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The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria

A Christian presence in the territory of modern Bulgaria can be traced back to early centuries, and a major council of bishops met in Sardica (now Sofia) in 343. The region was later occupied by pagan Bulgar tribes among which Christian missionaries had already been active. The decisive moment in the development of Christianity among the Bulgarians was the baptism of King Boris I by a Byzantine bishop in 865. This was followed by the gradual Christianization of the Bulgarian people. Bulgaria wavered between Rome and Constantinople for a time and became the subject of a major dispute between the two churches. But in the end Bulgaria opted for Constantinople and Byzantine civilization.

The Bulgarian state became very powerful in the 10th century. In 927 Constantinople recognized the king as Emperor of the Bulgarians and the Archbishop of Preslav as their Patriarch. But the Byzantines were gaining strength and invaded the Bulgarian Empire in 971, at which time the Patriarch left Preslav and took up residence at Ohrid, Macedonia. The Byzantines conquered Macedonia in 1018 and reduced the patriarchate to the rank of autocephalous archbishopric.

Bulgaria regained its independence in 1186 with the establishment of the second empire based at Turnovo. After lengthy negotiations the Bulgarian church recognized the supremacy of the Pope in 1204. But this agreement ended in 1235 when the Bulgarian Emperor made an alliance with the Greeks against the Latin Empire in Constantinople, and the Byzantine Patriarch recognized a second Bulgarian Orthodox patriarchate in return.

Turnovo was conquered by the Turks in 1393 and the Bulgarian lands were absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. The Bulgarian church was integrated into the Patriarchate of Constantinople which replaced the higher clergy with ethnic Greeks. This situation continued until the 19th century when rising Bulgarian nationalism compelled the Ottomans to allow the reestablishment of a national Bulgarian church as an autonomous exarchate in 1870. Constantinople reacted strongly and declared the Bulgarian church schismatic in 1872. This rift continued long after Bulgaria became a principality in 1878 and an independent kingdom in 1908. It was only in 1945 that the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized the Bulgarian church as autocephalous and ended the schism. The Metropolitan of Sofia assumed the title of Patriarch in 1953 and he was recognized as such by Constantinople in 1961. During the period of communist rule, which began in 1944, the government aggressively promoted atheism, and the church was compelled to play a largely passive role in society.



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