Bulgarian Orthodox Church heads for high noon in election of new Patriarch

If all goes according to plan, at 11.45am on February 24, the bells of Sofia’s landmark Alexander Nevsky cathedral will toll to signal the close of the election of the new Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and at noon the winner will lead a procession to the cathedral for his enthronement.

The three candidates in the election, to be decided by an electoral college, representing all the dioceses and monasteries of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and made up mainly of clergy with minority representation of laity, are Metropolitan Galaktion of Stara Zagora, Metropolitan Neofit of Rousse and Metropolitan Gavril of Lovetch.

In effect, given various controversies surrounding Galaktion, the election is seen as a contest between Neofit and Gavril. Of these latter two, Neofit was – like the majority of members of the Holy Synod – a collaborator with Bulgaria’s communist-era State Security and Gavril was not, but this is not expected to be a decisive factor in the election.

The final days before the election have not escaped controversy, hardly an unusual development given the various rows that have arisen since the late 2012 death of long-serving Patriarch Maxim created the vacancy. The election also is notable for the being the first since the end of the communist era in Bulgaria.

There was a minor flurry on February 20 when media reports said that the process of the choice of the three candidates by the Holy Synod was being challenged in the Supreme Administrative Court, reportedly by a “Friends of the Orthodox World” group.

This challenge was said to be based on the fact that Neofit and Gavril had been nominated as candidates on the basis of nine votes in the Holy Synod, instead of 10.

A protest of hundreds was promised on the evening of February 21, but journalists and photographers outnumbered those who actually turned up.

At the centre of this protest was retired Father Dimitar Ambarev, a figure remembered from the time of protests against the Bulgarian Communist Party in summer 1990 and later involved with the “Alternative Synod” that sought to oust Patriarch Maxim. It later emerged that the leader of this “Alternative Synod” had been – unlike Maxim – a State Security agent.

Ambarev told journalists that he did not want to stop the February 24 election of the Patriarch but the procedure whereby there had been two candidates elected with nine votes instead of 10 would leave, he said, a “stain” on the church. The vote should be held again so that each candidate had 10 votes, he said.

Lawyer Tatyana Doncheva, for many years the lawyer for the Synod and also formerly a socialist MP, told local media that an appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court could not work because the church’s own statutes exempt it from challenges in secular courts.

Doncheva said that the appeal was inspired by people who had links to the Stara Zagora diocese and Metropolitan Galaktion.

Deyan Nikolchev, a professor in canon law, said that it was unlikely that the challengers to the current process would succeed.

A more high-profile complaint came from Kiril, Metropolitan of Varna and currently the acting head of the Holy Synod, who failed to make the shortlist of three candidates. Kiril wrote a formal dissenting opinion that the decision to admit candidates who had only nine votes was a violation of the church’s statute.

However, Kiril said, he would not try to stop the February 24 election. He emphasised in his letter his “deep respect” for his fellow metropolitans Neofit, Galaktion and Gavril.

Meanwhile, church officials were busy making preparations for the ceremonies, including a sprucing-up of the central Sofia golden-domed cathedral.

The programme for proceedings began on February 22 with delegations from foreign Orthodox Christian churches being received at Sofia Airport. Members of foreign religious delegations had the option of a pilgrimage tour of the Bulgarian capital.

February 23 has been set aside for registration of delegates taking part in the electoral college, while foreign guests have been offered a two-hour cultural tour of Sofia, taking in the seminary, National Art Gallery, Ethnographic Museum and Archaeological Museum. At 6.30pm, a service was being held for heads and members of foreign delegations.

Proceedings on February 24 were set to begin early, with a liturgy scheduled from 5.15am.

In the area around Alexander Nevsky cathedral and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, security measures were to be in place, with a ban on the parking of cars taking effect from February 21, and with measures on February 24 to keep members of the electoral college separate from the media and other outsiders.

At 7.25am, metropolitans were to gather at the Holy Synod building while members of the electoral college were to have their documentation checked from 7.30am to 8am. Should a quorum of 75 per cent of the electoral college not have appeared by 8am, proceedings would be delayed by an hour, the church’s patriarchal office said.

Should matters proceed according to plan, at 8am a procession headed by the most senior clergy will move to the place allocated for the vote in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, followed at about 8.30am by a short prayer service, then the election of electoral officials and in turn, the voting procedures, checking and counting of ballots and announcement of the result at about 11.45am.

The Patriarch-elect, accompanied by senior clergy and the members of the electoral college are to proceed to Alexander Nevsky cathedral at noon for the enthronement ceremony. A “family photo” follows at about 2pm and the Patriarch is to host a reception at 7pm.

Further services follow on February 25. On February 26, the Patriarch is scheduled to meet the Prime Minister (this schedule was drafted before the current political upheavals around the government) while the Defence Minister and army generals are to give a reception in honour of the new Patriarch and foreign religious delegations.

(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)

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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.