Funeral of Bulgarian Orthodox Church Patriarch Neofit

The funeral of Bulgarian Orthodox Church Patriarch Neofit was held in Alexander Nevsky cathedral in capital city Sofia on March 16, preceded by an episcopal liturgy and which was to be followed by a procession for him to be interred in the courtyard of St Nedelya church.

The episcopal liturgy was presided over by Yoan, Metropolitan of Varna, acting head of the church’s governing body the Holy Synod following Neofit’s death on March 13 at the age of 78.

Those present at the liturgy included the current 13 members of the Holy Synod, representatives of most other Orthodox churches and other Christian denominations, former prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg, Ukrainian ambassador Olesya Ilashchuk and Russian ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova.

Mitrofonova and some members of the Holy Synod complained about the presence of Metropolitan Epiphanius, Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, like most Orthodox churches, has not made a decision on the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Epiphanius arrived with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the “first among equals” of the heads of Orthodox Christian churches. The Ecumenical Patriarchate recognised the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as autocephalous in January 2019. Relations between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church are sour.

Following the liturgy, the funeral service, conducted by Patriarch Bartholomew with Bulgarian Orthodox clergy assisting, began.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Arriving at this stage were Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov, Deputy Prime Minister Maria Gabriel, Vice President Iliana Yotova, Speaker of the National Assembly Rossen Zhelyazkov, Sofia mayor Vassil Terziev and President Roumen Radev.

Throughout the rituals in the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, members of the laity continued to file past the coffin of Neofit, to pay their respects on the second and final day of two days of national mourning. From the morning of March 15, thousands of Bulgarians queued to pay their respects to Neofit, and the house of worship was kept open to enable them to do so.

Antonii, Bulgarian Orthodox Church Metropolitan of Central and Western Europe, told Bulgarian National Television that the fact that Neofit’s funeral was conducted by the Ecumenical Patriarch was rooted in Orthodox Christian tradition.

“The first among equals presides over such mourning events, as well as attends the enthronement of the future heads of local Orthodox churches. I do not see anything wrong with this. We have read various statements on this topic, but I think that here we should put aside our emotions and stand firmly on the traditions and observance of the statutes of the Orthodox Church, as bequeathed by our ancestors,” Antonii said.

He said that there was nothing worrisome about the presence of a representative of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the funeral. He would be present but would not take part in the ceremony, Antonii said.

“The Bulgarian Orthodox Church wisely waits to see the older sisters, because in the Orthodox Church there is a hierarchical order. Separately, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has always, looking back, made wise decisions on issues that concern the common life of the Orthodox churches,” he said.

Russian Patriarch Kirill was not present. Mitrofanova said that he had not been invited, though the Russian Patriarchate would be represented by Metropolitan Nestor of Western Europe.

Theologian Professor Ivan Zhelev said that the reason that Kirill had not been sent a special invitation to the funeral of Neofit was “related to the fact that about two months ago the Russian Patriarch sent a letter addressed not to Neofit, but to the Holy Synod, as if we don’t have a Patriarch”. This had fractured relations, Zhelev said.

As to the election of a successor to Neofit, Zhelev said that there was an agreement between the metropolitans that the Metropolitan of Sliven should be elected first and then there should be elections for a new Patriarch.

The post of head of the diocese of Sliven has been vacant since the January 2024 death of Metropolitan Ioanikiy. The process of electing a successor has been disrupted by controversy.

Zhelev said that according to the statute of the church, a metropolitan is elected up to three months after the death of the previous metropolitan. A Patriarch must be elected within four months after the death of Neofit, meaning July 13.

The Sofia Globe staff

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