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News 20 Nov 17

Macedonia's Lonely Church Seeks Bulgarian 'Parent'

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, BPC, faces a dilemma over whether to accept an unusual appeal from the unrecognised Macedonian Orthodox Church to assume parental authority over it.

Mariya Cheresheva, Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Sofia, Skopje
Archbishop Stefan of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Archive photo: MIA

Macedonia's unrecogised Orthodox Church has startled the Orthodox world - and possibly started a new conflict with the Church in Serbia, by asking the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to assume a form of parental authority over it.

The Bulgarian Church told BIRN on Monday that it will probably discuss the unusual request from the Macedonian Orthodox Church at a meeting set for November 27.

“Taking a decision would not be that easy,” the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Holy Synod, Alexandra Karamihaleva, warned.

On Sunday, media in both countries revealed that the Macedonian Church had sent an official written request earlier this month for the Bulgarian Church to become its "mother" Church and so encourage its acceptance as an equal among the other Orthodox churches.

If the Bulgarian side agreed, the Macedonian Church would “recognise the Bulgarian Patriarchate as its mother church, which would be the first to accept and recognise its [Macedonian Church’s] autocephaly [independence] and declare, promote, represent and stand for it before the Ecumenical Patriarchate [of Constantinople] and the other churches,” the letter of the Macedonian Church said.

The Macedonian Church remains unrecognised by other Orthodox Churches due to a long-lasting dispute over its ecclesiastical independence from the Serbian Orthodox Church, to which it was formerly united.

The two churches have remain locked in conflict over the right of the Macedonian Church to be accepted as an equal to the other Orthodox churches.

The Serbian Church, which has close ties with other Orthodox churches, has blocked recognition of the Macedonian Church ever since it unilaterally declared "autocephaly", or ecclesiastical independence, in the late 1960s.

The Serbian Church claims the decision was uncanonical – ecclesiastically illegal – and was pushed by Yugoslavia's then communist government for political reasons.

The latest diplomatic offensive of the Macedonian Church could in theory help it circumvent its isolation, and secure closer official ties with the rest of the Orthodox world under Bulgarian patronage.

However, observers say the initiative risks markedly worsening relations with the Serbian Church, which is bound to oppose the move.

“If this move succeeds, those who stand behind it should be publically congratulated. But if the attempt to ‘bypass’ the Serbian Church fails, the Macedonian Church will face even greater mistrust among its sister orthodox Churches,” Macedonian journalist Branko Geroski wrote for the Sloboden Pecat daily on Monday.

Unlike the Catholic Church, which is governed by one central figure, the Pope, authority in the Orthodox world is more diverse.

Many mainly Orthodox countries have de-facto national churches led by patriarchs and while the Patriarch of Constantinople enjoys theoretical primacy, real power in the Orthodox world rests much more with the Patriarch of Moscow who runs the world's biggest Orthodox Church – by far.

As Church officials from Bulgaria and Macedonia for now remain largely silent about the new development, some Bulgarian politicians and activists have hailed the move.

Bulgarian nationalists have long had aspirations towards Macedonia, and still tend to view Macedonians as brothers separated by an artificial border.

Moreover, in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, the Bulgarian Church controlled most Macedonian dioceses until the Balkan wars of 1912-13, when Serbian seized Macedonia.

In an interview for the Bulgarian Newspaper Monitor, Andrey Kovachev, a Bulgarian MEP from the European People’s Party, called the letter “revolutionary” and urged the Bulgarian Synod to accept the proposal.

Milen Vrabevski, chairman of the “Bulgarian Memory” foundation, told Bulgarian National Television on Sunday that it was "a very brave move of the Macedonian Church”.

“I appeal to the Bulgarian Patriarch to take his place of an ecclesiastical father and to realise that on the other [side] of the border live our spiritual brothers. Supporting the people of Macedonia is the proper thing,” Vrabevski noted.

He said that he had put a lot of effort into facilitating dialogue between the two Orthodox churches in recent months, including series of meetings between Bulgarian and Macedonian bishops.

The Macedonian intiative comes just months after Bulgaria and Macedonia started warming their at times tense political relations with the signing of a friendship treaty in August.

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