Early Christianity in the Balkans

Many historical sources testify that Bulgarian Christianity has its roots in the early Christian communities and churches in the Balkan peninsula, through their influence on the local population and their evangelizing missions among the various groups of settlers. Thus the lands which in 681 became part of the Bulgarian state saw a continuous advance of Christianity between 33 ce and the sixth century. From the fourth to the sixth century the Constantinople Patriarchate stepped up its missionary activities with considerable success. The structures of the Church were steadily evolving; the number of episcopacies, of clergy, of church buildings and monasteries grew all the time. Christianity penetrated even into the highland regions. The incursions of the Slav tribes and the Bulgars in the Balkan peninsula during the sixth and the seventh centuries and the wars between the young Bulgarian state (681) and Byzantium seriously damaged the local settlements. Many fortresses, towns, churches and monasteries were destroyed. This caused a decline in the local Christian population, upset the diocesan organization and hampered the mission of evangelization. Some historical sources, however, indicate that the Slavs and the Bulgars maintained regular contacts with Byzantium and with the indigenous population of the Balkans, and that there were many instances of peaceful settlement and even of military alliances between traditional enemies. This was also true of trade and other relations, such as the exchange of prisoners of war; of the imposition of Byzantine sovereignty over some of the settlers of the present-day Bulgarian lands; and of a process of colonization and demographic change. The influence of Byzantium pervaded the young state of the Bulgars, particularly during the period of dynastic strife amid the military and tribal aristocracy (76177). There is evidence that between the sixth and the eighth centuries there were numerous channels through which Christianity could reach the new settlers of the Balkans. Judging by diocesan records, proceedings of church councils and archaeological finds, many towns and episcopal sees survived the arrival and settlement of the Slavs and the Bulgars south of the Danube. The conquest of the Balkans and the rise of the Bulgarian Empire was not a disaster for the indigenous population and its material and spiritual culture. The settlers and the local Romanized or semi-Romanized Thraco-Illyrian Christians influenced each other's way of life and socio-economic organization, as well as each other's culture, language and religious outlook.

During the first half of the ninth century Bulgaria annexed new lands with a considerable Christian population. Tens of thousands of Byzantine prisoners of war were captured, including several eminent clerics who introduced many Bulgarians to the Christian faith. Although Christians were persecuted by the authorities, their religion infiltrated even the ruler's court. In the course of Khan Kroum's wars against Byzantium (811-14) many eminent Byzantines were captured, among whom there was a certain Kinnamon who became a tutor at the palace; here he had an opportunity to champion his Christian faith. The spread of Christianity, and the fact that it had gained a foothold even at the palace, seemed to be a sign of a growing Byzantine influence that threatened the interests of the Bulgarian state. For this reason Khan Omurtag (r. 815-32) showed himself to be a determined opponent of the foreign faith and sanctioned the persecution of the Christians. Byzantine sources speak of the martyrdom of the Bishops Manuel of Adrianople and Leo of Nicaea, the soldiers John and Leontius, presbyter Parodus and another 337 Christians whose names are unknown. The palace tutor Kinnamon was imprisoned, and spared only thanks to the intercession of the Khan's son Enravota.

Omurtag's son Malamir (r. 832-6) was more tolerant towards the Christians, but showed no mercy to his brother Enravota, who had adopted the new faith under the influence of his tutor. The Bulgarian Church venerates him under the name of Voin as the first Bulgarian Christian martyr.

Thanks to his successful strategy Khan Presian (r. 836-52) managed to annex a considerable part of Macedonia which at that time had a dense Slav population. Thus the share of the Christian population grew even further and the khan was tolerant of the Christians probably because he was trying to attract the Byzantine Slavs to the Bulgarian state.

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