The Conversion to Christianity

The territorial expansion of the Bulgarian Empire during the first half of the ninth century brought it in closer contact with the Christian world not only to the south but also to the north-west. The sagacious statesman Khan Boris (r. 852-89) took stock of the situation and decided to make Christianity the official religion of the realm. He was aware that the spiritual and ethnic cohesion of his people could be cemented only if its two ethnic components (Bulgars and Slavs) professed a common faith. Initially Boris intended to receive Christianity at the hands of the western (Roman) clergy. In 862 Khan Boris and King Louis the German formed an alliance which involved the adoption of Christianity. To counter this alliance and prevent any further communion with the West, Byzantium put together an anti-Bulgarian coalition, which included Great Moravia, Croatia and Serbia. In 863 the Bulgarian troops were defeated and Khan Boris signed a peace treaty with Byzantium which included the explicit provision that Bulgarian envoys should be baptised at Constantinople and thereafter the ruler and the entire people should convert to the Christian faith. The newly baptised envoys returned to the Bulgarian capital Pliska accompanied by Byzantine missionaries. The speed of events did not give Boris enough time to prepare his associates and the Bulgarian people for this momentous decision. For this reason he and his family were not baptised in a solemn public ceremony, but in secret and in the dead of night. The godfather of the ruler was the Byzantine Emperor Michael III himself, who sponsored him in baptism by proxy. Thus Khan Boris adopted the Christian faith under the name of Michael and assumed the title of knyaz (prince). These events took place in the autumn of 864.

The mass conversion of the Bulgarians began in the spring of 865. In some cases it was greeted with enthusiasm, in others it was marked by violence. The reaction of the boyars, which was foreseen by Michael-Boris, was not late in coming. They believed that the policy of the ruler spelt danger for the state, publicly accused him of having given his people 'a bad law' and rose against him. Helped by his loyal associates Boris managed to stem the insurrection and executed 52 of the ringleaders together with their families.

The old pagan organization was dismantled with the imposition of Christianity. The pagan temples were destroyed or transformed into Christian churches; the heathen shrines were demolished and replaced by Christian ones. Along with the Byzantine preachers Bulgaria was flooded by a large number of impostors - Greeks, Armenians and others - all of whom began to baptise with alacrity. Arab Muslims also arrived, eager to preach Islam. Boris-Michael was, therefore, faced with the urgent task of establishing and building up an autonomous national church which could keep in check the spread of other religious beliefs in his realm. Furthermore, he realized that the institution of an autonomous Bulgarian Church with the rank of patriarchate had the additional advantage of limiting the expansion of Byzantine political influence, which was being spread by Constantinople's ecclesiastical envoys.

The aspirations of Knyaz Boris did not go down well in Byzantium. The champions of the pentarchy (the concept that there should be five patriarchates; Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) dismissed outright the possibility of Bulgaria having an autonomous church, let alone an independent patriarchate. As a result, Bulgaria renewed her political alliance with the Germans and sought the protection of the Roman Church. In the summer of 865 a Bulgarian delegation was sent to Rome to present to Pope Nicholas I a set of 115 questions concerning the organization of church and religious life, as well as the customs and traditions of the Bulgars rooted in their distant pagan past. In the autumn of the same year a special papal embassy led by two bishops, Paul of Populonia and Formosus of Porto, brought back 'The replies of Pope Nicholas I to the questions of the Bulgars' (Reponsa papae Nikolai Primi ad consulta Bulgarorum). These replies are an extremely important document, revealing the most burning problems of the newly Christianized Bulgarian society. However, the Pope declined to give a definitive answer to one of the most important questions - the setting up of an independent Bulgarian Church headed by a patriarch - until his legates had returned and reported on the progress of Christianization and the existing organization of the Church.

In practice the ties with the western Church meant that the Byzantine clergy would be expelled and replaced by papal missionaries. Bishop Formosus found such great favour with Boris that he petitioned the Pope to appoint him Archbishop of Bulgaria. However, the new Pope Hadrian II refused, under the pretext that the bishop was not allowed to leave his own see in Italy. Soon after that Formosus was recalled and replaced by Bishops Dominic of Treviso and Grimoald of Polimarti. Boris then asked for deacon Marinus or for a cardinal whose 'life and wisdom' made him worthy to be appointed Archbishop of Bulgaria, but got another refusal. Instead, the Holy See sent deacon Sylvester and several other clerics to Bulgaria, but Boris refused to receive them and asked once again for Formosus. The Pope responded in no uncertain terms that it was for him and for him alone to choose and appoint the future spiritual leader of the Bulgarian Church. So after three years of fruitless negotiations with Rome, Boris turned again to Constantinople. It was evident from the start that this time Byzantium would be much more accommodating and prepared to make concessions.

Meanwhile a church council, which was being held in Constantinople during 869 and 870, was debating certain contentious issues between Rome and Byzantium. At the same time a Bulgarian embassy arrived in the city led by a senior dignitary called Peter. The Bulgarian envoys were invited along with a German delegation to the concluding session on 28 February 870. Three days after the dissolution of the council, on 4 March 870, the Emperor Basil I convened at his palace an extraordinary session attended by the legates of Pope Hadrian II, the representatives of the Eastern Patriarchs and the Bulgarian envoys. Much to the surprise of the papal legates, a debate ensued on the question of ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Bulgaria, from which it transpired that the lands of the Bulgarians were already considered as part of the diocese of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Therefore, despite the objections of the papal legates a decision was taken that Bulgaria should be granted a separate archbishopric under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Thus the foundations were laid of the Bulgarian Church, which was closely related to the Orthodox East. Chronologically it was the eighth in seniority in the ninth-century community of Eastern Orthodox churches.

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