Fewer holes in Holy Synod as Bulgarian Orthodox Church drama takes new turn

Controversial Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai and his allies apparently suspended their boycott – or period of mourning, as they put it – to attend the November 26 2012 resumption of the winter session of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s governing body, the Holy Synod.

Twenty days after the death of Patriarch Maxim, which unleashed the high drama of a succession battle amid the remaining leaders of Bulgaria’s largest Christian denomination, all eyes were on Nikolai as interpretations were sought of the meaning of his return to Synod proceedings.

Nikolai, a hardliner ineligible by church rules to succeed Maxim as head of the church, had seemingly lost out in the first stages of the battle to control the future of the church, and had announced that he would spend a period of mourning of 40 days from the time of Maxim’s death on November 6, taking no part in Holy Synod proceedings.

Cynics suggested that this was largely part of a campaign against Varna Metropolitan Kiril, elected acting head of the church at a meeting which also saw Nikolai deprived of the post that he had held for a few days, of acting Metropolitan of Sofia.

Joined by less than a handful of other metropolitans in his time of “prayer and contemplation”, Nikolai also was one of the recipients of a message from the current majority in the Holy Synod reminding them about church rules regarding absenteeism from Holy Synod meetings.

Nikolai had been conducting a bitter campaign against the rest, with his website depicting him as in pious isolation while other metropolitans yielded to temporal temptations of power and other delights (among these, allegedly, being imported single malt whisky).

But on November 26, as Bulgaria’s leading religious news website Dveri noted, offensive material against Kiril and other church leaders have been taken down from Nikolai’s website. Now in pride of place, however, was a letter from a large number of priests in the Plovdiv diocese – the wealthiest, largest and arguably among the most influential of all dioceses in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – expressing support, gratitude, love and solidarity with their metropolitan.

The letter was made public in the Bulgarian-language meeting on the eve of the November 26 Holy Synod meeting.

Dveri said that the return of Nikolai and his close allies to the Holy Synod (which meant that it was at almost full complement, only one metropolitan being absent because he was seriously ill) either meant that Nikolai was prepared to reconcile with Kiril or “some religious analysts believe”, a manoeuvre by Nikolai to be back at the centre of decision-making.

Nikolai was not saying why he came. Questioned by journalists at the doors of the Holy Synod’s Sofia headquarters, the Plovdiv Metropolitan said only that he would answer questions after December 16, the end of the period of mourning for Maxim.

The main issue facing the Synod currently is, of course, preparations for an electoral college to choose a new Patriarch. The deadline that the Synod, under Kiril’s chairmanship, set itself for the holding of an election college is March 6, four months to the day from the death of Maxim.

The logistics of the electoral college, which brings together a range of clergy with a handful of lay people, are not uncomplicated because representatives of Bulgarian Orthodox Church dioceses in North America andEuropealso should attend.

Meanwhile, the Bulgarian-language media has kept at the fore the question of whether having been an agent or collaborator with the country’s communist-era secret service, State Security, would prevent a metropolitan being elected Patriarch.

This is a germane question because of the 14 metropolitans, only three were not – one being Nikolai, who was 20 years old at the time of the formal end of communism in 1989, another being Gavril of Lovech.

The number of candidates potentially in the race to be Metropolitan dropped by a further one in recent days.

Nikolai is disqualified because, at 43, he is seven years too young to be eligible. Ambrosii of Silistra (the third metropolitan who did not work for State Security) does not meet the requirement of having been a metropolitan for at least five years. Yoaniki of Sliven has said that he does not want to be a candidate, while Bulgarian-language media said that Vratsa Metropolitan Kalinik also had said that he does not want to be a candidate.

On November 23, Yosif, Metropolitan of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s North America andAustraliadiocese, told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television that he would not be standing for election as Patriarch.

Asked whether he was available for election, he told the reporter, “no, and you know why? Do you want Agent Nikolov or Agent Zograf? (a reference to his two State Security codenames). You don’t.” Asked about the position of other metropolitans who had worked for State Security, Yosif said, “ask them”.

Among the 11 metropolitans named as having worked for State Security, Yosif is alone in having issued an apology to his fellow Christians.

But Yosif’s stated withdrawal did not tame speculation in the Bulgarian-language media, with some reports treating with skepticism any claims of not wanting to head the church.

Asked by reporters on November 26, as he arrived at the Synod meeting, whether indeed he was not available, Yosif said that when the time came, he would confirm this in a letter. He added, according to local media, “if I tell you about my life so far, I neither wanted to go to America, nor did I want a second term or a third, or a fourth, or to be elected bishop of the United States,Canada and Australia. However, here I am after 30 years, that is not desire, but obedience and service,” he said.

Other metropolitans who spoke to reporters on arrival at the Synod were unforthcoming on the question of who they would support to be Patriarch and whether the State Security issue was decisive.

(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.