Controversy continues over Bulgarian church honouring Saxe-Coburg as ‘king’

The decision by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, for former monarch and former prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg to be honoured as “Tsar of the Bulgarians” in public and private liturgies is continuing to generate controversy.

Bulgaria’s current President and one of his former predecessors as head of state have spoken against it, while other voices have been raised against the Holy Synod’s decision as against Bulgaria’s constitution and the church’s canon law.

Dr Atanas Slavov, professor of constitutional law at Sofia University, told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio on May 4 that in terms of the constitution and public law, a royal title of this kind could not be recognised in Bulgaria.

Slavov said that the church apparently was using the title that Saxe-Coburg would have had under the Turnovo Constitution (Bulgaria’s first formal written constitution, adopted in 1879).

Apparently the church was declaring allegiance to the constitutional order established by the Turnovo Constitution, and this was a major problem, a dualism which in terms of public law was unacceptable, he said.

Slavov said that there was also a problem with the Holy Synod’s decision in the context of canon law. In the parts of religious services that the church said should mention Saxe-Coburg, the intention was to refer to the state authorities currently in power. The Holy Synod had brought politics into the church, with a decision that created divisions among Christians themselves, he said.

He said that the Holy Synod’s decision should not be seen in isolation, but was part of a series of events not only in Bulgaria but also in Russia, with talk of trying to establish a monarchy as a legimitate form of government.

Plamen Sivov, executive director of the Pokrov Foundation – an organisation of the laity operating within the Orthodox Church under the spiritual guidance and leadership of its priests and the bishops, with the aim of promoting Orthodox Christianity in Bulgaria through through charity, publishing work and cultural activities – said that there was no justification for the decision of the Holy Synod.

Changing the liturgical text of the Orthodox Church cannot and should not happen in the way that happened, Sivov said.

The liturgical text was not just a literary form, but had been proven over the centuries, “every word, every letter in it is meaningful”.

“Each gesture of the priest during the liturgy, the way each word is pronounced, has a deep sense – and it is not just symbolic. It reflects some inner belief of the entire congregation. And if a change of liturgical text can happen in this way, as happened to us without any reasons, without any explanation, without any preparation by the Holy Synod, this is an indication of a very serious systemic problem in the management of Church,” Sivov said.

Writing on the website of Kultura, theologian Professor Kalin Yanakiev criticised the Holy Synod’s decision, which he said he had heard about with “anger and disappointment”.

Yanakiev said that he would refrain completely from the temptation to raise the issue what role in the decision had been played by the presence in Bulgaria of a Russian church delegation for the celebrations of the 1150th anniversary of the official adoption of Christianity by Bulgaria.

He said that, in effect, the Holy Synod had issued an instruction to “all its children”, Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria, “not to recognise the constitution of the country in which they live”.

Political scientist Daniel Smilov, quoted by local news agency Focus, said that the Holy Synod’s decision contained a political message yet it should not be exaggerated. Bulgaria was a parliamentary republic and Bulgarian society firmly backed this fact, he said.

A day after President Rossen Plevneliev’s comments on the issue, one of his predecessors, Georgi Purvanov, made his own comments.

Purvanov, who was a historian in the communist era and a State Security agent before going on to the leadership of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and then two terms as head of state, from 2002 to the beginning of 2012, said that the vote in the 1946 referendum abolishing the monarch should not be revised.

Purvanov, who specialised in the history of referendums in Bulgaria during the communist era, said that in the 1946 vote, 90 per cent had voted for a republic and against the monarchy. A month later, parliamentary elections had seen the opposition win 1.2 million votes, which – Purvanov argued – meant there could be no doubt about Bulgarians’ vote in favour of a republic.

On the afternoon of May 4, a statement was posted on Saxe-Coburg’s website, referring to the “heated debates about the decision by the Holy Synod” which, the statement said, were clearly part of the technique of distracting public attention with trivial issues.

The statement quoted what Saxe-Coburg had said on receiving the Order of St Ivan Rilski at a church ceremony on May 2, “Just as I have served the church and the Republic of Bulgaria, I intend to do so in the future”.

“Let us not allow ourselves to be manipulated with conspiracy theories and petty political games that have nothing to do with the decision of the Holy Synod,” the statement said.

Referring to “these conspiracy theories”, the statement rejected reports in some Bulgarian-language media that Saxe-Coburg would be in Moscow on May 9 for Victory Day celebrations.

Russia’s celebrations, of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War 2, have been controversial, especially on the point of attendance by foreign leaders. Several Western and European leaders have let it be known that they would not attend, in stances seen as linked to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Separate Bulgarian media reports have said that President Plevneliev would not attend the ceremonies in Moscow.

(Photo: Christopher Olinge)



The Sofia Globe staff

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