Struggles and Victories of the Church and the Nation

With the growth of national aspirations during the National Revival in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries the need to cast off the spiritual suzerainty of Constantinople emerged as one of the principal goals of the Bulgarian national revolution. The Bulgarian clergy were helping to preserve the national consciousness, the way of life and the morale of the Bulgarian people, lending them moral support and encouraging them to fight the oppressors. The drive for church independence began in the 1820s and continued among the Bulgarians in Macedonia and the Adrianople region of Thrace even after the liberation in 1878. The process evolved in various stages, under different and very specific circumstances.

The earliest stage - from 1824 to the Crimean War (1853-6) - was a popular movement to drive away the Greek bishops, replace them by Bulgarian ones and abolish the Greek language from the liturgy. In 1824 the people of Vratsa led by kaza-vekil Dimitraki Hadjitoshev tried to oust Bishop Methodius and replace him with a Bulgarian prelate. However, the attempt failed and the kaza-vekil was sentenced to death. (A kaza-vekil was a person elected by the Christian community under the Ottomans to represent them before the authorities.)

Towards the end of the 1830s the largest Bulgarian eparchy, the diocese of Turnovo, joined the campaign against the Greek bishops. The Metropolitan of Turnovo had the nominal title Exarch of Bulgaria - a memory of the past glory of the Patriarchate of Turnovo - and his diocese approximately coincided with the territory of the Turnovo kingdom before it fell to the Turks at the end of the fourteenth century. It was after the events provoked by the deposition of the Greek metropolitan of Turnovo that the church question became a national issue, which involved all classes of Bulgarian society and was inspired by the ideals of the National Revival.

By the beginning of the Crimean War the movement for the independence of the national Church had spread to all larger towns and the regions around them in central and north-western Bulgaria, in northern Thrace and in parts of Macedonia. The most public-spirited Bulgarian emigrants in Romania, Serbia, Russia and elsewhere were also involved in the national movement. The Bulgarian community in Constantinople did not lag behind either. The reform decree issued by the sultan after the Crimean War known as Hatt-i-Humayun (1856) provided the Bulgarians with legal grounds for activism, which gave a further impetus to the drive for independence of the national Church. The Bulgarian Church community in Constantinople was made up of emigrants and temporary residents from all corners of the Bulgarian lands and emerged as the hub of the drive for church sovereignty.

Between 1856 and 1860 almost all Bulgarian provinces joined the movement against the Greek bishops, but the Bulgarian expatriate community in Constantinople was at the centre of a series of events which slowly but ineluctably prepared the ground for the independence of the Bulgarian Church. A key stage in that process was the Easter Sunday action of 3 April 1860 when, in the historic wooden church of St Stephan the Bulgarian, Bishop Hilarion of Makariopol, expressing the will of the people, challenged the supremacy of the Ecumenical (Greek) Patriarch of Constantinople and virtually proclaimed the independence of the Bulgarian Church. Hundreds of church communities followed suit and overthrew the spiritual domination of the Greek Patriarchate.

A Joint Popular Council of clergy and laity composed of church hierarchs and representatives of the dioceses of many Bulgarian towns met in Constantinople and voiced support for a sovereign Bulgarian Church. After much vacillation, on 27 February 1870 Sultan Abdul Asis signed a firman officially declaring the Bulgarian Church a separate autonomous exarchate under the loose suzerainty of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

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