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Bulgaria: Economic Interests Split The Church

  • Anthony Georgieff

Sofia, 24 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria's President Petar Stoyanov and Patriarch Maxim, one of the country's Autocephalous Church leaders, are meeting today in Sofia ostensibly to discuss prospects for separation of the Church from the state. Stoyanov has hinted in the past that he was in favor of such a move.

But the meeting, it appears, will also be used by Maxim to press the government to recognize himself as the sole legitimate leader of the Church in Bulgaria. Whether he succeeds remains doubtful, however, precisely because the center-right government would prefer to keep the state and the Church separate.

Bulgaria's Autocephalous Church has split into two separate factions during recent years. The split has been linked to politics.

Under Communism the Church, while nominally autonomous, was effectively subject to state control. Maxim was elected patriarch in the Communist era and is said to have had a close relationship with the Communist government.

Following the 1989 political changes, many faithful called for him to be replaced. And, in the spring of 1992, the State Commission on Religion declared Maxim illegitimate and installed Pimen, a declared anti-Communist, as head of the Church. But Maxim and his followers refused to recognize that decision. The Church was split, with both sides refusing to maintain any contacts each other.

Further acrimony soon ensued, with some monasteries taken over by rebel priests and groups of black-clad monks occasionally throwing stones and fighting each other. Adding insult to injury, one of the factions occupied a candle-making factory near Sofia, leaving the other side with no option but to import Easter candles from Greece.

According to Hristo Matanov, a historian at Sofia University, there are no theological differences between Maxim's and Pimen's groups. He says that the split is currently fueled by economic interests rather than religious principles or even political differences.

Furthermore, Matanov has recently told RFE/RL in Sofia that the split may be manipulated by former security agents in order both to cover up their pre-1989 activities within the Church and to continue profiting from the holdings which could pass to the Church if and when it unites.

The Bulgarian Church claims considerable real estate property in the country, although that property is yet to be restituted. The Rila Monastery claims more than 200 000 acres of land in southwestern Bulgaria. On that land there are forests, farms, factories, gas stations, and tourist complexes. In addition, the church claims the property rights to more than half of Sofia's city center.

Those properties are currently held by powerful economic groups, which are likely to suffer substantial losses should the title be returned to its erstwhile owners.

In this situation, Matanov says, both Maxim and Pimen may be simply representing diverse economic rather than religious interests. Should one of them be recognized as legitimate, economic conglomerates standing behind the other will lose out.

Ordinary believers, Matanov told RFE/RL, are tired of the continuing infighting among factions and would "just like to go to church." But with considerable financial interests at stake, the Bulgarian Church split is unlikely to find a solution any time soon.