Sofia, November 11, 2015/Independent Balkan News Agency
By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I may find himself waiting a long time, perhaps forever, before he gets invited to visit Bulgaria again. Even after his return to Istanbul, the offence caused to his hosts by his public remarks about demanding the return of church liturgical valuables missing from northern Greece and about relations between Orthodox churches continued to resonate in a political row.
Most of all, in Parliament the question was raised whether the awarding to Bartholomew of Bulgaria’s highest state honour, the Stara Planina First Degree, had been procedurally in order. Meanwhile, President Rossen Plevneliev, who handed over the honour, said that it had been neither the time nor place for Bartholomew to raise the issue of the northern Greek church valuables at the state award ceremony.
Add to this the questions being asked about who really invited Bartholomew to Bulgaria and, moreover, whose idea it was to give him the Stara Planina honour.
Bartholomew’s departure from Sofia, from the luxury hotel where he had been staying, was accompanied by jeering from a group of Bulgarian Orthodox Christians and journalists who gathered for a protest against him, organised at short notice.
The Ecumenical Patriarch caused upset by calling on Bulgaria to return valuable liturgical items that he described as having been stolen during the Balkan Wars from monasteries in Xanthi, Drama and Serres.
All of these developments were rather a surprise for what most had expected to be a feelgood visit by the top cleric who is “first among equals” among the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Christian church.
In the National Assembly on November 11, after Bartholomew’s departure, the leader of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, Mihail Mikov, asked the Speaker to establish how Bartholomew had got the Stara Planina.
Mikov, in an emotional address, said that a check had established that a decree on the conferring of the honour had not been published in the State Gazette, as procedure required. Nor could any decision by the Cabinet recommending the conferring of the order be found, Mikov said.
He called on Speaker Tsetska Tsacheva to establish whether the honour had been handed over through being “misappropriation”.
Mikov told reporters that Bartholomew’s entire behaviour in Bulgaria had been “insulting to Bulgarian citizens and Christians”, adding that it had been wrong for the Ecumenical Patriarch to “question” the autonomy of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
(On a technical note, Mikov was wrong to refer to the “autonomy” of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The church is autocephalous, one of 15 Eastern Orthodox Christian churches to have that status. Lower in the Orthodox hierarchy are the autonomous churches.)
Mikov said that he had asked Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov what services Bartholomew had rendered to justify the award being conferred on him. Bulgarian law says that in the case of foreigners, the Foreign Ministry proposes the conferring of state honours.
Tsacheva, a senior member of centre-right party GERB – whose leader, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, cancelled a scheduled meeting with Bartholomew after the Ecumenical Patriarch’s controversial remarks – said that she shared Mikov’s desire to establish what had happened procedurally. She undertook to inform MPs.
President Plevneliev told reporters on November 11 that the procedure for awarding the Stara Planina had been followed and the decree had been issued following on a proposal by the Foreign Ministry “in co-ordination with the Bulgarian Academy of Science”.
It has emerged that the Bulgarian Academy of Science and its head, Stefan Vodenicharov, were instrumental in the Bartholomew visit. The academy handed him a honorary doctorate during his visit to Sofia.
Plevneliev said that he had been surprised by Bartholomew’s remarks at the ceremony at which he was given the Stara Planina, saying that it was an inappropriate use of the occasion. However, there was no way to have known in advance that the Ecumenical Patriarch was to raise the issue.
In any case, Plevneliev said, the matter of the liturgical items had been referred to diplomatic channels many years ago. Such channels were the appropriate ones also to handle the matter of the transfer to Bulgaria of the remains of Tsar Samuil, which are in a museum in northern Greece.
“These issues are solved in diplomatic ways and in the development of bilateral relations between Bulgaria and Greece. Bulgarian politicians and diplomats have been aware of the problem for a long time and, in my opinion, it was solved a long time ago,” Plevneliev said.