Bulgarian church row over return of the Archons

A petition, public protest and open division among the Bulgarian Orthodox Church have followed the church’s new rules legitimising the awarding of the title “Archon” to lay people – with critics among the faithful lashing out at church leaders for conferring the title on those they allege hardly deserve it.

The row, revived in 2012, first broke out in 2007 when the title was given to Slavi Binev.

Binev, a Sofia business person in his 40s whose company is in the finance, security and entertainment business and reportedly owns what is arguably the Bulgarian capital city’s most popular pop-folk nightclub, was among four people made into an “Archon” that year – the first time that the title had been conferred since the 14th century.

The title was conferred on Binev, who in 2007 was the failed Sofia mayoral candidate for Volen Siderov’s ultra-nationalist Ataka party (and whose detractors lampooned him by distributing pre-election posters with photos of Binev outside Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia wearing a fez), at a ceremony far away from traditional Orthodox Christian territory – the Vatican in Rome.

The 2012 reboot of the controversy has seen Archon status given to, among others, business person Petar Mandjukov – former owner of Bulgarian Socialist Party mouthpiece Duma, founder of the BBT television channel and who some time ago became known as a prominent trader in the fuel business – by Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai.

Mandjukov, awarded Bulgaria’s highest honour, the Stara Planina, by then-president Georgi Purvanov for services to journalism, was a collaborator and agent with Bulgaria’s communist-era State Security, under the code name Omurtag, according to information made public by the Dossier Commission.

Others who have been given the title include business person Ivan “Chombe” Kochev and Ovanes “Pashaeva” Melik, a naturalised Bulgarian citizen of Russian origin perhaps best known for organising concerts in Bulgaria by Russian pop stars.

The awards prompted a silent protest outside the headquarters of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, on June 22 after the church’s leadership – with at least two senior clerics dissenting – endorsed rules drafted by the Plovdiv diocese on the awarding of the “Archon” titles.

In 2007, the church had come out against handing out the title. The 2012 decision by the Holy Synod reverses this.

The Holy Synod said that the title Archon could be given only to Orthodox Christians, by the diocesan bishop at the discretion of the diocesan council.

Where funds had been donated, “the manner of their acquisition should not be contrary to Christian morality and the morality taught by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church”.

The title Archon should be awarded only for visible and proven public merit in supporting the activities of the Orthodox Church, the Holy Synod said.

Such contributions could include building new churches, serving the spiritual needs of a large number of lay people, repairs and other forms of assistance to diocesan monasteries, restoring monastic life, sustainable support for the educational and social activities of the church, long-term support for religious lessons and Sunday school, construction and maintenance of soup kitchens, orphanages, shelters and other similar charitable institutions.

An Archon could have manifested extraordinary civic activity in the field of religious education, and a significant intellectual or creative contribution, which has honoured spiritual rather than material values and has put all his skills and talents to the glory of the Divinity and the benefit of the church.

Metropolitan Nataniel Nevrokopski publicly dissented with the decision by the Holy Synod, saying that he did not agree with the new rules on the title and would never confer it. His conscience was “troubled and disturbed” by the new ruling, Bulgarian media reported him as saying.

He said that by its decision, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was demeaning the great virtue of church-building for motives that were pure, and was resurrecting the defunct practice of the Roman Catholic church of the sale of indulgences.

“This will mislead men into buying the fancy title by building temples,” Metropolitan Nataniel said.

News website Mediapool said on June 22 that within 48 hours, a steering committee against the Archon decision had collected close to 800 signatures.

Theologian and philosophy professor Kalin Yanakiev, who took part in the vigil, told Bulgarian National Radio that the campaign would continue to seek support until the clergy took it seriously.

“We are gathered here as Orthodox Christians who do not want a departure from Orthodox traditions,” he said.

Author Emilia Dvoryanova said that she did not know whether the protest would awaken the conscience of those who took the decision on Archons, “I cannot answer for their consciences but I can promise that there will be very strong pressure to abandon (the decision),” she said.

She called on other lay people and people who care for the church “to wake up and realise that for 20 years we have succumbed to their mafia country but now we are gathered as people who will not allow the mob to seize the church”.

Varna Metropolitan Kiril said that he too had rejected the new rules on Archons. The decisions of the Holy Synod should follow morality and the finest traditions of the Bulgarian church, and not introduce new practices.

This is the latest public controversy to shake the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which in 2011 was in the headlines for some time after the Dossier Commission disclosed that most of the Holy Synod – with few exceptions, including church head Patriarch Maxim and Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai  – had been agents and collaborators with communist-era State Security.

(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)





Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.