Postcommunist Protestant Revival in Bulgaria

April 30, 2005 by  
Filed under Publication

For those of us who lived through the last days of Communist Bulgaria, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a modern-day miracle. On 10 November 1989, the day after the border between East and West Berlin opened, Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s Communist leader of over 30 years, resigned. That same year, with the church no longer suppressed, evangelistic meetings began in many Bulgarian towns and villages. Despite pressure and constant media attacks, the Protestant movement grew rapidly. In the first five years of democracy, several Pentecostal churches in Bulgaria exceeded a membership of 1,000. Many Muslim and Roma communities were reached with the gospel. The Mission for Christian Upbringing alone reported ministering to over one million people across Bulgaria. In 2001, the Bulgarian Church of God counted 32,000 members with 250 ministers in some 400 congregations nationwide. In 2003, the Bulgarian Assemblies of God reported over 50,000 members with 150 national pastors in 550 churches, plus a Bible school with 173 students. Thus, the Protestant movement, which numbered approximately 13,000 members in 1975, grew to 55,000 in the 1980s, and to over 100,000 members by 2000, in a nation of eight million.

Dr. Stephen Penov, a professor at Sofia University and a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Science, serves as a parliamentary expert on human rights and faith confessions. In a recent interview he estimated that church membership in traditional Protestant churches in Bulgaria is over 60,000, while new Protestant denominations have a membership of approximately 50,000. Bulgaria is also home to approximately 70,000 Catholics, in contrast to the majority Eastern Orthodox who number 6,000,000.

The Confessions Act of 2002
In 2001-02, the Bulgarian Parliament considered three drafts of legislation to replace the Communist Law of Religion, which had been the single guideline for church–state relations since 1949. Attorney Borislav Tzekov, from the Novoto Vreme political movement, crafted the bill that received the most attention. In an interview for Sega newspaper, he defended his draft, declaring that it was only opposed by “approximately 50 people protesting in front of the Parliament and by a small group that was liberally financed by sects most hostile to Orthodoxy.”

On 12 December 2002, the Center for Religious Freedom in Bulgaria submitted a detailed analysis of the proposed legal modifications to the Bulgarian Parliament. The reaction of the Center represented the opinion of Bulgarian Evangelicals, the Bulgarian Orthodox Alternative Synod, and a number of other denominations and religious groups, supported by a membership which greatly exceeded the number quoted by Tzekov. In the analysis, Center Director Viktor Kostov indicated that the Tzekov bill “voided the right to freedom of religion, introduced religion-based discrimination, neglected the recommendations of Council of Europe experts, and proposed a discriminatory registration system.”

On 18 December 2002, 18 religious and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) submitted a petition to the president of Bulgaria insisting on “an emergency meeting, where we can express our critique, reservations, and recommendations, and request that you exercise your right of veto over the submitted draft, as we are convinced that the draft must be submitted to the Council of Europe for further analysis.” Such meeting never took place and on 20 December 2002, the Bulgarian Parliament passed the Tzekov bill. Regardless of all warnings, the law followed the lead of the 1997 Russian Law on Religion, declaring Orthodox Christianity to be Bulgaria’s “traditional religion.” The newly accepted law had been prepared, presented, and implemented in cooperation with the Bulgarian Directorate of Religious Affairs. In the words of its director, Dr. Ivan Zhelev, “the main goal was to defend the position of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and convince heretics to return to it.”

Religious Freedom and Human Rights Concerns, 2003-04
The 2002 Confessions Act designates the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as a traditional religious confession. The special privileges granted to this church establishes religious inequalities that contradict the Constitution of Bulgaria, Article Nine of the European Convention, as well as other international agreements. The Act does not address the religious needs of minority ethnic groups. All denominations, with the exception of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, must register with the Sofia Municipal Court, but the legislation does not specify the requirements for granting registration. Also, the law does not make provision for appeals in cases where the court fails to, or refuses to, register a religious group. This gives the court undefined control over the existence of religious confessions. The role of the Directorate of Religious Affairs in the registration process is mentioned, but not clearly defined. Furthermore, registration is granted only to organizations with a recognized, centralized structure, which is against the traditions and bylaws of many of the confessions in Bulgaria and creates new problems on the local level.

The very fact that the law purposes to solve the schism within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is based on the presumption that the church is not able to solve its own problems, and therefore, requires the assistance of the state. Public worship is prohibited without denominational registration. Also, no provisions are made for foreign missionaries, chaplains, or pastoral care in the army, prisons, hospitals, and elder care facilities. Regrettably, the Confessions Act fosters an atmosphere conducive to discrimination and harassment against “non-traditional” religious minorities. It neither defines procedures (delays, appeals, nature and role of the Directorate of Religions), nor substantive criteria for registration. It also fails to recognize freedom of conscience explicitly, as well as the right not to believe, and does not clarify the rights of believers within unregistered religious communities.

The Council of Europe insisted that the arguments in Article Seven for “national security” and “political goals” should be excluded from the text. It also regards the existence of a state church and the recognition of its “special role in the life of the state” as incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights. In addition, religious freedom and human rights advocates warned that attempts of the state to establish a totalitarian order in the church after 15 years of democratic transition were unacceptable tendencies that could fuel conflicts among denominations, the government, and NGOs. Unfortunately, the government ignored these warnings.

The Church in the Hands of an Angry State
On 21 July 2004, on orders of Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor, police stormed 250 churches affiliated with the Alternative Synod and detained its clergy. The purpose was to restore control of these sanctuaries to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church that enjoyed state recognition. Father Pissarov, priest at the Dormition of the Mother of God Orthodox Church in Sofia, locked the doors of his sanctuary to prevent police from entering. A special force’s team first scattered citizens who were protesting around the church and then pulled open the doors with the use of a vehicle. Although the priest was unarmed and did not resist arrest, five policemen held him on the ground directly under the crucifix while others kicked him in the face with their army boots. Father Pissarov was hospitalized with a serious concussion, broken teeth, and torso injuries.

The conflict followed a decade of schism within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church between the traditional Orthodox confession headed by Patriarch Maxim and an Alternative Synod headed by Metropolitan Pimen, who has accused the patriarch of having served the former Communist regime since his appointment in 1971. “This is not the way the unity of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church should be restored,” commented former president of Bulgaria Petar Stoyanov. Two Bulgarian ex-prime ministers, Phillip Dmitrov (1991-92) and Ivan Kostov (1997-2001), also stated that the actions of the state were in violation of basic human rights and religious freedoms. Kostov criticized the Confessions Act of 2002 for providing justification for such police action and called for its immediate revision.

Outside Bulgaria, United States Helsinki Commission Chairman, Representative Christopher Smith, charged that “Bulgarian authorities have abandoned neutrality and chosen sides, potentially endangering religious freedom.” He urged the Bulgarian government to “end this embarrassment, lead by example, and honor its OSCE human rights commitment toward religious freedom.” Luchezar Toshev, Director of the Confessions Commission, explained that the Confessions Act was not intended to solve the schism within the Orthodox Church and charged that the use of police in church business was incompatible with any style of European democracy.

In Summary
Unfortunately, the 2002 Confessions Act does not foster an atmosphere of religious freedom, pluralism, and tolerance. The question is: will Bulgaria be accepted into the European Union if the Confessions Act is not significantly amended? Its supporters argue that establishing a state religion has its precedents in Europe in both Catholic and Protestant states. However, none of the West European states passed through half a century of Communism where the role and function of the church were strictly regulated by the government. As a result, the church today has failed to recover and reclaim its biblical identity and is becoming simply a state institution with a predetermined interest in a strictly regulated sphere of social life. The government cannot and should not allow tradition to dictate special privileges for any denomination.

The struggles concerning the Bulgarian Confessions Act are not over. On 18 October 2004, after the unfortunate police actions of the previous July, opposition Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria presented Parliament with recommendations for changes in the law on religion. Less than a week later, perhaps in response, the government announced the formation of a new confessions commission, consisting of representatives from various government departments. This body strongly resembles the Kremlin’s Interreligious Council but, unfortunately, Bulgaria’s commission is not inclusive of all religious denominations. During the time of the development of this article, neither one of these motions had been finalized.

The time has come for the Bulgarian Church to rediscover its identity by revisiting its biblical theology. Common theological presuppositions presented within the faith of all Bulgarian Christians support religious tolerance. What is needed is a healthy environment for interdenominational partnership. The first step towards such a goal may have been a meeting of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant believers that occurred on 23 October 2004. In a roundtable discussion, Christians from various confessions explored the theme of the “Universal Character of the Christian Church.” Those present favored freedom of worship according to one’s religious convictions and freedom from fear.

Missions Conference 2005

April 20, 2005 by  
Filed under Events, Missions

Our ministry team just returned from a successful mission’s conference with Restoration Ministries. Cup & Cross’ team was able to show our documentary film, Revival Bulgaria and present our 2005 ministry projects. Additionally, we held two services on Sunday at Greenwood and Gaffney.

New Church in the Spirit

April 15, 2005 by  
Filed under Research

The struggles surrounding the Bulgarian Confessions Act are not over. The search for a democratic paradigm which integrates religious freedom and freedom of conscience is not completed. As religious pluralism in Bulgaria occurs, unfortunately, in the forming postmodern context, the time has come for the Bulgarian Church to rediscover its historic identity by revisiting its Biblical theology. Common theological presuppositions presented within the faith of all Bulgarian Christians must lobby religious tolerance and create a healthy environment for the implementation of a new paradigm for ministry which will successfully incorporate 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 a religious community where Christians from various denominations can come together to worship in freedom from fear and according to their religious convictions.

As a direct result of the round table, on February 19, 2005 the participants came together again to establish a new church based on unity and tolerance. It was named, Christian Catholic (with the meaning of Universal) and Apostolic Church. Orthodox priests and protestant pastors came together to set forth into ministry the pastor of the new church the Pentecostal minister and scholar, Vili Altanov. The service was moderated by bishop Alexy Dardakius from the Russian Orthodox Reformed Church.

The participation of protestant and orthodox ministers in one church by itself is a global precedent. In Bulgaria it is an indication of religious freedom and tolerance. The new paradigm incorporates the protestant style of preaching along with eastern experiential theology. The church claims this is not simply a new form of institutional ecumenism, but a new paradigm for ministry in unity created by the Spirit.

The idea for the new formation comes from father Christo Pissarov, who was involved in the struggles for new social space within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 2004. According to him, this new paradigm of ministry does not purpose reform of any of the existing in denomination. On the contrary, it is an attempt of coming together in the Spirit and ministering in the presence of God in unity.

David Wilkerson in Bulgaria

April 10, 2005 by  
Filed under Events

On April 7, 2005, David Wilkerson arrived in Bulgaria for a nation-wide crusade. The services were held on April 8-10 in the National Palace of Culture to enhance the work of local pastors and ministers. Believers from virtually all evangelical denominations in the country were present. Representatives from various denominations and whole congregations joined together on Sunday morning in auditorium 1 of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia for the largest evangelical service held in Bulgaria in recent years.

Bulgarian Pentecostals

April 5, 2005 by  
Filed under News

pentecostal-van11Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Bulgarian Protestant movement claims over 100,000 members. This number is almost ten times higher than a 1975 German study which presented proof of approximately 13,000 “known” Protestants in Bulgaria. In the 1980s, this number had grown to 55,000, as this was the time when many Western missionaries were able to visit Bulgaria and gather information about the underground churches outlawed by the Communist Regime.

Although international reports confirmed the existence of over 100,000 Protestants in Bulgaria as early as 1994, the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute counted only 42,000 Protestant believers in Bulgaria for the 2002-2003 National Census. This number was detested recently by Dr. Stephen Penov, a professor at the Sofia University and a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Science, who has served as a Parliament expert on human rights and faith confessions. Dr. Penov stated that the members of classical Protestant denominations in Bulgarian exceeded 100,000 with over 60,000 identified as classical Protestants and a membership in the new Protestant denominations of approximately 50,000. During the past fifteen years, Bulgaria has experienced an ongoing Pentecostal revival. Therefore, it is not a surprise that over eighty percent of Bulgarian Protestants are Pentecostal or claim Pentecostal experience.

Protestant work on the Balkan Peninsula began in the 1800s when British and American missionaries were allowed to enter the Ottoman Empire. In the 1820s, the British Bible Society developed a Protestant translation of the Bulgarian Bible, which was completed and published in Constantinople in 1871. During this same period, various Protestant denominations began mission work in Bulgaria, among which were Congregationalists (1856), Methodist (1857), Baptists (1865) and Seven Day Adventists (1891). In 1871, the first Bulgarian Protestant Church was founded in the town of Bansko. By the time Bulgaria was liberated in 1878 and became an independent Balkan state, Protestantism was well established in the Bulgarian culture.

Pentecostalism was introduced in Bulgaria in 1920 as Ukrainian immigrants Zaplishny and Voronaev preached in the Congregational church at the Black Sea port city of Bourgas, where several were baptized with the Holy Spirit. This event marked the beginning of Bulgarian Pentecostalism.

In the next decade, the movement had spread throughout the country. The establishment of a consistent national structure occurred under the leadership of Nikolai Nikolov. The new denomination was formally recognized as the Union of the Evangelical Pentecostal Churches in Bulgaria, at a national assembly on 28-31 March, 1928. The organization, also known as the Pentecostal Union, was affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination.

Legally, the newly formed organization was required to register with the Bulgarian government. This caused a great deal of controversy and division. A conservative Pentecostal group, with congregations located mainly in Northern Bulgaria, emerged from the split and adopted the name, Tinchevists, after the name of the leader Stoyan Tintchev. The Tinchevists, who are often called Northern Brothers due to the fact that most of their congregations were located in Northern Bulgaria, later became commonly known as the Bulgarian Church of God (lit. Bulgarian God’s Church).

The split between the Pentecostal Union and the Church of God was mainly due to leadership instability and internal organization disagreement. Unfortunately, due to the historical developments which followed, true attempts to reunite both Pentecostal wings did not take place even after the original leaders were replaced.

In 1944, the Communist Revolution took place in Bulgaria. In 1949, Communist authorities tried and convicted fifteen protestant leaders on false charges of treason and espionage. The division among Bulgarian Pentecostals continued during the Communist Regime. The Pentecostal Union pursued legal existence by registering with the Communist state. This action led to the government’s interference with church business and the implanting of secret agents within the denomination’s structure.

The Bulgarian Church of God, on the other hand, chose to remain underground and was severely persecuted by the authorities. Archives report that in 1974, the Bulgarian Church of God had only 600 members nationwide. This number grew to 2,000 members with congregations in 25 cities by 1981 and doubled by 1986 when the denomination was affiliated with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN).

At the same time, the Bulgarian Pentecostal Union had approximately 10,000 members and when the Berlin Wall fell, the denomination entered the Pentecostal revival that swept the country. In the decade that followed, the Pentecostal Union multiplied its congregation to 500 with over 50,000 members and adherents. A recent interview with Ivan Ivanov, the student pastor of the Pentecostal College in Sofia, indicated that the membership of the Pentecostal Union might have experienced a decline since 2002.

Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Church of God continued to grow reporting over 32,000 members with close to 400 congregations in 2001. Its work among the ethnic minorities in the country has resulted in the emergence of large Roma congregations like the ones in Samokov with 1,700 and in Razlog with 450 members.

It is reasonable to ask the question why is Pentecostalism so attractive to Bulgarian culture in the beginning of the 21st century? How is Pentecostalism responding so well to the need for faith within the postcommunist Bulgarian society? What is the reason Pentecostalism has spread so rapidly in the postcommunist age? Is Pentecostalism simply filling a spiritual gap or is it successfully responding to postmodern thinking?

The answers to the above questions are found in Pentecostal theology, which claims the “five-fold Gospel.” The results of a recent survey of one hundred randomly selected Bulgarian Protestants asking about the fundamentals of their faith is shown in the following table:

Question Yes No
Does a person have free will? 78% 22%
Can a person choose to be saved or not? 75% 25%
Must a person accept Jesus Christ as a personal Savior in order to be saved? 97% 3%
Can a person lose his/her salvation? 75% 25%
Is the use of alcohol sin? 60% 40%
Can a person be saved without being baptized in the Holy Spirit? 72% 28%
Are you baptized with the Holy Spirit? 63% 37%
Have the spiritual gifts described in the Bible ceased? 10% 90%
Are there apostles today? 64% 36%
Do you go to church each week? 73% 27%
Do you pray daily? 88% 12%
Do you read the Bible daily? 77% 23%
Do you fast more than once a week? 35% 65%

The last characteristic is prompted by the obvious fact, that where two or three Bulgarian Protestants agree, one disagrees with them. It is for future researchers to determine if this is a reflection of Bulgarian cultural mentality, suspicion remaining from the Communist Regime or simply Pentecostal experiential curiosity with existential need for opposition of social norms even within itself.

Fortunately, Bulgarians remain in almost complete agreement on issues such as the person and work of Jesus Christ in the salvific mission of God and the importance of the Holy Spirit in the mission of the church. Perhaps, these are the points of agreement which future Bulgarian Protestants should use to build unity and construct strategies for the future development of the movement. Because these also serve as the cornerstone of Pentecostal doctrine and practice, a movement toward unity within the Bulgarian Protestant movement should be initiated by Bulgarian Pentecostals. However, before such initiation can be realized, Pentecostals must reach a balance between their numerical advantage and their social action.