A key element of celebrations of Easter among Orthodox Christians is the sharing of the “Holy Fire” which they believe emanates miraculously from within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem every Easter Saturday. In 2018, for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, that fire could spark controversy.
Every year in recent years, an official delegation of senior clergy from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has fetched the “Holy Fire” on an aircraft supplied by the government, from Jerusalem to Sofia.
Reportedly, this year at Sofia Airport a delegation from the Macedonian Orthodox Church will be waiting with its own aircraft to receive the “Holy Fire” from the Bulgarian delegation.
This could complicate matters for the Bulgarians. The Macedonian Orthodox Church is regarded by the majority of Eastern Orthodox Christian churches as schismatic. Recently, it has made an overture to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for the Sofia-headquartered church to accept the role of mother church and for steps to be taken to end the schism.
In an April 5 interview with Bulgarian media, Bulgarian Orthodox Church Western and Central European Metropolitan Antony, who will head the delegation fetching the flame from Jerusalem, said that there was no official information about the intention of the Macedonian delegation to receive the “Holy Fire” at Sofia Airport.
“Everything remains in the sphere of speculation,” Metropolitan Antony said.
Reports quoting “reliable sources” said that an important issue would be how the Macedonian delegation would be dressed, and that their rainment should not be liturgical clothing.
The reports quoted Metropolitan Antony as saying that the Bulgarian church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, had been mandated to be a mediator in the Macedonian church issue, “and some unco-ordinated and chaotic actions during the transmission of the fire could not only slow down but also delay a long-term solution to the problem”.
According to the reports, should the Macedonian Orthodox Church attempt to present the ritual as held jointly with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, this could exacerbate relations with other churches that do not recognise the Macedonian church.
In previous years, the Macedonian church has received the “Holy Fire” via a Greek monastery.
On April 6 2018, this year’s Holy Friday for Orthodox Christians, Bulgarian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Gavriil said in a television interview: “We must help the Macedonian Orthodox Church wisely, without going into schisms again”.
“We can intercede for an end to the schism of the Macedonian church, but we cannot do this on our own, it will not be recognised,” Metropolitan Gavriil said. “That would not make sense, because we took would fall into schism and we would never be able to help – we were in schism for 70 years, and they have been for 50 years,” he said.
In 1967, the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Ohrid Archbishopric unilaterally announced its autonomy from the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Serbian church rejected the move, and in this has been backed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul and all other canonical Orthodox churches.
On April 3, Bulgarian church news specialist website Dveri reported that Archbishop Stefan, the head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, had officially invited Bulgarian Patriarch Neofit to attend May 28 2018 celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the Archbishopric of Ohrid.
The invitation said that if Patriarch Neofit could not attend in person, he could send a representative of the appropriate clerical rank.
Media in the Republic of Macedonia said that the invitation had been sent just days after Neofit reportedly said that if an invitation arrived, the Bulgarian church would be represented.