Controversy over Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s silence on murder of French priest

Controversy has erupted over the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s failure to convey condolences on the murder of French Roman Catholic priest Father Jacques Hamel, with intellectuals and adherents of the church sharply criticising its silence and its treatment of followers of other Christian denominations as heretics.

The controversy was continuing in August, some weeks after Father Hamel was murdered on July 26 by two teenage Islamic extremists in a cathedral in the French city of Rouen. The two, who also took three nuns hostage, were shot dead by police in the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, a few kilometres from Rouen.

In France, Muslims took part in subsequent memorial masses in Roman Catholic churches, as a show of solidarity and rejection of murderous extremism.

People of many faiths expressed condolences after Hamel’s murder, including the Supreme Muslim Council of Bulgaria, which a day after the killing, said that religion must not be an instrument of aggression, adding that the fact that the murder took place in a house of worship was even more insulting and a desecration of a holy place.

Other churches, including the Romanian Orthodox Church in Bulgaria’s northern neighbour, also condemned the murder, as did Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill. But the days passed with no statement from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s top clergy.

Indignant, and referring to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s attitude to other Christian denominations as well as its absence from the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete, Bulgarian award-winning author and playwright Theodora Dimova wrote an article posted on the website, entitled, “Heretic or martyr?”

Dimova, noting the lack of reaction on the part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, said that the lack of compassion was the result of a “special hardening” of the church in recent months, “no compassion, even when blood is shed, over Catholic, not Orthodox, in front of the altar”.

“We are blind and deaf to the fact that the vast majority of Bulgarians are baptised nominally, throughout their lives remaining completely foreign to the church, professing some eclectic faith that wanders between astrology, new and clairvoyance, that baptism is only a tradition or at best, a special type of insurance,” she said.

Lashing out at the Bulgarian Orthdodox Church’s absence from the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete, she noted that the churches and bishops who took part in it had been accused by the Bulgarian church of “terrible and destructive sins”.

The church, she said, had injected an atmosphere of confrontation, rudeness, bitterness and rejection which was comparable only to the Bolshevik militant intolerance of the class enemy.

Given that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had rejected terming the Roman Catholic church a church and had a problem with the admission of Roman Catholics to the Pan-Orthodox Council as observers, then – by this logic, Dimova argued – “Father Jacques cannot be a priest, and then we can overlook barbarism with silence”.

“The death of 86-year-old Father Jacques shocked us all. To serve 59 years before the altar and to be sacrificed before the same altar is something that the Christian consciousness is hard to take. We needed help, for guidance, support, solace. The silence of our Church weighs on us all.”

Soon after, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, posted on its website a statement responding to the criticism, saying that Patriarch Neofit and the Synod “had always responded with compassion and empathy in relation to disasters and terrorist acts in which innocent people of different nationalities, religions, social status and beliefs had died”.

The Holy Synod’s statement went on to list several occasions on which it had expressed condolences and rejections of terrorism.

“The lack of one or another official statement on the occasion of a particular tragic incident should not lead to general conclusions about the position of the Holy Synod or to suggest in the media subjective views and assessments by individual authors as an authoritative assessment of the official position of the Orthodox Church,” the Synod said.

Few failed to note that the Holy Synod’s statement in defence of itself did not include condolences on the death of the French priest.

Political analyst and journalist Toni Nikolov, in an article dwelling on the themes of love and hate, underlined the mutual outreach between Roman Catholics and Muslims in France, in which Father Jacques Hamel had been involved.

He questioned the meaning of the Holy Synod’s statement, noting the reference to Father Jacques as a priest “and there is no priest without a church”. But, Nikolov added, from the statement it was not clear of what church Father Jacques was a priest – perhaps, he said, because a reference to the Roman Catholic Church would get the “zealots” up in arms.

Nikolov recalled that once, before he was to take part in a television programme, he saw two priests in the hallway – one Orthodox and the other Roman Catholic.

“I saw.. the Catholic priest – Father Paolo of Belene – reaching out to his Orthodox brother (whose name and diocese I will spare), who just turned away. There was an awkward silence. And then there came the reply: ‘I do not shake hands with heretics’,” Nikolov said.

Father Paolo, Nikolov said, was a warm person, a parish priest for a dozen years in Belene, a Roman Catholic town, where everyone loved him. Bulgaria was his second home, he spoke Bulgarian beautifully, and in the courtyard of his church, he had created a museum to the victims of communism.

Referring to the Orthodox priest’s spurning of the Catholic priest, Nikolov wrote, “everyone who witnessed this ‘brotherly love’ did not know where to look.

“I only remember how I heard Father Paolo say, ‘I visit prison every day and offer my hand to murderers and criminals. You do not know me. We may belong to different Churches and we are not in communion, but I am a human being like you. As such I am created in God’s image and likeness. No one can deny that.’ I do not remember what answer his Orthodox brother, who stubbornly remained staring at the ground, gave. But I am convinced that the adoption of the Pan-Orthodox document on relations with the rest of the Christian world will, if nothing else, save similar embarrasment.”

In a separate article, theology professor Kalin Yanakiev, said that he was angry and pained by the Holy Synod’s August 2 statement in response to Dimova.

Yanakiev said that the actual motive of the Holy Synod in issuing the statement was not clear, whether it was the – “undoubtedly belated” – declaration of shock and compassion in connection with the murder of Father Jacques or irritation with what the Synod described as the “private position of Mrs Theodora Dimova”.

Opening with irritability at the position of Dimova completely devalued the text, Yanakiev said. The petulance of the statement was shown by its timing, a few hours after her article was published. “This means that, in fact, it is a statement against Theodora Dimova, not just against terrorism”.

The statement, Yanakiev said, seemed to equate the murder of a brother Christian priest with deaths in disasters and accidents, such as earthquakes, fires and traffic accidents.

He noted that in order to justify the church’s decision not to go to Crete, it had styled its enemies as “modernists”, “ecumenical”, “traitors”, “heretics, etc” and had called the Ecumenical Patriarch an “Eastern Papist” collaborating with Rome.

Yanakiev pointed to an article that had been posted on the official website of the Bulgarian Patriarchate, which he said amounted to calling two-thirds of the bishops of the Orthodox Church enemies and traitors to Orthodoxy.

He said that if he were Roman Catholic Nuncio in Bulgaria, he would probably ask the Bulgarian Patriarch whether he agreed with the claim that the Roman Catholic Church was heretical “while he and the Catholic clergy in Bulgaria are illegitimate priests”.

Yanakiev said that if he were the head of the churches, respectively, of Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Serbia, Romania, Greece, Albania, Polish and Czech-Slovak, he would ask the Bulgarian Patriarch whether he supported the opinion that the Pan-Orthodox Council was a “cocktail (party)” and an “anti-Orthodox Maidan”.

Were he Ecumenical Patriarch Bartolomeos I, Yanakiev said, he would ask his brother the Bulgarian Patriarch whether he agreed with the statements on the church’s official site calling the Ecumenical Patriach a Phanariot, a ecumenist, a Turkish servant and a traitor to Orthodoxy.

Noting that he was saying this “somewhat jokingly”, Yanakiev said that if he were former prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg, he would ask whether his marriage to a “heretic” was non-canonical and should be dissolved.

Yanakiev asked the Bulgarian Orthodox Church whether it could continue communion with the 10 churches that took part in Crete, asked whether Catholics should be called heretics, whether Roman Catholic priests were priests, and whether Catholics who had received baptism and confirmation were baptised and confirmed or not.

He asked these questions, he said, because he could not accept as authoritative and binding on his conscience the letter – made public – from a monk on Mount Athos attacking him.

If Crete was a false council, if Catholics are not baptised nor anointed nor priests (as Father Jacques) “I, despite the conviction of a number of zealots in my ‘professorial pride’, ‘conceit’ and ‘stubbornness’ will admit that I was wrong in oral and written public statements,” Yanakiev said.

The day of Yanakiev’s article, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s official site posted a new message of condolences – from Patriarch Neofit, on the deaths in the floods in Macedonia. The message was addressed to Macedonia’s president Gjorge Ivanov, and not to the Macedonian Orthodox Church which – like all other mainstream Orthodox Christian churches – the Bulgarian Orthodox Church does not recognise, or to the Serbian Orthodox Church, which claims authority over Orthodox Christians in the former Yugoslav republic.

(The headquarters in Sofia of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Photo: (c) 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, 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.