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The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church did not escape the turmoil that many churches in eastern Europe encountered following the collapse of communism. In 1991 the new government created a Board of Religious Affairs that began to initiate reforms in the country’s religious institutions. In March 1992 it ruled that the 1971 election of Patriarch Maxim had been illegal because he had been appointed by the communist government in an uncanonical manner. This triggered a division among the bishops, and three of them under the leadership of Metropolitan Pimen of Nekrop called publicly for Maxim’s deposition. The dispute hardened into a schism when, on July 4, 1996, Metropolitan Pimen was installed as rival Patriarch and was anathematized by Maxim’s Holy Synod. When Petar Stoyanov was sworn in as Bulgarian President in January 1997, Pimen conducted a blessing ceremony, and in March 1997 the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the registration of Maxim’s Holy Synod was invalid. In January 1998 President Stoyanov called upon both Patriarchs to resign to provide for the election of a single successor that would end the schism.

In view of these events, an “extraordinary and enlarged synod” of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was held in Sofia from September 30 to October 1, 1998. It was presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and attended by six other Patriarchs (including Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow and Patriarch Petros VII of Alexandria) and 20 metropolitans. The synod reaffirmed Maxim’s position as Bulgarian Patriarch, received the repentance of the dissident bishops and declared an end to the schism.

But the reconciliation was short lived. The dissident bishops soon called their own alternative synod and “deposed” Patriarch Maxim. With the passing of time the canonical synod under Patriarch Maxim gained support. Rival Patriarch Pimen was not replaced after his death in 1999, and in December 2002 a new Bulgarian law on religion recognized the existence of only one Orthodox Church in the country with Patriarch Maxim at its head, further marginalizing the dissident group. Eventually the Bulgarian authorities decided to intervene. On the night of July 20-21, 2004, priests of the alternative synod that opposed Patriarch Maxim’s leadership were forcibly evicted from approximately 250 churches and other properties that the Holy Synod claimed they were illegally occupying. In the immediate aftermath of the operation, clerics from the alternative synod held religious services outside of the churches from which they had been evicted. However, by the time Patriarch Maxim celebrated his ninetieth birthday in October 2004, most of the activities of the alternative synod had ceased, and the schism was declared over.

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