Bulgaria: Opening Perspectives in Difficult Times
After the Kossovo crisis the Balkan states are still in a state of shock, both economic and psychological. The accumulated tensions were turned loose during the war; old contradictions were recalled and old national „great stories“ were attempted to be re-established.
Now the fragile democracies are struggling with overcoming the bitter consequences of a conflict that shook the very foundations of the sense for national and cultural belonging for many people. Even countries which were not affected directly by the war, such as Bulgaria, suffered severe economic blow due to the shaken economic and investment environment, the disrupted communications and infrastructure in the whole region. The notion of the „global village“ proved to have many negative implications, one being the feeling of insecurity of small nations which have found themselves in the midst of conflicts involving greater powers. A feeling like this will prevail for years to come now, as the people will remember the sound of aircrafts flying over their once peaceful land and the red skies reflecting the distant explosions. The Balkans will never be the same after this.
Bulgaria is a small country (111 000 sq. km), situated in the heart of the Balkan peninsula, neighbouring Romania, Greece, Macedonia, Turkey and Yugoslavia. With a population of 9 mln, the national identity is a mix of Slav, Greek and Turkish influences.
The Orthodox Church, the main Christian denomination in the country, holder of the national identity and potentially the largest NGO in the country, with a large amount of real estate, is currently in a severe institutional crisis. This is manifest in several directions.
Insufficient religious public education. The communist regime has been severely restrictive towards any form of religious activity and education in particular. The church is practically absent as a subject of any social patterns and relations. One of the basic functions of the church, namely, to be a moral corrective in the society is therefore not fulfilled.
As a result of the above, Christianity as a whole is being discredited in the public consciousness and private attitudes and its churches are gradually losing any chances to become social actors with constructive approach towards the issues of the day in Bulgaria.
The depth of the crisis is comparable only with its absurdity; one would expect that after the democratic changes in 1989 the Church has gained a broad public support and has become the solid institution of faith proclaimed by the Constitution as the “traditional church of the nation”. On the contrary, the release of the national spirit, formerly subjected to strict atheist ideology, has found the Church unprepared to meet the public demand for a solid, yet comprehensible spiritual message. The current tendencies show that Christianity is becoming more and more marginal as the Church fails to be even the nominal and formal spiritual “home” for the Bulgarians.
However, there are some signs of a process of breaking the ice in the relationships with the government. A major recent success of the whole Christian community has been the introduction of religious education in public schools. The drafting and the legislative process has provided valuable patterns of cooperation with the state. The main priority for the churches now is not to lose the momentum gained and to actively work for the overcoming of the division with the active support of the government.
The crisis in the church leaves its large constituency (over 80% of the population) with a shaken and broken attitude towards Christianity as such. For the thousands of Bulgarians who have turned to the Church after the democratic changes, the adoption of the living Christianity turned out to be impossible due to lack of education and proper attitude towards the Church. The dogmatic and liturgical treasures of the national church is unaccessible due to lack of relevant literature, educated and active priests and conscious laity participation in the church life.
The country is in an ongoing economic and political crisis. The lack of a common community code based on or somehow related to Christian ethics will inevitably lead to a complete social break down.
The Pokrov foundation
The pebble in the shoe or the pebble that turns the cart upside down?
In 1994 a group of young people tried to answer a simple question: What’s wrong with our Church? All of them have been brought up in a non-religious environment and had found Orthodoxy after years of spiritual wandering. With a neophyte zeal they wanted to change everything overnight. They established a foundation, called Pokrov, the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, a famous feast in the Orthodox calendar. Today, four years later the longing for a change is no less strong but the foundation is more concentrated on strategy issues than ever. An analytic approach to the Bulgarian society and its Church is involving different people in a dialogue designed to give the outlines of the reforms which everyone seems to be longing for. Radio and TV interviews, numerous publications and events try to bring forward to the public attention fundamental issues never discussed before.
Where are the roots of the church and social crisis to be found? Is a new, radical and more spiritual approach to Bulgarian history and cultural heritage at all possible and what is the real religious identity of the nation? Can we perceive the dimensions of the vicious circle in our religious education, parish life and monasticism and how should we deal with it? The division in the Church: whose problem is it? How should the Church be provoked to renew its social mission? And, most importantly, how are we to relate to the other Christian communities? These are only few of the questions which are being discussed in student circles, among the intelligentsia and the laity in general.
Today the foundation is seen more as a catalyst tool for a number of new initiatives rather than an uniform provider of models for one-fold reforms in the Church. Movements and groups such as the St. Macrina Orthodox Women’s Committee, the Orthodox Education Fund and the Bulgarian National Christian Committee, encompassing leaders of the main Christian denominations in the country have chosen the Pokrov foundation as an administrative umbrella for their capacity growth. The foundation helped establish Marta, a new entity which is trying to promote Christian art. Two radio shows on the national network and one TV program is using the foundation’s volunteer network as the main source of information and expertise on Orthodoxy and religious issues in general.
How does the Church leadership react to the new developments in the laity circles? A good indicator of their attitude is the reaction to the positive criticism they more and more often find in the publications of the laity organizations. It is interesting to compare the kind of criticism the bishops had been used to until very recently. Typical accusations of the secular media have been that members of the Holy Synod have collaborated with the communists and therefore they all should go; that the Church is doing nothing to stop the dangerous cults in the country and that a recently departed clairvoyant should be canonized as a saint. The only analytical periodical of the Orthodox youth, the MIRNA magazine, published by the Pokrov foundation, is taking a totally different course of criticism which found many church leaders unprepared. Briefly formulated, its main messages are: 1. the church crisis is a matter of personal responsibility of everyone who calls him/herself Christian. 2. revolutionary and anti-canonical means cannot be a solution to any problem in the Church. We are happy with the bishops we have but we want to see them doing concrete things. 3. The role of the laity movements should be growing and should be actively supported by the churches’ leaderships as the only possible peaceful way to overcome the crisis.
Supportive action from outside has to be carefully targeted in the following directions:
Equal treatment of groups of different religious and ethnic background. Encouragement of civil society structures and patterns of behaviour
Gradual and sensitive shift from direct humanitarian assistance for vulnerable groups towards sustainable, locally based and operated projects for long-term development
Emphasis on transfer rather of knowledge, as well as of funds, to help the organizations of the non-profit sector able to respond to the grave challenges of the country’s economic crisis.
Chaos not only kills
…But gives birth to new possibilities. The Spirit breathes wherever He pleases and God has shown new unexplored roads to His people. Today there is a growing conviction among the Christians that if any change is possible, it can come only “from below”, from the laity. And with this new vision, a new hope for the troubled Christian churches in Bulgaria.
A lot of things have to be recalled from the past. Active parish life, community spirit, care for the needy have always been present in the Bulgarian churches until so fiercely eradicated fifty years ago. Diaconal work and active mission are probably the most challenging aspects of Bulgarian church life today. This brings forward the need for an adequate education and training, of political and ecclesiastical will to introduce a new style of work and a new thinking. Our society has entered a new phase, where economic turmoil, corruption at all levels, complicated regional political situation and the hardships of the transition period are factors which determine the pace of the development processes. The nonprofit organizations have to play a unique role in these processes but for them the challenge is very big, since there is practically no in-country experience to look up to for positive example. The churches, especially the Protestant ones, with their extensive international contacts, can potentially play an important role in bringing foreign expertise in the country and launching development projects for the benefit of communities, big and small. In this process, however, cooperation between all the Christian communities, other nonprofit organizations and the state, will be vital. Therefore the need for elaborate integrated and inclusive approach on behalf of international donors and governments.