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Bulgaria

Baptized by Byzantium in 865, Bulgarians adopted the Byzantine Christian tradition known as Eastern Orthodoxy. Muslims constitute the second most significant religious community, thanks to the spread, in the fourteenth century, of Islam during the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. At the end of World War II, 85 % of Bulgarian citizens were Orthodox and 13 % were Muslim. Tiny congregations of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, etc. also exist. Even though they were suppressed under communism, these religious denominations very quickly returned to the public square once the Iron Curtain had fallen, a tendency which was also stimulated by the 1991 Constitution, which proclaimed full-scale religious freedom.

Such liberties present serious challenges to a society that has only limited experience with pluralism and democracy. Bulgarians for example have difficulties distinguishing between secularity, secularism and atheism, while they tend to label critical attitudes towards religion and religious institutions as communist remnants. In addition, Bulgarian society is quite reserved vis-à-vis changes in religious affiliation, which in some cases can even be condemned as apostatic, or deemed incompatible with Bulgarian identity.

The former totalitarian regime entirely suppressed the role of religion, both in the public and private spheres, in a clear attempt to forge a 100 % atheist society. As a consequence, a sociological survey carried out in the late 1960s claimed that over 70 % of the population had become atheist. Some twenty years later, the collapse of the communist regime had the opposite effect. The category “atheist” was now dropped from the national censuses held in 1992 and 2001. Bulgarians were now asked to define their religious affiliation based on their personal religious convictions or, alternatively, those of their parents or grandparents. This produced results similar to those registered during the pre-communist era.

Hereupon, by applying a different kind of methodology, in the 2011 national census, religion-related data showed a profoundly altered picture. As declaring one’s religious affiliation was no longer mandatory, nearly 22 % of the population opted for discretion, whereby it is unclear whether they preserved their previous religious affiliation, adopted a different faith, or became irreligious. Only 4,374,135 Bulgarians (59.4 % of the population) declared to be Orthodox, 577,139 (7 %) Muslim. Such figures point to a serious decline in membership of the two major religious communities, whereas Western Christianity seems to be expanding. Indeed the number of Protestants went up from 42,308 in 2001 to 64,476 in 2011; that of Catholics from 43,811 to 48,945. Finally, almost 10 % of the population declared to be non-religious.

Apart from national census data, post-communist Bulgarian religiosity has also been the subject of international research. According to the 2008 European Values Survey, over 60 % of Bulgarians define themselves as religious, only 4.6 % as convinced atheists. High levels of participation in religious rites linked to such major life events as birth (69.6 %), marriage (79.8 %) and death (87.4 %) were also measured. In contrast, only 5 % of the country’s population attend religious services on a weekly basis. Another survey reveals that Orthodox Bulgarians tend to neglect essential religious practices: 55.4 % have never fasted, 53.2 % have never taken communion, 51.7 % have never turned to a priest or monk for blessing, etc. Muslims seem to be making up the exception to this general rule: 44.6 % of them fast, 53.7 % give zakat, the aid Muslims are obliged to give to the poor at the end of Ramadan (Tomka and Zulehner, Religionen und Kirchen in Ost(Mittel) Europa: Entwicklungen seit der Wende. Aufbruch 2007, Wien-Budapest, 2008).

The balance between the secular and the religious is a sensitive issue in post-communist Bulgarian politics, as can be illustrated by the 2002 Law on Religious Denominations, which contains a direct reference to the Nicene Creed and the Church Statute. Article 10.1 describes the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) as “a member of the One, Holy, Ecumenical and Apostolic Church”, to which it is added that the Church is presented by a patriarch “who is also Metropolitan of Sofia.” In voting such formulae, the parliament has attributed itself the right to intervene in the Church’s organizational structure, while any change of the corresponding text in the BOC’s Statutes would also necessitate similar amendments to civil law. After a lawsuit was filed at the Constitutional Court, article 10.1 was judged compatible with the Constitution… whereby one of the Court’s arguments was Canon 34 of the Holy Apostles (Constitutional Court’s Judgment No. 12/2003). Such episodes have revealed a tendency present in some civil judges to use religious canons as guidance, whereby also raising the question of the compatibility between civil and canon law.

Likewise, post-1989 parliamentary and governmental oath taking ceremonies are marked by inconsistency. Some have been performed in the presence of the Bulgarian patriarch, while others haven’t. Furthermore, the encounter between the religious and the secular has led to tense Church-State relations. On February 24, 2013, upon the enthronization of Bulgarian patriarch Neofit, the head of state, President Rossen Plevneliev, congratulated the new Church leader. However, on April 29, 2015, the BOC’s Holy Synod, now under Neofit’s chairmanship, decided that clerics were to pay liturgical homage to Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, “King of Bulgarians” (Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was King of the Bulgarians from 1943 to 1946, before the establishment of the republican order in 1946. In 2001, he became Prime Minister of Bulgaria — until 2005 — and pledged to observe its republican Constitution). In addition, his name was to be mentioned before references to the Orthodox people, and to the Bulgarian government. Many observers, both within the Orthodox community and in larger society, saw this issue as a threat to Bulgaria’s republican order, i.e. as an attempt to restore the monarchy by promoting Simeon as an alternative head of State.

The encounter between the religious and the secular in Bulgaria is also hindered by the BOC’s efforts to regain its pre-communist, dominant status. With this goal in mind, the Church consistently overemphasizes its century-old role as guardian of the Bulgarian nation and identity, while Orthodoxy’s return to the public scene is also facilitated by its close relations with Bulgarian nationalism. Hence the perception of Orthodoxy and minority religions is flawed and asymmetrical. In 2006 for example, several female Muslim students refused to remove their headscarves, and were consequently forced to leave school. No such sanctions were taken against students wearing Christian symbols. As a consequence to this situation, the BOC has launched initiatives of an openly anti-secular nature, initiatives which religious minorities generally tend to avoid. A case in point: in 1999, the BOC’s Holy Synod protested against the screening, on National Television, of a BBC documentary series about the life of Christ. While the attempt was unsuccessful, a 2002 remonstration against Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” wasn’t: the movie was removed from the primetime section. Another exemplary episode occurred in 2009, when widespread indignation arose following the Orthodox metropolitan of Plovdiv’s suggestion that the tragic death of several Bulgarian tourists, whose ship had sunk on the day of a Madonna concert, was a case of divine punishment.

However, the issue that has stirred the most serious controversy is that of religious instruction in public schools. Introduced in September 1997 as a facultative discipline designed only for Orthodox students from the second to the fourth grade, a year later it was extended to the first eight grades. In 1999, Islam courses were also introduced. As of 2003, facultative Orthodoxy and Islam courses have been made available to students in all twelve grades. Still unsatisfied with this situation, the Orthodox Holy Synod, along with the Grand Muftiate, made attempts to persuade the Ministry of Science and Education into making the study of religion mandatory for all. Such attempts were joined by initiatives such as a 2010 national procession, which was organized by the Holy Synod in defense of the study of religion at school. The procession was attended by clerics and citizens from all of the country’s Orthodox dioceses. Even so, the interest in religious courses remains extremely low: only 1 % of the student population enrolls in them.

In conclusion, the encounter between the religious and the secular in contemporary Bulgarian society has been strongly influenced by efforts to overcome the legacy of militant atheism. Not less important factors are processes of democratization and European integration. While introducing a new understanding of religion as a person’s free choice and treating religious denominations as “voluntary religious associations” (Peter Berger), these evolutions challenge the traditional notion of religion as a marker of national/ethnic identity, c.q. the idea that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is an embodiment of the nation. Thus the encounter of the religious and the secular in post-communist Bulgaria also extends to, and mingles with, the issue of nationalism. As a direct consequence, and notwithstanding the principle of separation between Church and State, state authorities are inclined to give in to the Orthodox Church’s tendency to depict itself as the historical safeguard of Bulgarian national identity. 

Daniela Kalkandjieva (Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski).

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