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The Bulgarian Orthodox Church ( , Balgarska pravoslavna tsarkva) is an autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church with some 6.5 million members in the Republic of Bulgariamarker and between 1.5 and 2.0 million members in a number of European countries, the Americas and Australia. The recognition of the autocephalous Bulgarian Patriarchate by the Patriarchate of Constantinoplemarker in 927 AD makes the Bulgarian Orthodox Church the oldest autocephalous Slavic Orthodox Church in the world, which was added to the Pentarchy of the original Patriarchates - those of Rome (which became today's Roman Catholic Church after the Schism), Constantinoplemarker, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem - and the autocephalous Georgian Catholicosate.

Canonical status and organization

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church considers itself an inseparable member of the one, holy, synodal and apostolic church and is organized as a self-governing body under the name of Patriarchate. It is divided into thirteen dioceses within the boundaries of the Republic of Bulgaria and has jurisdiction over additional two dioceses for Bulgarians in Western and Central Europe, the Americas, Canadamarker and Australia. The dioceses of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church are divided into 58 church counties, which, in turn, are subdivided into some 2,600 parishes.

The supreme clerical, judicial and administrative power for the whole domain of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is exercised by the Holy Synod, which includes the Patriarch and the diocesan prelates, who are called metropolitan. Church life in the parishes is guided by the parish priests, numbering some 1,500. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church also has some 120 monasteries in Bulgaria, with about 2000 monks and nearly as many nuns.


Eparchies in Bulgaria: (with Bulgarian names in brackets)

Eparchies abroad:


Early Christianity

The St. George Rotunda (4th century AD), Sofia
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has its origin in the flourishing Christian communities and churches, set up in the Balkans as early as the first centuries of the Christian era. Christianity was brought to the Bulgarianmarker lands and the rest of the Balkans by the apostles Paul and Andrew in the 1st century AD, when the first organised Christian communities were formed. By the beginning of the 4th century, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the region. Towns such as Serdica (Sofiamarker), Philipopolis (Plovdivmarker), Odessus (Varnamarker) and Adrianople (Edirnemarker) were significant centres of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

The barbaric raids and incursions in the 4th and the 5th and the settlement of Slavs and Bulgars in the 6th and the 7th century wrought considerable damage to the ecclesiastical organisation of the Christian Church in the Bulgarian lands, yet they were far from destroying it. Christianity started to pave its way from the surviving Christian communities to the surrounding Slavic mass. By the middle of the 9th century, the majority of the Bulgarian Slavs, especially those living in Thrace and Macedonia, were Christianised. The process of conversion also enjoyed some success among the Bulgar nobility. It was not until the official adoption of Christianity by Tsar Boris I in 865 that an independent Bulgarian ecclesiastical entity was established.


Boris I believed that cultural advancement and the sovereignty and prestige of a Christian Bulgaria could be achieved through an enlightened clergy governed by an autocephalous church. To this end, he manoeuvred between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Roman Pope for a period of five years until in 870 AD, the Fourth Council of Constantinople granted the Bulgarians an autonomous Bulgarian archbishopric. The archbishopric had its seat in the Bulgarian capital of Pliska and its diocese covered the whole territory of the Bulgarian state. The tug-of-war between Rome and Constantinople was resolved by putting the Bulgarian archbishopric under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, from whom it obtained its first primate, its clergy and theological books.

Although the archbishopric enjoyed full internal autonomy, the goals of Boris I were scarcely fulfilled. A Greek liturgy offered by a Byzantine clergy furthered neither the cultural development of the Bulgarians, nor the consolidation of the Bulgarian state; it would have eventually resulted in the loss of both the identity of the people and the statehood of Bulgaria. Thus, Boris I greeted the arrival of the disciples Saints Cyril and Methodius in 886 as an opportunity. Boris I gave them the task to instruct the future Bulgarian clergy in the Glagolitic alphabet and the Slavonic liturgy prepared by Cyril. The liturgy was based on the vernacular of the Macedonian Slavs from the region of Thessalonikimarker. In 893, Boris I expelled the Greek clergy from the country and ordered the replacing of the Greek language with the Slav-Bulgarian vernacular.

Autocephaly (Patriarchate)

Ceramic icon of St. Theodor, Preslav, ca. 900 AD, National Archaeological Museum, Sofia
Following Bulgaria's two decisive victories over the Byzantines at Acheloosmarker (near the present-day city of Pomorie) and Katasyrtai (near Constantinoplemarker), the government declared the autonomous Bulgarian Archbishopric as autocephalous and elevated it to the rank of Patriarchate at an ecclesiastical and national council held in 919. After Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire signed a peace treaty in 927 that concluded the 20-year-long war between them, the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognised the autocephalous status of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and acknowledged its patriarchal dignity. The Bulgarian Patriarchate was the first autocephalous Slavic Orthodox Church, preceding the autocephaly of the Serbian Orthodox Church (1219) by 300 years and of the Russian Orthodox Church (1596) by some 600 years. It was the sixth Patriarchate after Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalemmarker, Alexandriamarker and Antiochmarker. The seat of the Patriarchate was the new Bulgarian capital of Preslavmarker. The Patriarch was likely to have resided in the town of Drastar (Silistramarker), an old Christian centre famous for its martyrs and Christian traditions.

The Ohrid Archbishopric

On April 5, 972, Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimisces conquered and burned down Preslavmarker, and captured Bulgarian Tsar Boris II. Patriarch Damyan managed to escape, initially to Sredetz (Sofiamarker) in western Bulgaria. In the coming years, the residence of the Bulgarian patriarchs remained closely connected to the developments in the war between the next Bulgarian monarchist dynasty, the Comitopuli, and the Byzantine Empire. Patriarch German resided consecutively in Moglen , Voden (Edessamarker) (in present-day north-western Greecemarker), and Prespa (in present-day southern Republic of Macedoniamarker). Around 990, the next patriarch, Philip, moved to Ohridmarker (in present-day south-western Republic of Macedoniamarker), which became the permanent seat of the Patriarchate.

After the fall of Bulgaria under Byzantium domination in 1018, Emperor Basil II Bulgaroktonus (the “Bulgar-Slayer”) acknowledged the autocephalous status of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. By special charters (royal decrees), his government set up its boundaries, dioceses, property and other privileges. The church was deprived of its Patriarchal title and reduced to the rank of an archbishopric. Although the first appointed archbishop (John of Debar) was a Bulgarian, his successors, as well as the whole higher clergy, were invariably Greeks. The monks and the ordinary priests remained, however, predominantly Bulgarian. To a large extent the archbishopric preserved its national character, upheld the Slavonic liturgy and continued its contribution to the development of Bulgarian literature. The autocephaly of the Ohrid Archbishopric remained respected during the periods of Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian and Ottoman rule. The church continued to exist until its unlawful abolition in 1767.

The Tarnovo Patriarchate

As a results of the successful uprising of the brothers Peter IVand Ivan Asen I in 1185/1186, the foundations of the Second Bulgarian State were laid with Tarnovomarker as its capital. Following Boris I’s principle that the sovereignty of the state is inextricably linked to the autocephaly of the Church, the two brothers immediately took steps to restore the Bulgarian Patriarchate. As a start, they established an independent archbishopric in Tarnovomarker in 1186. The struggle to have the archbishopric recognized according to the canonical order and elevated to the rank of a Patriarchate took almost 50 years. Following the example of Boris I, Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan manoeuvred for years between the Patriarch of Constantinople and Pope Innocent III. Finally in 1203 the latter proclaimed the Tarnovo Archbishop Vassily “Primate and Archbishop of all Bulgaria and Walachia.” The union with the Roman Catholic Church continued for well over three decades.

Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371), an illustration from the Four Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (the London Gospel), ca. 1356, the British Library
Under the reign of Tsar Ivan Asen II (1218-1241), conditions were created for the termination of the union with Rome and for the recognition of the autocephalous status of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. In 1235 a church council was convened in the town of Lampsakos. Under the presidency of Patriarch German II of Constantinople and with the consent of all Eastern Patriarchs, the council confirmed the Patriarchal dignity of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and consecrated the Bulgarian archbishop German as Patriarch.

Despite the shrinking of the diocese of the Tarnovo Patriarchate at the end of the 13th century, its authority in the Eastern Orthodox world remained high. It was the Patriarch of Tarnovo who confirmed the patriarchal dignity of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1346, despite protests by the Constantinoplemarker. It was under the wing of the Patriarchate that the Tarnovo Literary School developed in the 14th century, with scholars of the rank of Patriarch Evtimiy, Gregory Tsamblak, and Konstantin of Kostenets. A considerable flowering was noted in the fields of literature, architecture, and painting; the religious and theological literature also flourished.

After the fall of Tarnovomarker under the Ottomans in 1393 and the sending of Patriarch Evtimiy into exile, the autocephalous church organization was destroyed again. The Bulgarian diocese was subordinated to the Patriarchate of Constantinoplemarker. The other Bulgarian religious centre the Ohrid Archbishopric managed to survive a few centuries more (until 1767), as a stronghold of faith and piety.

Ottoman rule

As the Ottomans were Muslim, the period of Ottoman rule was the most difficult in the history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, to the same extent as it was the hardest in the history of the Bulgarian people. During and immediately after the Ottoman conquest, the vast majority of the Bulgarian churches and monasteries, including the Patriarchal Cathedral church of the Holy Ascension in Tarnovomarker, were razed to the ground. The few surviving ones were converted into mosques. Most of the clergy were killed, while the intelligentsia associated with the Tarnovo Literary School fled to neighbouring Serbiamarker, Wallachia, Moldavia or to Russiamarker.

St. George, the Newmartyr of Sofia, icon from the 19th century
There were martyrs to the Church as many districts and almost all larger towns in the Bulgarian provinces of the Ottoman Empire were subjected to forceful conversion to Islam as early as the first years after the conquest. St. George of Kratovo (+1515), St. Nicholas of Sofiamarker (+1515), Bishop Vissarion of Smolen (+1670), Damaskin of Gabrovomarker (+1771), St. Zlata of Muglen (+1795), St. John the Bulgarian (+1814), St. Ignatius of Stara Zagoramarker (+1814), St. Onouphry of Gabrovomarker (+1818) and many others perished defending their faith.

After many of the leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were executed, it was fully subordinated to the Patriarch of Constantinople. The millet system in the Ottoman Empire granted a number of important civil and judicial functions to the Patriarch of Constantinople and the diocesan metropolitans. As the higher Bulgarian church clerics were replaced by Greek ones at the beginning of the Ottoman domination, the Bulgarian population was subjected to double oppression political by the Ottomans and cultural by the Greek clergy. With the rise of Greek nationalism in the second half of the 18th century, the clergy imposed the Greek language and a Greek consciousness on the emerging Bulgarian bourgeoisie. The Patriarchate of Constantinople became its tool to assimilate other peoples. At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, the clergy opened numerous schools with all-round Greek language curriculum and nearly banned the Bulgarian liturgy. These actions threatened the survival of the Bulgarians as a separate nation and people with its own, distinct national culture.

The monasteries were instrumental in the preservation of the Bulgarian language and the Bulgarian national consciousness throughout the centuries of Ottoman domination. Especially important were the Zographmarker and Hilendarmarker monasteries on Mount Athos, as well as the Rilamarker, Troyanmarker, Etropole, Dryanovomarker, Cherepish and Dragalevtsimarker monasteries in Bulgaria. The monks managed to preserve their national character in the monasteries, continuing traditions of the Slavonic liturgy and Bulgarian literature. They continued to operate monastery schools and carried out other educational activities, which managed to keep the flame of the Bulgarian culture burning.

The Bulgarian Exarchate


In 1762, St. Paisius of Hilendar (1722-1773), a monk from the south-western Bulgarian town of Banskomarker, wrote a short historical work. It was the first work written in the modern Bulgarian vernacular and was also the first call for a national awakening. In History of Slav-Bulgarians, Paissiy urged his compatriots to throw off subjugation to the Greek language and culture. The example of Paissiy was followed by a number of other activists, including St. Sophroniy of Vratsa (Sofroni Vrachanski) (1739-1813), hieromonk Spiridon of Gabrovo, hieromonk Yoakim Karchovski (d. 1820), hieromonk Kiril Peychinovich (d. 1845).

Discontent with the supremacy of the Greek clergy started to flare up in several Bulgarian dioceses as early as the 1820s. It was not until 1850 that the Bulgarians initiated a purposeful struggle against the Greek clerics in a number of bishoprics, demanding their replacement with Bulgarian ones. By that time, most Bulgarian clergy had realised that further struggle for the rights of the Bulgarians in the Ottoman Empire could not succeed unless they managed to obtain some degree of autonomy from the Patriarchate of Constantinoplemarker. As the Ottomans identified nationality with religion, and the Bulgarians were Eastern Orthodox, the Ottomans considered them part of the Roum-Milet, i.e., the Greeks. To gain Bulgarian schools and liturgy, the Bulgarians needed to achieve an independent ecclesiastical organisation.

The struggle between the Bulgarians, led by Neofit Bozveli and Ilarion Makariopolski, and the Greeks intensified throughout the 1860s. By the end of the decade, Bulgarian bishoprics had expelled most of the Greek clerics, thus the whole of northern Bulgaria, as well as the northern parts of Thrace and Macedonia had effectively seceded from the Patriarchate. The Ottoman government restored the Bulgarian Patriarchate under the name of "Bulgarian Exarchate" by a decree (firman) of the Sultan promulgated on February 28, 1870. The original Exarchate extended over present-day northern Bulgaria (Moesia), Thrace without the Vilayet of Adrianople, as well as over north-eastern Macedonia. After the Christian population of the bishoprics of Skopjemarker and Ohridmarker voted in 1874 overwhelmingly in favour of joining the Exarchate (Skopje by 91%, Ohrid by 97%), the Bulgarian Exarchate became in control of the whole of Vardar and Pirin Macedoniamarker. The Bulgarian Exarchate was partially represented in southern Macedoniamarker and the Vilayet of Adrianoplemarker by vicars. Thus, the borders of the Exarchate included all Bulgarian districts in the Ottoman Empire.

The Patriarchate of Constantinoplemarker opposed the change, promptly declaring the Bulgarian Exarchate schismatic and its adherents heretics. Although the status and the guiding principles of the Exarchate reflected the canons, the Patriarchate argued that “surrender of Orthodoxy to ethnic nationalism” was essentially a manifestation of heresy.

The first Bulgarian Exarch was Antim I, who was elected by the Holy Synod of the Exarchate in February, 1872. He was discharged by the Ottoman government immediately after the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78 on April 24, 1877, and was sent into exile in Ankaramarker. His successor, Joseph I, managed to develop and considerably extend its church and school network in the Bulgarian Principality, Eastern Rumelia, Macedonia and the Adrianople Vilayet. In 1895, the Tarnovo Constitution formally established the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as the national religion of the nation. On the eve of the Balkan Wars, in Macedonia and the Adrianople Vilayet, the Bulgarian Exarchate had seven dioceses with prelates and eight more with acting chairmen in charge and 38 vicariates; 1,218 parishes and 1,212 parish priests; 64 monasteries and 202 chapels; as well as of 1,373 schools with 2,266 teachers and 78,854 pupils.

After World War I, by virtue of the peace treaties, the Bulgarian Exarchate was deprived of its dioceses in Macedonia and Aegean Thrace. Exarch Joseph I transferred his offices from Istanbulmarker to Sofiamarker as early as 1913. After the death of Joseph I in 1915, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was not in a position to elect its regular head for a total of three decades.

Second restoration of the Bulgarian Patriarchate

Conditions for the restoration of the Bulgarian Patriarchate and the election of a head of the Bulgarian Church were created after World War II. In 1945 the schism was lifted and the Patriarch of Constantinople recognised the autocephaly of the Bulgarian Church. In 1950, the Holy Synod adopted a new Statute which paved the way for the restoration of the Patriarchate and in 1953, it elected the Metropolitan of Plovdiv, Cyril, Bulgarian Patriarch. After the death of Patriarch Cyril in 1971, the Church elected in his place the Metropolitan of Lovechmarker, Maxim, who is the current Bulgarian Patriarch.

Eparchy of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church

Under Communism (1944-89), Bulgaria's rulers worked to control rather than destroy the church. Still, the early postwar years were unsettling to church hierarchs. During 1944-47 the church was deprived of jurisdiction in marriage, divorce, issuance of birth and death certificates, and other passages that had been sacraments as well as state events. Communists removed study of the catechism and church history from school curricula. They generated anti-religious propaganda and persecuted some priests. From 1947-49 was the height of the campaign to intimidate the church. Bishop Boris was assassinated; Egumenius Kalistrat, administrator of the Rila Monasterymarker, was imprisoned; and various other clergy were murdered or charged with crimes against the state. The communists soon replaced all clergy who refused to endorse the regime's policies. They banished Exarch Stefan, who had co-authored a book in 1948 that was considered anti-Communist.

From that time until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and collapse of Communism in 1989, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Bulgarian Communist Party coexisted in a closely symbiotic partnership, in which each supported the other. The party supported the elevation of the exarchate to the rank of patriarchate in May 1953. The 1970 commemoration served to recall that the exarchate (which retained its jurisdictional borders until after World War I) included Macedonia and Thrace in addition to present-day Bulgaria. Following historical traditions, the church does not recognize the Macedonian Orthodox Church created by the Yugoslavian communists.

See also


  1. Ramet, Pedro and Ramet, Sabrina P. Religion and Nationalism in Soviet and East European Politics, p.20-21. Duke University Press (1989), ISBN 0822308916.
  2. Ramet, p.21.

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