An initiative has been launched calling for Pope Francis and Bulgarian Orthodox Church Patriarch Neofit to visit the former Belene political prison camp during the Pope’s visit to Bulgaria in May 2019.
Roman Catholic priest Father Paolo Cortesi told Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) on January 2 that the initiative was called “The Truth Will Set Us Free”.
Belene was used as a prison camp by Bulgaria’s communist regime between 1949 and 1989. In the early years of that regime, more than 2300 people were held there. In the 1980s, those who resisted the communists’ policy of forced renaming of Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity were detained in the camp.
Among those who were imprisoned in Belene during the communist era were Roman Catholic priests and clergy from other denominations.
Father Paolo, who was in the headlines in March 2017 after being recalled from Bulgaria after getting death threats for accommodating Syrian refugees in his parish of Belene, later returning several months later, referred to the prison island as the “capital of memory”.
Should the Pope and the Bulgarian Patriarch visit the former prison island, “it will be a good sign that will give a lot of spiritual energy to all of Bulgaria.
“The invitation is to the Pope because he, in every visit, gives a special place to innocent victims,” Father Paolo told BNR.
“Pope Francis wants to reform the church, free it from the unnecessary, so that the genuine emerges – modesty, poverty, reconciliation, forgiveness, homage to the victims, mercy. Not only he, but the whole church has a special view of the innocent victims,” he said.
Bulgaria commemorates the victims of the communist regime annually on February 1, following a Cabinet decision in 2011. Rossen Plevneliev, who was Bulgaria’s President from 2012 to 2017, visited Belene while in office to pay tribute to those who had been held at the prison camp during the communist era.
(Photo, of a gallery of photographs commemorating victims at Belene: Belene Island Foundation)