Tussle over ‘Russian Church’ in Bulgaria’s capital after ‘clergy’ expelled as threat to national security

The “Russian Church” in Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia is the subject of a tussle that has been going on for days following the expulsion from the country of three clergy – one Russian, two from Belarus – established by the State Agency for National Security as having been a threat to national security.

After the deportation of the three, the main entrance to the church building was padlocked, with Moscow claiming it was up to it to decide its fate and the Kremlin’s ambassador in Sofia using – customarily – insulting language towards Bulgaria, its government and Bulgarians.

On Sunday, a crowd including pro-Kremlin politicians held an event outside the church building, demanding that it be re-opened and the expelled Russian and Belarusians allowed back in to Bulgaria. This protest briefly blocked a main thoroughfare on which the church stands.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, said it would discuss the matter at a meeting on October 3.

Before then, however, there have been public disagreements between members of the Holy Synod about the status of the church.

Metropolitan Naum of Rousse, in a lengthy post on Facebook including a chronology, said that the “Russian Church” is owned by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and is under its jurisdiction.

The closing of the house of worship by outsiders was unacceptable, and the Metropolitan of Sofia (a post held ex officio by the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) should immediately order that it be re-opened and church services restored “in a timely manner”, Naum said.

The head of the Holy Synod, Patriarch Neofit, acting as Metropolitan of Sofia, issued an order on September 25 appointing priests to the church. A media statement by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church said that Neofit had written to Russian Patriarch Kirill (a close ally of Putin) informing him of the actions taken.

Lovech Metropolitan Gavriil disagreed with Naum, telling Bulgarian National Television: “There is no doubt that the property of the Russian Church belongs to Russia, it was built first by Russia, with the money of Russia, and in 1997 they obtained a new title deed based on all these documents that they have, so in this there may be no doubt”.

Several reports on September 26 quoted the Registry Agency as saying that according to its records, meaning the 1997 title deed, the church and the land on it stood belonged to the Russian embassy, as the successor-in-title to the Russian Imperial Diplomatic Agency in Sofia.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov told reporters on September 26 that the “Russian Church” should stay open under the care of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Denkov said that those who had been expelled were not priests but “people who worked against the interests of Bulgaria”.

There have been tensions at the “Russian Church” for years, after Bulgarian clergy were forced out, prompting a number of those who used to attend the church to go to services elsewhere.

The State Agency for National Security, confirming last week that it had expelled the Russian and two Belarusians and banned them from entering Bulgaria for five years, said: “Data were obtained on the actions of the mentioned persons related to the implementation of various elements of the Russian Federation’s hybrid strategy for purposefully influencing the socio-political processes in the Republic of Bulgaria in favour of Russian geopolitical interests”.

MPs from the pro-Kremlin minority in Bulgaria’s National Assembly have called for a hearing in Parliament of the head of the State Agency for National Security. Speaker Rossen Zhelyazkov has requested a copy of the agency’s report that led to the expulsion, to be made available to MPs on a confidential basis.

(Archive photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)

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