by Anthony Georgieff; photography by BTA

Refugee 'crisis' prompts senior clergy to urge rejection of asylum seekers

Boyko Borisov.jpg

The Bulgarian Holy Synod, the most senior body of the Orthodox Church, issued an official statement urging the government not to accept refugees who did not belong to the Christian, preferably the Orthodox, faith because, it said, refuges jeopardised, among other things, Bulgaria's very statehood. In this way Bulgaria's top priests put themselves at sharp variance with most other Christian churches in the world, including The Vatican, the Church of England, most Protestant denominations, and even other Orthodox churches including the Greek and the Romanian. All of those had unequivocally called for charity and benevolence to the thousands of asylum-seekers pouring into the Balkans on their way to Western Europe. To understand why – and indeed how – a Christian church can preach rejection instead of humanity it would be helpful to look at the background against which the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has evolved through the years, as only the context can explain why it is where it stands now.

Many years ago, when Bulgaria did not exist as a state because it was a part of the Ottoman Empire, the Orthodox Church, then run mainly by Greeks who used Greek in their liturgy and everyday speech, was seen as yet another taxman that would take what the Sultan had left to the poor farmer. Significantly, it was also a bulwark of Bulgarianness. National identity in those years was articulated through language and the Church. While the Bulgarian Church in the 15th-18th centuries was preoccupied mainly with weddings and funerals, churches and monasteries became more than just houses of prayer as schools, libraries and charity centres developed around them. Bulgarian lore pertaining to the period of Ottoman occupation, or the "Turkish Yoke," as some politicians and even academic historians continue to refer to it, made few direct references of the Christ, the cross and so on. Folk songs and tales were mainly preoccupied with the harvest, with buxomy unmarried girls, and with strong Balkan men with bushy moustaches. However, there were ample references to Christianity in general as well. The strife for Bulgarian Church independence was interwoven with the strife for Bulgaria's national liberation. Consequently, Orthodoxy was one of the main factors to preserve the Bulgarian national spirit through the centuries of Muslim domination.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church became independent in the 19th Century and Orthodox Christianity was installed as the official religion of the Kingdom of Bulgaria. As Orthodoxy traditionally focuses a lot more on the liturgy and the importance of fasting and lighting candles than the Roman Catholic Church and of course the various Protestant denominations, it largely abstained from getting involved in Bulgaria's turbulent early 20th Century politics. What it did, quite vocally at that, is it professed what it called "traditional Christian virtues": humility, alms-giving, good will, charity.

It did quite well. A number of senior Bulgarian Orthodox clergymen, for example, spoke openly against the Kingdom of Bulgaria's planned deportation of Jews during the Second World War. A couple of bishops were particularly active, offering shelter in churches to Jews who were being rounded up. It was through their direct action that the then king, Boris III, reluctantly postponed and then altogether abandoned the mass extermination of Bulgaria's Jewry which he had agreed to with his ally, Adolf Hitler.

In 1944-1945 the Communists took over. The Kingdom of Bulgaria was done away with and the Church was made fully subservient to the Moscow-appointed apparatchiks.

During the years of Communism, the Orthodox Church was not banned, as some newly-fledged "anti-Communists" now claim, but church-going was not encouraged. Bulgarian National Television famously aired American movies on the Saturday before Easter to gull citizens into staying at home rather than go out to attend midnight mass. Christmas was not a public holiday, and even Father Christmas was called "Father Frost," a borrowing from the Soviet Union, to avoid any biblical connotation. The Communists did prosecute, banish to labour camps, and murdered many clergymen – Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. But as a rule they were less heavy-handed on the Orthodox, probably because they considered their doctrine so innocuous that they felt they could as well be turned into accomplices instead of critics.

Consequently, the Church was used as a cogwheel in Communism's machinery for repression. Recently declassified documents revealed that the overwhelming majority of senior clerics in the Holy Synod had been real or imaginary operatives of the Communist-era secret police. To put it in another way, you went for confession to your local priest – and your words might wind up in some secret police file.

Communism collapsed over quarter of a century ago, but Bulgaria – unlike all other former Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe including Romania – is still reeling in its debris. One of the first things to happen in clerical circles in the Bulgaria of the 1990s was the infamous "Church Split." For most of the decade the Bulgarian Church was divided in two camps that accused each other of having been stooges of the previous regime and that sometimes resorted to physical violence to gain control over properties by kicking priests out of their churches. The "schism" confused believers and bemused citizens. In the meantime, clerical property previously stolen by the Communists was returned to the Church. Having found itself in possession of land and buildings, church leaders turned to more serious matters such as expensive American cars and Rolex watches. In the meantime, village priests and monks continued to live on a pittance and depend on food handouts at weddings and funerals.

Significantly, at the end of 2000s the church willingly made itself available to some of the most retrograde forces in Bulgarian politics. Extreme nationalist groups, some of which in the current Bulgarian parliament, make generous use of the church in their propaganda, and con artists, including academics, of all shades and hues profess Orthodoxy as an excuse for their hate speech. In this context it is not difficult to see that Bulgarian Orthodoxy is at the pith of this country's growing pro-Russian sentiment. Russia and not the West, they thrust down the throats of the laity, is the world leader of Orthodoxy, the main building block of Bulgarian national identity. Russia, and not the West, liberated us from the "Turkish Yoke."

The Muslim refugees from the Middle East come at a very "convenient" time in Bulgarian politics when it is quite easy to use people's legitimate love for their country to stir up extreme nationalism, ethnic hatred and Christian supremacy. Instead of a protector, which one might have expected of a Christian organisation elsewhere, in Bulgaria a refugee is faced with a church that is all but hostile to anyone who is not either Orthodox or pro-Russian.

Some of the "intellectuals" upholding such views issued a separate "statement," in support of the Holy Synod, urging the government to "come to its senses" and not allow any refugees into Bulgaria. "Do not wait for the rightful people's rage to burst out," they warned, adding that the Bulgarian people's patience was not unlimited. The signatories included Academician Georgi Markov, a historian; Ivan Granitsky, a writer; and Haygashod Agasyan, a musician of Armenian descent most of whose ethnic kin came as refugees to Bulgaria at the beginning of the 20th Century.

In the meantime, Bulgaria's politicians including presidents, prime ministers, MPs, mayors and so on and forth vie to be seen on TV kissing the hand of some bearded priest at inauguration ceremonies. They are being joined, increasingly, by "Christian" "intellectuals," including writers and artists, who use Orthodox terminology to justify their at times outrageous xenophobia, racism and isolationism. And the Bulgarian Orthodox Church continues to issue statements to discourage young people from listening to Madonna and to slam any manifestation of LGBT as the "work of the devil." Putin's Russia looks on approvingly.


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