To enter into any Orthodox Church in Bulgaria is to behold, it is claimed, the very instrument for the historical preservation of Bulgarian nationality. If, in the words of one Orthodox priest, "to be Bulgarian is to be Orthodox," and little differentiation can be made between the two, then it seems understandable why strong opposition is being raised against the current "invasion" of other religions.
However, Evangelical Protestant churches are now engaged in humanitarian relief in ways that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church finds difficult to match, despite its claims to be the provider of both the social and spiritual needs of the people. Bulgarian Orthodoxy today, for example, lacks either the will or the resources to feed the country's starving, unemployed minorities, which Evangelical Protestant missionaries are attempting to do in the face of an avalanche of hostility from the Orthodox Church and the press.
A Hostile Press
An article in the Bulgarian newspaper 168 Hours recently stated that Bulgarian society is "being taken over by. . . programs which are alien to our spirit, to our conception of the world, our views, [and] needs." It further stated, "In their unhindered march against the foundations of the Bulgarian State, the sects have taken advantage of even the peacefulness of Eastern Orthodoxy (which is the most tolerant religion toward other religions). . . . Sects ruin the character, they brainwash, destroy the mind, and break up the values of Bulgarians which make society. . .vulnerable to the political, economic, and 'cultural' expansion which spreads after the coming of missionaries."
Most Bulgarians are not able to differentiate between Protestants, who actually have existed in the country since the nineteenth century, and non-Christian cults. The press, backed by the religious establishment, categorizes all religions other than Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism, the traditionally accepted religions of the country, as alien, anti-Bulgarian forces.
A Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance, including the country's five historic Evangelical denominations (Church of God, Pentecostal, Congregational, Baptist, and Methodist), has been refused official recognition by the government. "This increase of reaction against the Evangelical Churches is leading to many negative side effects that we can see," explained Rev. Pavel Ignatov, Church of God representative in the Alliance and pastor of the largest Protestant congregation in Bulgaria. "One is the refusal of the government to register the Alliance. Another is the difficult regulations the missionaries are facing. The third is that the use of official buildings by Evangelical Churches is now prohibited in many parts of the country. This is forcing dozens of churches to return to the old ways of serving God as they did under the Communists."
In their first steps to combat this religious discrimination, the Alliance directed two letters in mid-November 1993 to the Bulgarian government and national leaders of the Orthodox Church, expressing deep concern for the "tense situation" in the country and demanding their rights as a long-standing and proven "part of the Bulgarian people and its Christian tradition."
The first letter noted, "Evangelicals in Bulgaria are a religious minority, smaller in number than Orthodox Christians. But simply because of this fact, should they be persecuted and discriminated against? In countries where Orthodox Christians are in the minority, they are treated with tolerance and respect. We insist that this European standard be applied to the religious minority groups in our country, rather than the atheistic-Oriental standard of the recent past!"
They further insisted on cessation of the slander campaign in the press, a change in the discriminatory actions of the local authorities, equal right of access to national radio and television, and an end to religious intolerance.
The second letter, in a somewhat softer manner, pleaded, "Our nation is Christian. It was natural after the democratic changes for the Evangelical churches to reinstate their activity, suppressed in the past; but as Bulgarian Evangelicals, we maintain our nationality and independence. At the same time, we do not have any intention to enter into conflicts with the Eastern Orthodox Church for any reason whatsoever. Let us together defend Christian principles, morals, and virtues. The sowing of religious intolerance always has destructive consequences and only serves atheism."
Until 18 February 1994 no laws in the post-Communist period had been passed against Evangelicals working in the country. However, on this date, the state newspaper published the first, requiring any organization with religious intent as its primary goal (which had previously been registered as a not-for-profit, humanitarian organization) to reregister as a religious organization or to come under the umbrella of a specific, currently registered denomination. The law further stated that this registration be "accomplished within a period of three months" or the state would gain complete control of the organization's assets and possessions. In order to reregister, each organization is required to prove its need for re-registration, produce financial records for government approval, and undergo extensive interrogation.
According to Nick Nedelchev, head of Sofia's Logos Bible Academy and a Baptist representative on the Evangelical Alliance, government explanations for denying reregistration may not be forthcoming. He himself has been attempting to register the Logos Bible Academy since 1991 and was told only recently that the registration committee possessed no record of a registration request.
Problems with Paperwork and Property
Individual Western missionaries also face increasing official and unofficial discrimination. Currently, no foreign person entering the country for the sole purpose of Christian work can acquire a residential visa for longer than one month, while persons from Western countries other than the United States must purchase a visa each time they cross the border to enter the country. Compounding the problem, many Bulgarian proprietors are afraid to rent apartments or offices to Western Evangelical Christian workers.
Approximately one-third of Bulgarian municipalities now prohibit Evangelical organizations from renting or purchasing public property. In addition, those churches already in possession of property with hopes of building are facing insurmountable problems. Many smaller churches now must share the few available buildings with others, while larger churches with growing congregations face serious difficulties in relocating.
Rev. Ignatov recently received official notification that he, too, would soon have to move his services from the large conference hall in the National Palace of Culture to another location. His Sunday worship services regularly draw between 1,500 and 3,000 people. This much-harassed pastor contends, "This is the work of the Orthodox Church against the Protestant believers in Bulgaria."
An Official Church?
Currently the Bulgarian Orthodox Church seeks to become the only official Christian church in the country, thus prohibiting all other churches from functioning legally. Such a move would be in direct contradiction to Article 13 of the Bulgarian Constitution, published in mid-1991, which states that religion is free and that religious institutions are separate from the government.
Rev. Ignatov appears correct in stating that "all missions which now have representatives in Bulgaria are in danger of being deprived of the means for doing their work." Likewise, it would appear that not only new Evangelical churches but century-old indigenous Protestant denominations face threats to their existence as formidable as those posed by the country's former Communist overloads. Bulgarian Evangelical Christians urgently request international recognition of their plight and support for true freedom of religion and for their right to exist in their homeland.
Jennifer S. Blandford is a student at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA. She recently served as an intern with International Teams in East Central Europe. A fuller version of this article is forthcoming in World Christian Magazine.
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© 1994 East-West Church and Ministry Report ISSN 1069-5664