by Anthony Georgieff; photography by BTA

Demise of Orthodox Church's head marks end of era, but not beginning of new one

patriarch maxim of bulgaria.jpg

It is sad to see an old man, two years short of becoming a centenarian, pass away. But when you consider that that man had been the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for over 40 years, both during and after Communism, the story gets more complicated.

Patriarch Maxim, who died in November, was born in 1911 and was associated with Bulgarian Orthodoxy from the age of 12, when he became a monk. His was an extraordinary career.

A favourite of both the Soviet KGB and the Bulgarian Darzhavna sigurnost, or State Security, Maxim was a "permanent presence" at all senior functions of Communist Bulgaria, from cocktail parties to events designed to fool the West into believing that human and religious freedoms were being upheld by the Todor Zhivkov regime. Acting in effect as the foreign minister of the church, he performed official Sofia's bidding at a time when dissident priests were thrown in jail and when state-run TV aired American movies on Good Saturday to dissuade people from attending midnight mass. In 1989, when Zhivkov was toppled, Maxim quickly seized the moment and went on to oversee the revival of Bulgarian Orthodoxy. Surprisingly perhaps, he exuded moral authority and inspired the devotion of churchgoers. In the 1990s, in what has gone down in history as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church's "schism," his standing was challenged by a group of dissident priests who had neither the intellectual capacity nor the organisation to implement much-needed church reforms.

Bulgaria's post-Communist establishment, regardless of its hue, was quick to capitalise on the political power of the church. Consequently, all of Bulgaria's politicians, from Socialist Parvanov to Ataka leader Siderov, vied to be seen on TV kissing Patriarch Maxim's hand in the hope his endorsement would add to their own political capital. As can be seen in the photo accompanying this article, this "custom" continues even in death.

But who was the man who managed to survive in Bulgaria's senior clergy throughout fascism, Stalinism, the relative thaw of the 1960s, the anti-Turkish Revival Process of the 1980s and the two turbulent decades following the collapse of Communism?

In the 1920s and 1930s, when Bulgaria was humiliated by the Neuilly-sur-Seine Treaty and fascism was gaining ground in the runup to the Second World War, Maxim was a convinced Communist. In the 1940s, when Communism was banned by the royalist regime, Maxim was even a member of the Communist Party, which he had to leave following a Central Committee decree that religion was incompatible with Marxism.

During Bulgaria's decade of Stalinism, Maxim was sent to head the Bulgarian Orthodox community in Moscow. In 1950-1955, the KGB carefully groomed him for his later appointment as Bulgaria's patriarch, which came in 1971 at a church assembly now seen as having been thoroughly orchestrated by the Communist Party.

Maxim's career can be characterised with one word: sycophancy. Bulgaria's former patriarch can never be compared to this country's famous 19th Century clerical revolutionaries who led the struggle against the Ottoman Empire, or his immediate predecessors Kiril and Stefan who openly defended Bulgaria's Jews at a time when Bulgaria was a Nazi ally.

Under Communism, he never spoke in defence of the thousands of persecuted Christians and other believers, including members of the clergy. In fact, he oversaw the handover of church property to the state.

Major international and domestic events, such as the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the forcible Bulgarisation campaigns against Bulgaria's Muslims and Turks in the 1970s and 1980s, went unremarked by the church under Maxim.

When Communism fell, Maxim failed to apologise for his behaviour, unlike the then Romanian patriarch who famously sought absolution for his failure to act under Ceausescu. Furthermore, Maxim never expressed any support for the democratic changes in Bulgaria of the 1990s. On the contrary: he legitimised the country's former Communist rulers by presiding over televised masses in Sofia's Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral. Communist-era bans on the church's activities in the areas of charity, education, orphanages, kitchens for the poor and so on were far beyond his vision, and he never sought their reversal.

The result of Maxim's policies quickly became apparent. Despite the ostensible rise of "traditional" religiousness in Bulgaria of the 1990s, when young and old hurried to be seen lighting candles in churches, the activities of missionaries from many non-Orthodox faiths and religions, mainly Protestant, attracted large chunks of the Bulgarian population with their clear messages.

Perhaps Maxim's nadir came earlier this year when declassified documents revealed that 11 out of the current 15 members of the Bulgarian church leadership had been agents for the Communist-era State Security. The event was completely ignored by Maxim, whose name was not among the 11, possibly because of his association with the KGB dating back to the 1950s. Maxim, again, did not apologise on behalf of his bishops.

The unofficial favourite to succeed Patriarch Maxim is Nikolay, the bishop of Plovdiv. Not known for any excellence in matters of theology, Nikolay has gained notoriety for his unabashed penchant for Rolex wristwatches and fast German cars with symmetrical number plates. Nikolay does not fulfil two of the conditions to become a patriarch. He is not 50 and he has not served as a bishop for at least five years, but the church assembly convening to elect the new patriarch is expected to change to rules to enable Nikolay to succeed Maxim.

When Maxim died, the Bulgarian media were enthralled. His body lying in state in a Sofia church was shown thousands of times. The various TV channels scurried to send reporters and cameramen for live coverage. Newscasts were interrupted by phone-ins where reporters' voices with a sense of urgency announced who attended and what was going to happen next. The outpour of schmalz was comparable to a royal wedding, except that no one got married but an old man had passed away.

The answer to the Who-Was-Maxim question was given perhaps most eloquently by the current Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, who went to pay his last respects to Maxim's corpse. In his inimitable style the prime minister said: "We can remember Patriarch Maxim as an exceptionally holy man, he has wished me success so many times... We have kissed his hand so many times and he has prayed to God so many times, on our behalf, for our health and welfare." Following this statement, rendered here verbatim, the prime minister departed for Plovdiv for a scheduled football match between his own Vitosha-Bistritsa team and Plovdiv's Botev.


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