On a central square in the Bulgarian capital, where Sofia’s homeless fill up battered plastic water bottles from a public fountain, icons and a large wooden cross form a crude altar.
Nearby, members of a rag-tag congregation sit on peeling park benches serving as makeshift pews. Moving among them are dozens of long-bearded figures wearing the traditional robes of the Orthodox Church. But they have added a most unorthodox touch to their uniforms: around his neck each man wears a rope tied into a hangman’s noose.
These are the ministers of dissent in Bulgaria, the clerics of one of Europe’s most bitter recent schisms, fighting a battle at the crossroads of theology and politics which has divided the Orthodox Church.
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Their open-air church lies in the shadow of the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, the seat of Bulgarian Orthodoxy’s spiritual leader, Patriarch Maxim. Up to 7,000 people can pray under the cathedral’s magnificent, many-domed roof. But only yards from where Patriarch Maxim is followed by the masses as a guide to heaven, the dissident priests damn his name as the path to hell.
A showdown in Bulgaria’s theological turf war has been brewing for more than a decade, following the collapse of communism in the country in 1990. With the change in regime, the new democratic government sought to replace communist-appointed figureheads, among them Patriarch Maxim. “But because of the division between church and state they had to organise a putsch from within the church,” said Ivan Zhelev, the present government’s director of religious affairs.
A clerical coup saw Patriarch Maxim denounced as a communist stooge, not a man of God, and a breakaway synod formed. But Maxim refused to bow to the rebels, who were never recognised by Bulgarian law.
The two synods have existed side by side ever since, with the dissidents claiming to have rallied 30 per cent of the country’s 1,000 priests to their cause.
Then, after 12 years of dispute, a court recently ruled decisively in Patriarch Maxim’s favour and the police stepped in.
In late July, teams of police flanked by state prosecutors arrived to evict the rebels from their own churches. Images of priests and old women being dragged from 250 church premises by burly, armed policemen flashed round Bulgaria, sparking outrage. Fr Demeter Kutzev, who officiated at Uspenie Bogorodichno Church in Cheplare, said: “I was pushed in the back of a police car and driven away. I had just said Mass, and then suddenly it was like I was a Mafia boss.”
Opposite the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, in front of the locked doors of what was once “their” Saint Sofia church, the rebel priests have established the headquarters of their campaign against the “Red Patriarch”.
On the trunks of nearby trees they have pinned posters featuring the “Antichrist” Maxim wearing the communist red star. A banner overhead reads: “Let’s evict communism from the church.”
For now, it seems the Bulgarian patriarch has won a victory against his religious rivals. But they and their followers promise to endure, churches or no churches.
“This is a criminal, illegal communist patriarch,” said Bogdan Christov at the open-air rebel church. “The real Orthodox Church is in the tents now.”