come” and it appears that regardless of the socioeconomic issues affecting the Bulgarian Army, the time has finally come for the restoration of the chaplaincy ministry within its structure. This has been the context for the formation of the Bulgarian Chaplaincy Association.