Bulgarian Orthodox Church Patriarch Neofit, speaking ahead of a November 27 meeting of the Holy Synod scheduled to decide whether to accept a request to become the mother church of the “Macedonian Orthodox Church”, said: “We must accept the outstretched hand of Macedonia”.
The Holy Synod, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s governing body, is to consider a letter from the “Macedonian Orthodox Church” – Ohrid Archbishopric sent on November 9 asking to be recognised as an autocephalous church and for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to be its mother church.
Neofit, answering questions from the media on arrival at the Holy Synod’s headquarters in Sofia, said that a decision on the “Macedonian Orthodox Church” had been delayed for many years because it was complicated and had to be very carefully considered.
“The Macedonians are our brothers and accepting the outstretched hand of the Macedonian Orthodox Church is the least we can do,” Patriarch Neofit said.
The overture from the church in the neighbouring country comes amid a warming in official relations between Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav republic. In August 2017, a bilateral treaty on good neighbourly relations was signed between the two countries, the culmination of many years of effort to achieve this, and in November 2017, the two countries’ governments held a joint sitting, a first for them and which saw the signing of nine agreements in various areas of governance.
Outside the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod building, about 100 campaigners in favour of the church accepting the request of the Church of fYROMacedonia held a silent vigil.
“They are our brothers, our people, and we will strive to preserve unity,” Neofit said, adding that all opinions must be heard “and we must not allow serious divisions”.
Dr Momchil Metodiev, a historian and editor-in-chief of Bulgaria’s Christianity and Culture periodical, told Bulgarian National Radio on November 27 that recognition of the “Macedonian Orthodox Church” would be a manifestation of historical responsibility and recognition of the history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the “Macedonian Orthodox Church”.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church was the successor to the Bulgarian Exarchate, Metodiev said.
“I believe that the recognition of the Macedonian church is a historical duty of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and I do not see any canonical obstacles to it”, he told BNR.
Metodiev said that the acquisition of autocephaly was the most problematic issue in the Orthodox Christian world.
“On the one hand, the Ecumenical Patriarchate insists that it alone has the right to grant autocephalous status, while on the other hand, the Russian church says that the mother church has the right to grant autocephalous status”.
Ideally, Metodiev said, the matter should be resolved by consensus among all Orthodox Christian churches, and the Bulgarian church could initiate such talks. “As a result of which, we could expect at best, if not 100 per cent consensus, then a fairly large majority of Orthodox churches deciding precisely what is the status of the Macedonian church”.
On November 23, Patriarch Neofit held talks on the church of fYROMacedonia question with head of state President Roumen Radev.
A statement after the Neofit – Radev talks said that the Bulgarian state and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were united in their desire for the development and deepening of relations between Bulgaria and fYROMacedonia.
Specialist website Dveri reported that there was strong public pressure for a positive decision from the Holy Synod.
A public committee including many historians and Bulgarians descended from the neighbouring country called on the Holy Synod to accept the request.
“We are convinced that if the Bulgarian Patriarchate takes over the extended hand from the Macedonian archbishopric, it will fulfill its historic mission as an ancient and wise church, which has always been led by the care of its flock, by love and mercy to the needy”, the committee said in a letter to the Bulgarian Holy Synod.
The letter said that there was unofficial information that the Holy Synod would decide to consult the other Orthodox churches, which would make the matter a pan-Orthodox one, but at the same time, this could pose the risk of the issue being deferred for more years.
The Russian church opposes a positive decision by the Bulgarian church, concerned that it would create a precedent for the similar request by the Ukrainian church for autocephaly. Serbia also opposes recognition.
Church analysts believe that the Moscow Patriarchate will never agree that the autocephaly will be unilaterally recognised by only one local church, as this would create a precedent for resolving the Ukrainian church question.
Moscow has considerable influence among Bulgaria’s Holy Synod, particularly through pro-Russian Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai, a powerful figure in the Bulgarian church’s governing body.
The church of fYROmacedonia has been in schism for half a century because of the unilateral proclamation of the autocephaly on October 17 1967 in Ohrid, while the country was part of the Communist Federative Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
The dialogue between the church leadership in Serbia and fYROMacedonia intensified especially after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the separation of fYROMacedonia into an independent state
The conflict, however, deepened after the Serbian Church created a parallel church structure in the country – the so-called Orthodox Archdiocese of Ohrid. The head of this structure was given harsh treatment by the authorities in Skopje and has been jailed a number of times for allegedly inciting hatred. His release was achieved in 2015 through the Moscow Patriarch and was presented as a condition for resuming talks with the Serbian Patriarchate. However, such a resumption of negotiations did not happen.
(Photo: The Metropolitan of Skopje and Archbishop of Ohrid, Stefan was invited to attend the inauguration of Bulgarian Patriarch Neofit in February 2013, although he did not participate in the general worship. His presence was in the general atmosphere of the desire for good relations between the two churches, even though they lacked eucharistic fellowship at official level.)/IBNA