Under Mary’s Mantle

One group’s efforts to reinvigorate Bulgarian Orthodoxy

story and photographs by Sean Sprague

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In the 1980’s, during the last stage of Communist control in Bulgaria, Plamen Sinov discovered religion. “I was raised with a neutral attitude toward religion,” recalled Mr. Sinov. “My parents were Communists, and I only remembered a few rituals. Religion was for funerals.”

But glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of openness in the Soviet Union, fractured the antipathy of the Soviet world to religion, and youngsters like Mr. Sinov took advantage of it.

In 1991, he and 20 other young Bulgarians hosted 20 Baptists from the United States, sharing a home in Sofia, the capital, for a month as part of a cultural exchange program. After the Americans left, the Bulgarians started a Bible study group. Mr. Sinov soon discovered that his path lay not with the Baptists, but with the traditional faith community of this Balkan nation.

Mr. Sinov was baptized an Orthodox Christian and joined a parish in Sofia dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God, or Pokrov. When he continued his education in Baltimore, he joined an Orthodox parish there, but he soon returned to Bulgaria, taking a position with the Soros Foundation’s Bulgaria program.

His passion, however, remained with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Sidelined from public life for nearly 50 years, the church needed some passion, Mr. Sinov said. It was in “a sorry state.”

To help restore the public presence of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Mr. Sinov and five other young Bulgarians established the Pokrov Foundation in 1994.

Its founders are frank about the role of the church following the fall of Bulgaria’s Communist government: “Religion was a terra incognita. The church was a strange place with no particular relation to most people’s lives. God was a matter for reflection of a limited number of old women.”

Over the past 12 years, the Pokrov Foundation has launched an assortment of programs — philanthropic, educational and promotional — that have done much to help restore the role of the Orthodox Church in Bulgarian life. Many are run out of Mr. Sinov’s spiritual home since his baptism, the Church of the Pokrov, located on a quiet street hidden by Sofia’s Hotel Rodina.

In the church’s basement, the foundation operates a parish center that caters to about 4,000 people each year. Here, food, clothes, counseling, financial support and social space are offered to the needy. If the foundation lacks the resources to help someone, then it refers him or her to another nongovernmental organization that can.

“We are open daily, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.,” said Maria Spasova, the parish center director. “Ours is the first parish center in the country, and the idea has spread to about 10 other parishes already.”

The center publishes a quarterly newsletter, which is distributed to parishes throughout Bulgaria. At the same church, the Pokrov Foundation offers various classes for adults, including catechism, Byzantine chant, woodcarving and patristics, the study of the works of the Church Fathers. Activities for children include a catechetical program on Sundays, a kindergarten, a music-for-babies program and instructions on writing icons.

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Tags: Communism/Communist Bulgarian Orthodox Church