A delegation of senior clergy from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church left for the celebrations of the centenary of the restoration of the patriarchal status of the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate without Bulgarian Patriarch Neofit, who had been scheduled to attend.
A statement on the website of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church said that the delegation was being headed by Lovech Metropolitan Gavriil, who is the most senior metropolitan in the delegation.
The statement did not say why Patriarch Neofit had withdrawn, but he was reported to be ill.
The gathering in Moscow, being held from December 1 to 7, is being held soon after the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, decided to consult other Orthodox Christian churches on a request to it from the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Ohrid diocese for recognition as autocephalous, and for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to accept the role of being its mother church.
Ahead of the November 27 Holy Synod meeting that made the decision, Patriarch Neofit had said that the church should “accept the outstretched hand” of the Macedonian church.
In an apparent reference to expectations that the Macedonian question would be discussed in Moscow, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church statement said that negotiations on the issue of the Macedonian Orthodox Church would begin only after the committee appointed at the Holy Synod meeting on November 27 held a meeting and decided on a strategy for its actions.
The Russian Orthodox Church is seen as opposed to autocephalous status for the Macedonian Orthodox Church because of concerns that this would create a precedent that could be used by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has similar aspirations, that Moscow opposes.
The church in Macedonia has been in schism for half a century because of the unilateral proclamation of the autocephaly on October 17 1967 in Ohrid, while the country was part of the Communist Federative Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
The dialogue between the church leadership in Serbia and Macedonia intensified especially after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the separation of Macedonia into an independent state.
The conflict, however, deepened after the Serbian Church created a parallel church structure in the country – the Orthodox Archdiocese of Ohrid. The head of this structure was given harsh treatment by the authorities in Skopje and has been jailed a number of times for allegedly inciting hatred. His release was achieved in 2015 through the intercession of the Moscow Patriarch and was presented as a condition for resuming talks with the Serbian Patriarchate.
The overture in the letter sent by the Ohrid diocese to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod came against a background of an overall warming of official relations between Sofia and Skopje, with the signing of a good-neighbourliness treaty between the governments of Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia on August 1 2017, and a first joint meeting of the two governments on November 23.