by Anthony Georgieff

If it serves a political purpose, the church is ready to collaborate

Icon of the Batak martyrs

Acting with unusual agility, the elders of the Bulgarian Holy Synod, headed by nonagenarian Patriarch Maxim, bent their own rules and canonised 120 Bulgarians killed in 1876 at Batak, in the Rhodope, and at Novo Selo, near Lovech, when Bulgaria was still a part of the Ottoman Empire. This act, which might take the Pope in Rome, adhering to very strict guidelines, several centuries to accomplish, was finalised by the Bulgarian clergy in less than a month. Writers were employed to compile the curriculum vitae of the 120, most of whose names are unknown, and icon painters rushed to produce official likenesses of the new saints in time for the 3 April ceremony. Patriarch Maxim, who has headed the Bulgarian Orthodox Church since 1971, blessed the fresh icons.

Many senior members of the establishment, usually to be seen at clerical ceremonies designed to boost faith and patriotism, were present. These included President Georgi Parvanov, Vice President Angel Marin and the speaker of the parliament, Tsetska Tsacheva. The Mayor of Sofia Yordanka Fandakova was there, as was Ataka leader Volen Siderov, who recently trained as a theologian. President Parvanov, who will be leaving office in the autumn after two five-year terms, commented: "We accept the decision of the Holy Synod and think that the Batak and Novo Selo martyrs are worthy of canonisation."

This is the first Bulgarian Orthodox canonisation for decades. In 1962 then Patriarch Kiril canonised Paisiy Hilendarski, the mid-18th Century Mount Athos monk who wrote the first modern Bulgarian history book. Sofroniy Vrachanski, the Paisiy follower and an ardent proponent of a Russian involvement in the Balkans, was canonised in 1964.

In the 1990s, the Bulgarian Church was split between Maxim, a stooge for the former Communist secret police, and Pimen, an outspoken anti-Communist. The rift was never acknowledged by the Holy Synod and would be forgotten soon after Pimen's death. But Pimen was also active in making saints: Vasil Levski, the famous 19th Century Bulgarian revolutionary and a group of Bulgarian priests killed by the Communists were canonised in 2000. Their sainthood was never recognised by the "official" synod, possibly because Levski, who in his teens studied to be a monk, famously abandoned the Church to take up arms against the Ottomans.

The last beatification of a Catholic Bulgarian happened in 1998, when Pope John Paul II beatified Monsignor Evgeniy Bosilkov, who was assassinated by the Communists in 1952.

One of the exhibits in the church of Batak, now a museum, is a tree trunk used as head chopping block

One of the exhibits in the church of Batak, now a museum, is a tree trunk used as head chopping block

It is not immediately clear how the Holy Synod interpreted the Orthodox Church's apparently rigid rules to canonise the new Batak and Novo Selo saints, especially as the majority of them will remain anonymous.

These rules include verified pre- or post-death miracle-working, and evidence of the noncorruption of the body.

What in Bulgarian textbooks is referred to as the 1876 Batak Massacre is a major cornerstone of Bulgaria's national identity. Most of what is known about the actual event comes from the reports of Irish-American journalist Januarius MacGahan, from a poem by Ivan Vazov, and from some old photographs. While some historians are not in complete agreement about the actual chain of events leading up to it, in recent years the Batak Massacre has itself become "sanctified," and any discussion of it might even give rise to physical violence. This was the case in 2008, when Ataka supporters threatened to murder a Bulgarian PhD student who was organising a conference to discuss the artistic qualities of a 19th Century painting of the aftermath of the Batak Massacre.

Under Communism, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, much like the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union, was largely subservient to the regime and rarely if ever spoke out on issues pertaining to everyday life. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was an organised ecclesiastical revival. Thousands of Bulgarians who had never been to church before became devout Christians, with many of them taking on strict Orthodox rules, including fasting. The politicians of the new Bulgaria were quick to seize the opportunities offered by mass belief. It has now become customary for any public event, especially at a senior level, to have a clergyman in attendance. Priests are reportedly doing a fairly lucrative business blessing everything from new offices to new cars.

Building up a national identity around Orthodoxy has also become de rigueur, as it is hugely popular. Former Minister for Bulgarians Abroad Bozhidar Dimitrov, a historian by education, has been particularly active in promoting the "relics of John the Baptist" unearthed in Sozopol in 2010. The media promptly dubbed Sozopol "Bulgaria's Jerusalem." It remains to be seen whether this sort of thing will reoccur in 2011, an election year, when new saintly bones are expected to be discovered.


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