OSLO, Norway (BP)–Bulgarian police have forcibly expelled members of an alternative Orthodox synod from some 250 parish churches they have been using for more than 10 years, Forum 18 News Service reported July 23.
Concern over the raids has extended beyond the Orthodox community, with Baptist pastor Theodor Angelov, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, voicing support for the ousted Orthodox parishes.
“We have full sympathy for our Orthodox brothers and sisters. This is a very difficult moment for all the churches and the whole population of Bulgaria,” Angelov told Forum 18, an Internet news service focusing on persecuted Christians and other religious groups in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states.
The police raids follow a long-standing split in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and a controversial religion law favoring one side in the split, according to Forum 18.
Angelov condemned what he described as communist-style methods not seen in Bulgaria since the end of the communist period. “Using violence in a time that pretends to be democratic is unacceptable,” the Baptist pastor said.
Citing a failure to use proper judicial process, Angelov said, “The police arrived at churches across the country at 6 o’clock in the morning, sealing them, dragging out priests by force if they are inside and in some cases beating them –- there’s nothing legal in that.”
Human rights and religious freedom activists also condemned the forcible expulsion July 21 of members of the alternative synod from the estimated 250 churches they have been using since the Orthodox Church split in the early 1990s.
“This is a brutal violation of the religious rights of Bulgarian priests and people,” Emil Cohen, head of the Tolerance Foundation religious freedom group, told Forum 18 from the capital of Sofia on July 23. “It is the most serious violation of religious rights in Bulgaria in the recent past,” Cohen said.
But Ivan Jelev, director of the Religious Affairs Directorate of the Council of Ministers, defended the expulsions. “These churches belong to the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate,” he told Forum 18 the same day. “These others separated from the Orthodox Church, so they have no right to use Orthodox Church property. That’s why the police ousted them.”
A decade after the split in the Orthodox Church, some 250 of Bulgaria’s estimated 600 Orthodox churches were in the hands of the alternative synod led by Metropolitan Inokenty. The remaining 350 were under Patriarch Maksim, who is recognized as Bulgaria’ canonical leader by the rest of the Orthodox world despite the alternative synod’s claims that his election as patriarch in 1971 was uncanonical because it was decided by the then-communist government.
The raids, which began early on July 21, were carried out by police in Sofia, Plovdiv, Smolian, Bansko, Chepelare and other places across Bulgaria with a prosecutor’s warrant. Some members of the alternative synod have demanded the resignation of the country’s chief prosecutor, Nikola Filchev, and interior minister, Georgi Petkanov.
Ivan Gruikin, a lawyer representing the alternative synod led by Metropolitan Inokenty and head of the Bulgarian Lawyers’ Association, told Forum 18 that the order to seize the churches “was taken by prosecutors, not by a judge. The prosecutors are trying to play the role of judges.”
Gruikin said he is particularly concerned by the level of police violence, noting that more than 10 priests and more than 100 laypeople were attacked in churches in Sofia alone. He also voiced concern over the police detention of at least one priest, Khristo Piserov. “The police want to keep him in prison without giving any reasons,” Gruikin complained.
According to Forum 18, the government has favored Maksim’s synod in recent years, adopting a controversial religion law in 2002 that gave the patriarchate automatic registration while requiring all other faiths to register. The law also gave the patriarchate automatic ownership of all Orthodox property in Bulgaria, a move that aroused great concern among religious freedom activists and members of the alternative synod.
Jelev of the Religious Affairs Directorate insisted that the conflict between the synods led by Patriarch Maksim and Metropolitan Inokenty was not an internal split. “They left the Orthodox Church -– they were only a very small part of the clergy. They are a separate community,” he told Forum 18. “They are free to work further as a church -– no one is stopping them, provided they use their own property.” Jelev declined, however, to explain why the state was intervening in the dispute or why it backed Patriarch Maksim.
Cohen of the Tolerance Foundation said the government’s actions were not about property. “This is just an excuse for the government’s brutal measures,” he told Forum 18.
“There is a problem over Orthodox property,” Cohen acknowledged, “but this should be resolved by the courts, not by police evicting people from churches. The state has been taking Maksim’s side only.”
Gruikin said many priests and laypeople who were attacked by the police are lodging complaints with government prosecutors. “Many people want to defend their rights, but the problem is that the prosecutor’s office is defending Maksim and his synod,” Gruikin told Forum 18. “So people have little hope they will do much.” He said that they will wage their case as far as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Angelov complained of what he sees as government interference in church affairs. “It is old-style communist thinking that the state should interfere in what should happen within religious communities,” he told Forum 18.
While other religious minorities have encountered some problems with places of worship, Angelov said most obstructions have been from the local authorities, often under pressure from Orthodox priests. “There’s been nothing to compare with what’s happening now to Metropolitan Inokenty and his followers.”
Felix Corley is editor of Forum 18 News Service, based in Oslo, Norway, and on the Web at www.forum18.org.