East-West Church  Ministry Report
Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer 2002, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Evangelical Christians in Bulgaria

Nikolai Nedelchev and Latchezar Popov

In 1948 Communist authorities imprisoned most Protestant denominational leaders and officials of Bulgaria's Evangelical Alliance. In addition, many pastors and church members were beaten, arrested, and put in prison and church properties and buildings were confiscated. Since 1985 Pentecostal and Church of God believers in particular have been developing secret groups that over time have become new churches.

Restrictions on Evangelicals: On Again, Off Again
After the fall of the Communist regime in November 1989, evangelical churches in Bulgaria experienced dramatic growth. Most doubled or tripled in size and many new churches opened. However, in 1993 the Bulgarian legislature passed a law restricting the activities of non-Orthodox religious groups, targeting evangelicals in particular, but also some cults and sects. As a result of this legislation, many local churches found it more and more difficult to rent facilities for worship services and public activities. These state restrictions led to church closures while many other churches faced serious problems. Fortunately, since 1996, while the law still hampers non-Orthodox, government enforcement has not been as strict as previously and society has developed more respect for evangelicals, giving them enough freedom to operate. These improvements owe much to the Rule of Law Institute that was founded in 1995 with the help of Advocates International and to the Human Rights and Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF). In just a few short years the Rule of Law Institute gained momentum, visibility, and effectiveness in publicizing infringements of religious liberties. At the same time, the WEF Commission has been a great encouragement to evangelicals as well as a means of building bridges to the Orthodox and other religious groups in Bulgaria.

Evangelical Strengths
Research conducted by the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance, completed in September 2000, identified 1,100 Protestant pastors in Bulgaria.  They serve in some 1,530 evangelical churches, only 55 percent of which own their own buildings. Nevertheless, theological education is well established in the Bulgarian Evangelical Theological Institute, in which all Protestant denominations participate. Bulgaria is also beginning to send evangelical missionaries to other countries, changing from a missionary-receiving into a missionary-sending country.

The Churches, Society, and Culture
Parachurch organizations and evangelical denominations have quite a strong influence in society. Most charitable activities--support for orphanages, hospitals, prisons, and many other social activities--are undertaken primarily by evangelicals and Catholics. However, at this point evangelicals still do not emphasize cultural involvement and artistic expression such as music, writing, and acting, and as a result exert little influence in Bulgarian cultural life.

Evangelical relationships with other faiths, however, are quite strong, except in the case of Orthodox. Evangelical leaders over the past ten years worked hard to achieve agreement or even develop a partnership with the Orthodox. Unfortunately, Orthodox isolate themselves--partly because they are jealous of evangelical successes and partly because they have their own problems. On the other hand, evangelicals work quite closely on legal issues with Catholics and other religious groups. Through the Helsinki Committee in Bulgaria and the Tolerance Foundation, evangelicals have worked together with many other faiths to counteract threats posed by the proposed new Law of Religion.

In summary, the state looks upon the Orthodox Church as a symbol of patriotism, considering other faiths subordinate. Democratic politicians who followed the Communist epoch are not inclined to show sympathy to non-Orthodox, considering the risk of possible loss of electoral support if they speak otherwise. This helps explain why the current parliament has no evangelical representatives. 

Nikolai Nedelchev is president of the Bulgarian Evangelical Theological Institute, Sofia, Bulgaria, and director of the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance. Latchezar Popov is an attorney and chairman and director of the Rule of Law Institute, Sofia, Bulgaria.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from the Rule of Law Institute, European Evangelical Alliance, New European Forum, "Case Study Bulgaria," Paris, France, 8-10 June 2001.

Nikolai Nedelchev and Latchezar Popov, "Evangelical Christians in Bulgaria," East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Summer 2002), 8-9.

A Bulgarian Church and Missions Chronology
2nd Century First Christian churches founded near Burgas
865 Christianity became the official religion of Bulgaria with the aid of missionaries Cyril and Methodius and their disciples
1396 Muslim Ottoman Turks completed their conquest of Bulgaria and imposed severe restrictions on Orthodox Christianity
1843 The Four Gospels published in the Bulgarian vernacular
1856 Congregational Church missionaries began work in Bulgaria
1857 Methodist missionaries began work in Bulgaria
1865 Baptist missionaries began work in Bulgaria
1865 First Protestant Bible school opened in Plovdiv
1871 Bible translation completed in the Bulgarian vernacular
1877-78 Russo-Turkish War freed Bulgaria from Ottoman Turkish rule
1891 First Seventh-day Adventists settled in Bulgaria
1921 Pentecostal missionaries began work in Bulgaria
1944-91 Communist rule imposed severe restrictions on all religions, including Christianity
1949 Communist authorities tried and convicted 15 Protestants, including Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, and Pentecostal leaders, on false charges of treason and espionage
1991 The Bulgarian Orthodox Church suffered a schism which continues to the present

A Bulgarian Church and Missions Chronology, East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Summer 2002), 9.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

© 2002 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe