Bulgaria: An historic land

Bulgaria is a country hidden from our main stream of attention. Yet even with its rich and troubled history, Bulgaria’s Christian community is resilient, modeling Spirit-risking adventures of a witness of faith in living and loving with others.

Bulgaria, with its population of fewer than 8 million, is located in the Balkan region of Eastern Europe;  like Albania, it was under Ottoman rule for 500 years (Muslim Turks). The Ottomans turned churches into mosques, and if a church wanted its own building, it couldn’t be above ground. This Slavic country has a natural affinity to Russia whose king in 1877 defeated the Ottomans. But like other countries in the region, the 20th century was not kind: Balkan wars took up part of the first decades of the century with a dictatorship until 1943.

What came as a surprise to outsiders was its handling of its Jewish community.  When Hitler pressured Bulgaria to purge their country of Jews, sending them to extermination camps, Bulgaria said “No.” Today there is an understandable pride: as one person said, “Not one Bulgarian Jew lost his life to the genocide of the Holocaust.” The government passed a law forbidding anyone with a Bulgarian passport to be sent to the camps.

Located next to Turkey and northeast of Greece, centuries ago Bulgaria was occupied by Thracians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, a virtual roadway from Rome to Constantinople, a territory traversed by Crusaders, en route to free the Holy Land. Nikolay Nedelchev and I climbed ancient relics of its past conquerors and saw signs to crusader ruins. Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, was the preferred city of Constantine, in this country dotted with hot mineral springs, a sure healing location for the ancients.

When Evangelicals arrived 160 years ago, from the start they engaged in social ministry, establishing orphanages and caring for widows.  During the Ottoman rule many were persecuted and killed for their faith.  After WWI, the king and the Orthodox Church clashed.  When the king asked why the Church hadn’t cared for soldiers, orphans and widows, they were reportedly given this answer: “That’s not our job.” To which the king reportedly responded, “Then you will have trouble with me.” And for four years (1919-1923) as he refused to meet with them, Evangelical leaders became the go- between.

In 1946 with Stalin’s assistance, the Bulgarian government became Communist. In years following many leaders were imprisoned, the Evangelical Alliance was closed, and its property confiscated. Local churches were terrorized and young people were arrested. Private ownership of land for business or church was revoked. Even private homes at times were taken from Christian families and given to  communists. During this period some 200,000 were killed. Anxious of losing their jobs, many Christians stopped attending church.  Fear became the operative means of control.  As the West turned a blind eye, Bulgaria was left within the Soviet’s arena of influence.  This has created a lingering memory for many Bulgarians and an ongoing distrust of the West which was indifferent to the plight of those living under the hammer and sickle.

Majority faith
I asked the Minister of Religious Affairs, Emil Velinov, about the role of Christian faith in rebuilding this land. Because the Orthodox Church has a  majority  (81 percent),  any concern about Christian presence and witness inevitably finds its way to their doorstep.

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox churches had no reformation. A protesting group of Catholics led by Martin Luther voiced their concerns, which not only birthed the Protestant churches but also brought reformation to the Catholic community. There was no such internal process of reform for the Orthodox. In some eastern European countries the Orthodox form the majority faith and are named in constitutions as the state religion; they thus benefit from government monies, preferences and protection.

In Bulgaria, following the communist era, the rewritten constitution  named the Orthodox as the “historic” church but not the state church. While priests still receive salaries from the state, this new definition shocked their patriarchal system which no longer is constitutionally favored.

The minister’s concern for the active role of the church (or religion of any kind) was surprising. He was open in his thanks to the Evangelical and Jewish communities, saying they never have to be asked to show up where there is need in hospitals, prisons, or with the poor. In closing our meeting, as I was asked to pray, he asked that I especially pray for a revival of spirit in all religious communions, with special mention for the Orthodox.

I saw here what I’ve seen in no other country or city.  In downtown Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, within a few hundred meters of each other there stands a Pentecostal church, a mosque, a synagogue, and Orthodox and Catholic churches. Their closeness is more than symbolic. With an interreligious  committee they regularly meet in conversation and fellowship, working to better understand each other. Recognizing what the overwhelming pressure of religious radicalization might do to their network, they work in partnership with the government for the wellbeing of the city and country.

Evangelicals learning from the recent past
This is a story needing to be told, with important lessons for the larger Evangelical community.  In 1990 after the Cold War, Evangelicals,  especially from North America, flooded in and it seemed to some Bulgarian nationals that these incoming missionaries assumed that Bulgarians were either pagans or biblically illiterate.  Or, if they were  believers, had little to no understanding of how to witness or provide biblical and spiritual leadership.

While some who came then have continued in ministry, many blustered into Eastern European countries with an inflated view of their calling, doing harm and dulling an otherwise sharpened opportunity. Even so, Bulgarian leaders show understanding to this well-meaning onslaught, acknowledging that at least the missionaries had a will to come.

The Romas
The Romas are a people with a fascinating history and possibilities. Still called Gypsies in Bulgaria, their story of spiritual migration is both surprising and intriguing.

Over 100 years ago the Baptists in northwest Bulgaria noticed that the Roma people were neglected spiritually.  They translated the gospel into their language, created hymnbooks and training materials and began to ordain pastors. As with Christians, the Romas too had been persecuted under the Ottoman rule.

Today 49,000 live in Bulgaria, and wherever they go – they continue to be transient – they plant churches. Their attraction to the Gospel is simple in its explanation: While others discriminated and displayed hatred, Christian help and assistance created curiosity.  When they were invited to eat with believers,  a communal ritual of much conversation,  they would ask questions and in this sharing some came to faith. Their spiritual journey is not easy. Their skills in illegal activities are not soon set aside, even as they learn the ways of Christ.

Bulgaria has  a remarkable, lengthy and imponderable history; these people of wisdom and grace have a legacy of fairness and a desire to live in peace with others. The pages of Christian witness are headlined with intersecting groups, providing lessons for our complex worlds.

Pray for Bulgarian Christian leaders, pastors, and those in the public sector, that as they wrestle with how best to give witness of Christ, they will be filled with the Spirit and the love of our risen Savior, and speak in power and gentleness to their world and beyond.

Bulgaria Pic

Nikolay Nedelchev, Evangelical Alliance, Minister Emil Velinov

Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance
October 2015

One Response to “Bulgaria: An historic land”
  1. jonwrcongo says:

    You write well! What a delight to read, Brian
    Your dispatches are like a good meal at the end of a difficult wearying day. Thanks for the encouragement and enlightening educational perspectives from around the globe.

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