A Christian presence in the territory of modern Bulgaria can be traced back to early centuries, and a major council of bishops met in Sardica (now Sofia) in 343. The region was later occupied by pagan Bulgar tribes among which Christian missionaries had already been active. The decisive moment in the development of Christianity among the Bulgarians was the baptism of King Boris I by a Byzantine bishop in 865. This was followed by the gradual Christianization of the Bulgarian people. Bulgaria wavered between Rome and Constantinople for a time and became the subject of a major dispute between the two churches. But in the end Bulgaria opted for Constantinople and Byzantine civilization.
The Bulgarian state became very powerful in the 10th century. In 927 Constantinople recognized the king as Emperor of the Bulgarians and the Archbishop of Preslav as their Patriarch. But the Byzantines were gaining strength and invaded the Bulgarian Empire in 971, at which time the Patriarch left Preslav and took up residence at Ohrid, Macedonia. The Byzantines conquered Macedonia in 1018 and reduced the patriarchate to the rank of autocephalous archbishopric.
Bulgaria regained its independence in 1186 with the establishment of the second empire based at Turnovo. After lengthy negotiations the Bulgarian church recognized the supremacy of the Pope in 1204. But this agreement ended in 1235 when the Bulgarian Emperor made an alliance with the Greeks against the Latin Empire in Constantinople, and the Byzantine Patriarch recognized a second Bulgarian Orthodox patriarchate in return.
Turnovo was conquered by the Turks in 1393 and the Bulgarian lands were absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. The Bulgarian church was integrated into the Patriarchate of Constantinople which replaced the higher clergy with ethnic Greeks. This situation continued until the 19th century when rising Bulgarian nationalism compelled the Ottomans to allow the reestablishment of a national Bulgarian church as an autonomous exarchate in 1870. Constantinople reacted strongly and declared the Bulgarian church schismatic in 1872. This rift continued long after Bulgaria became a principality in 1878 and an independent kingdom in 1908. It was only in 1945 that the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized the Bulgarian church as autocephalous and ended the schism. The Metropolitan of Sofia assumed the title of Patriarch in 1953 and he was recognized as such by Constantinople in 1961. During the period of communist rule, which began in 1944, the government aggressively promoted atheism, and the church was compelled to play a largely passive role in society.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church did not escape the turmoil that many churches in eastern Europe encountered following the collapse of communism. In 1991 the new government created a Board of Religious Affairs that began to initiate reforms in the country’s religious institutions. In March 1992 it ruled that the 1971 election of Patriarch Maxim had been illegal because he had been appointed by the communist government in an uncanonical manner. This triggered a division among the bishops, and three of them under the leadership of Metropolitan Pimen of Nekrop called publicly for Maxim’s deposition. The dispute hardened into a schism when, on July 4, 1996, Metropolitan Pimen was installed as rival Patriarch and was immediately anathematized by Maxim’s Holy Synod. When Petar Stoyanov was sworn in as Bulgarian President in January 1997, Pimen conducted a blessing ceremony, and in March 1997 the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the registration of Maxim’s Holy Synod was invalid. In January 1998 President Stoyanov called upon both Patriarchs to resign to provide for the election of a single successor that would end the schism.
In view of these events, an “extraordinary and enlarged synod” of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was held in Sofia from September 30 to October 1, 1998. It was presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and attended by six other Patriarchs (including Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow and Patriarch Petros VII of Alexandria) and 20 metropolitans. The synod reaffirmed Maxim’s position as Bulgarian Patriarch, received the repentance of the dissident bishops and declared an end to the schism.
But the reconciliation was short lived. The dissident bishops soon called their own alternative synod and “deposed” Patriarch Maxim. With the passing of time the canonical synod under Patriarch Maxim gained support. Rival Patriarch Pimen was not replaced after his death in 1999, and in December 2002 a new Bulgarian law on religion recognized the existence of only one Orthodox Church in the country with Patriarch Maxim at its head, further marginalizing the dissident group. Eventually the Bulgarian authorities decided to intervene. On the night of July 20-21, 2004, priests of the alternative synod that opposed Patriarch Maxim’s leadership were forcibly evicted from approximately 250 churches and other properties that the Holy Synod claimed they were illegally occupying. In the immediate aftermath of the operation, clerics from the alternative synod held religious services outside of the churches from which they had been evicted. However, by the time Patriarch Maxim celebrated his ninetieth birthday in October 2004, most of the activities of the alternative synod had ceased, and the schism was declared over.
In July 1997 the first Bulgarian Orthodox general council in 40 years was held in Sofia under the leadership of Patriarch Maxim. The council focused on new possibilities open to the church in the new conditions of a democratic society. It called upon the government to allow it to develop its ministry in various areas of public life including the media. It asked the authorities to guarantee religious instruction in schools, to establish chaplaincies in the armed forces, in prisons and hospitals, and to return property confiscated by the communists. Measures were adopted to begin a process of renewal of church life, including the development of catechetical programs and theological formation, the setting up of a large program of social action, the strengthening of the role of the laity in the church, and the renewal of monasticism. New church statutes were to be drafted to replace those instituted in 1953 under communist pressure. Religious instruction in the schools resumed in September 1997.
New theology faculties have been created since the fall of communism. At present there are Orthodox theological faculties in Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, Kardzhali, Shumen, and Blagoevgrad, and two Orthodox seminaries located in Sofia (St John of Rila, founded in 1903) and Plovdiv (Sts. Cyril and Methodius). The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has 13 dioceses in the country and two abroad, with about 2,600 parishes served by 1,545 priests. In addition, there are about 250 monks and nuns. According to the most recent census (2011), 76% of the population self-identifies as Orthodox. Muslims make up about ten percent of the population, followed by Protestants at 1.1% and Catholics at 0.8%. About 10% are atheists. Article 13 of the 1991 Bulgarian constitution designates Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the “traditional” religion of the country.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church joined the World Council of Churches at the 1961 General Assembly in New Delhi. But since that time the Bulgarian Church has taken an increasingly critical attitude towards the ecumenical movement. It formally withdrew from the WCC in 1998 and declines to participate in ecumenical dialogues including the official international dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Pope John Paul II visited the country in May 2002 and Pope Francis in May 2019. During these visits the Bulgarian Orthodox were careful to avoid the appearance of praying with the Pope. Metropolitan Nikolai of Plovdiv dismissed the Pope’s call for unity, saying that “it is not possible to unite the light and the darkness.”
The Bulgarian Orthodox Holy Synod, made up of the Patriarch and all the diocesan bishops, is the supreme clerical, juridical and administrative authority in the church. It functions in two bodies. The Full Synod meets each June and November and whenever else it is judged necessary. The Lesser Synod is composed of the Patriarch and four other bishops elected by the Full Synod to four-year terms, meets almost continually and deals with current church affairs. The Patriarch presides over both bodies and handles relations with the state and other churches.
Patriarch Maxim passed away at the age of 98 on November 6, 2012. The Holy Synod elected Metropolitan Neofit of Ruse to succeed him on February 24, 2013.
Metropolitan Joseph (born 1942, elected 1989) heads the Bulgarian Orthodox Diocese of the USA, Canada and Australia (550-A West 50th Street, New York, New York 10019). Altogether there are 27 parishes in the USA, seven in Canada and two in Australia. The bishops’ vicar for Australia is Fr. Alexander Popov, Sts Cyril and Methodios Cathedral, 3 Bayview St., Northcote 3070 Melbourne, Victoria. Bulgarian Orthodox in Britain are under the jurisdiction of Metropolitan Antonyi (born 1978, elected 2013) of Western and Central Europe, who resides in Berlin. Contact Archpriest Simeon Iliev at St. John of Rila Church at the Bulgarian Embassy, 186-188 Queen’s Gate, London SW7 5HL.
Another Bulgarian Orthodox jurisdiction broke with the Bulgarian patriarchate during the communist period and is now part of the Orthodox Church in America. It is headed by Bishop Alexander Golitzin (born 1948, elected 2012), whose offices are located at 519 Brynhaven Dr., Oregon, Ohio 43616. The diocese has 15 parishes and one monastery in the USA.
Location: Bulgaria, small diaspora in Europe and America
Head: Patriarch Neofit (born 1945, elected 2013)
Title: Metropolitan of Sofia, Patriarch of All Bulgaria
Residence: Sofia, Bulgaria