From Exarchate to Patriarchate

After the coup of 9 September 1944 the Communists began to persecute followers of the Christian religion and its institutions under various pretexts, but with the sole purpose of banishing religion from the life of society and, if possible, completely destroying it. On the face of it, the election of the exarch, the lifting of the schism and the recognition of the completely autocephalous status of the Church appear to be positive developments; however, the subsequent evolution of the international political situation created conditions in which they could be used to harm the Church. The fact that the jurisdiction of the Church was confined to the country's territory created unlimited possibilities for the new authorities to interfere in its affairs, particularly after the signing of the peace treaty in Paris on 10 February 1947. Once the international situation of Bulgaria was settled and its government recognized, the ruling Communist Party felt free to do away with the legitimate opposition, which it went on to do in the summer and autumn of 1947. The institutions of the Church were next in line. With the adoption of a new constitution on 4 December 1947 the Church was separated from the state, but it was a high-handed and forcible separation.

In fact, the separation was not a single act, but a process which had started after 9 September 1944 and was brought to its conclusion with the adoption of the Religious Denominations Act on 24 February 1949. The Act was a blow to all religious organizations in Bulgarian, but damaged the Bulgarian Orthodox Church most of all. The subordination of the Church to the secular authorities was achieved through a process that also unfolded in several stages. The main blow, aimed at the real estate of the Church, was designed to curtail its financial independence. The imposition of state control over the Church was also associated with a number of other measures, such as pressure to reduce the number of clergy, to replace or dismiss clerics of whom the authorities disapproved and to restrict the religious activity of the more zealous priests. Of the former educational institutions - two seminaries (in Sofia and in Plovdiv), one theological college and one Theological Pastoral Institute - only the Sofia Seminary had survived by 1951. Meanwhile, the theological faculty was taken out of Sofia University and transformed into a Theological Academy funded by the Holy Synod. The purpose of all these measures was to deprive the Church of well-educated clergy. A turning point in the process of subordinating the Church to the state was the removal of Exarch Stephan. His resignation was a farce, staged during a meeting of the Holy Synod on 8 September 1948. Two days later, the decision for his removal was approved by the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Workers' Party (Communists). On 24 November 1948 he was exiled to the village of Banya near Karlovo, banned from travelling anywhere and from performing any religious services.

The Politburo of the ruling Communist Party decided that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church needed 'new, succinct, democratic' statutes. After prolonged arguments, on 3 January 1951 the Holy Synod was forced to accept the statutes imposed by the Government and to elect Cyril, the Metropolitan of Plovdiv, as its new vicegerent chairman. It was not coincidental that the minutes of the meeting of the Synod held on that date contain the following statement: 'The Statutes of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church should now be considered as approved and should be enforced.'

The next objective of the government and the Holy Synod was the restoration of the patriarchal status of the Church. The Third Council of the Church and the People was opened with pomp and ceremony on 8 May 1953 in Sofia. Taking part were 107 electors with valid credentials (out of a total of 111). The first day was devoted to solemn speeches, verification of credentials and the appointment of committees. On the following day, 9 May, the council adopted with small amendments the Statutes of the Church. On 10 May it continued in its capacity as an electoral college. According to Article 20 of the Statutes, on 2 7 April 1953 the Holy Synod had elected by majority voting three metropolitans who were considered worthy of the patriarchal throne and who had been approved by the government. The short list comprised Cyril of Plovdiv, Neophyte of Vidin and Clement of Stara Zagora. On the day of the election 104 of the 107 electors favoured the Metropolitan of Plovdiv, Cyril; the Metropolitan of Vidin, Neophyte received one vote and two ballot papers were declared invalid.

Thus, on 10 May 1953 the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was officially proclaimed a patriarchate and the Metropolitan of Plovdiv, Cyril, was elected patriarch. He may be considered a successor, though indirect, of St Euthymius of Turnovo, the last Bulgarian patriarch before the fall of the Bulgarian Empire to the Ottoman Turks. On the very day of its restoration the Bulgarian Patriarchate was recognized by the Orthodox Churches of Antioch, Georgia, Russia, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Poland, whose representatives were present at the solemn enthronement of the Bulgarian Patriarch Cyril on that day. In a letter dated 6 June 1953, Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia announced in the received canonical form that the Russian Orthodox Church recognized the restored Bulgarian Patriarchate. The Patriarchate of Antioch and the Orthodox Church of Poland also declared that they recognized the Bulgarian Patriarchate and its primate. Their official letters to this effect were dated 10 June 1953 and 19 June 1953 respectively. There followed the Patriarchate of Alexandria at the end of 1954.

In 1955 the Serbian Orthodox Church also recognized the Bulgarian Patriarchate and established canonical relations with it. Thanks to the mediation of the Patriarchate of Antioch, the Russian Orthodox Church and other sister churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople at last officially recognized the restored Bulgarian Patriarchate in a congratulatory letter No. 552 of 2 7 July 1961, and established canonical relations with it. In the spring of 1962 a delegation of the Bulgarian Church led by Patriarch Cyril paid a historic visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Eastern patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria and the Greek Orthodox Church, including a visit to Mt Athos. As a result the restored Bulgarian Patriarchate was officially recognized by the primates of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and by the Greek Church.

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