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Bulgaria regained its independence in 1186. Its leaders initially acknowledged the pope’s authority in exchange for the papacy’s recognition of a restored independent Bulgarian church and state centered in the city of Turnovo. However, the Bulgarians later joined with the Byzantines who, in 1204, had lost Constantinople to the Latin Catholic knights of the Fourth Crusade. These crusaders plundered the city of Constantine and set up a rival Latin Catholic kingdom and patriarchate, which threatened surviving Byzantine principalities and Orthodox eparchies near the Bulgarian frontier. As a reward for the Bulgarians’ support, Ecumenical Patriarch Germanos II recognized a restored Bulgarian Orthodox patriarchate in 1235. The definitive break in full communion between the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria and the Catholic Church dates to this time.

The fortunes of this second Bulgarian empire and patriarchate waxed and waned. Despite a revival in the arts, architecture, spirituality and theology — aspects of which affected the Orthodox world considerably — the Bulgarian empire fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1396.

The Orthodox Archeparchy of Ohrid survived the demise of the Bulgarian state and patriarchate and, in 1453, that of Byzantium at the hands of the same Ottoman Turks. But in 1767, the Ottomans abolished the church’s relative independence and subjected it to the ecumenical patriarchate. The Greek–dominated ecumenical patriarchate in turn began an assimilation campaign, appointing Greek–speaking bishops and discouraging the use of Church Slavonic in the liturgy.

Deprived of leadership and financially impoverished, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church survived in its modest villages and monasteries — especially the famous Rila Monastery —spending about a century in hibernation. Bright spots for the Bulgarian church dwelled not in Bulgaria proper, but in two monastic foundations on Mount Athos, the center of Byzantine monasticism. There, Bulgarian monks living at the Hilandar and Zograf monasteries lived out their lives in constant prayer and supplication, keeping alive the Christian faith as championed by Boris, Sts. Clement and Naum and their successors.

National awakening. Bulgaria’s Greek neighbors rebelled against their Ottoman rulers (1821–29) and secured an independent Greek nation in the southern Balkans in 1832. This inspired other oppressed European peoples, including Bulgarians, to clamor for self–determination.

Despite centuries of Turkish civil and Greek ecclesial domination, generations of priests and monks from the Balkans’ various ethnic Orthodox communities — Bulgarian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Romanian and Serbian — safeguarded each group’s distinct cultural patrimony. Sensing opportunity, monks and priests joined the revolution, nurturing nationalist movements throughout the peninsula.

Seeking freedom not just from the Ottomans, but from the ecumenical patriarchate, an influential group of Bulgarians explored full communion with the Holy See. Not unlike the quest of Boris, this circle sought to reestablish an autonomous national church to secure privileges and traditions and further their national aspirations.

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Tags: Church history Bulgarian Orthodox Church Bulgaria Balkans