Postcommunist Protestant Revival in Bulgaria

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.