by Stamen Manolov

Theoretically, the modern Republic of Bulgaria is a secular state

patriarch neophit funeral.jpg

So what has a senior cleric, Patriarch Neofit, who died in March aged 78, done to deserve a state funeral replete with military salutes and a coffin being drawn by... an armoured personnel carrier?

The short answer is nothing, but to understand the pomp and circumstance surrounding the death of the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church it would be illuminating to consider the politics of the day. As soon as the patriarch died President Rumen Radev decreed a two-day state of national mourning. Orders of that type are usually reserved for tragic events involving many victims. None of the senior clergymen before Neofit had been given the honour. But at present Orthodoxy is being seen by politicians of various shades and hues as one of the last weapons of "small" and "poor" Bulgaria in its attempt to protect its identity from a decadent and godless West (which brings licentiousness and same-sex marriages that on numerous occasions have been decried by the Bulgarian Church).

In practical terms, a state of national mourning does not mean everyone has to wear black or cry from morning to night, the sort of choreographed mournings we see in places like North Korea. But mass events do get cancelled. In this instance Verdi's Requiem scheduled performance in Ruse, meant to kick off a major classical music festival, was to be called off. The conductor, however, found a way to defy the mourning order. The Requiem did get performed... without an audience.

The spectacle of the funeral itself had no parallel in Bulgaria's recent history. The coffin with Neofit's corpse was placed on the howitzer carriage used to transport the body of Bulgaria's war-time King Boris III. As they could not find six horses to draw the carriage, the organisers chose an... APC decorated with small multicoloured shells.

Thousands of people, including the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, were in attendance, but some critics dared opine the whole thing smacked of nationalist-clerical kitsch.

The master of ceremonies inside the St Alexandr Nevskiy church several times called on the laity not to be like the "hypocritical Jews inside their synagogues." Quoting the Gospel of Matthew 6:2 without any context and at this particular point in time could be seen as, at best, tasteless and at worst as menacingly antisemitic. No one in church noticed.

Bulgaria as a country may be traditionally Orthodox, but over 10 percent of the population is Muslim. The country also has a small Jewish community and many non-Orthodox Christian denominations. It remains to be seen whether similar state honours will be awarded to the heads of those religions when they die. If they are not, whoever masterminded the state funeral might be seen as a... hypocrite.


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