The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which played a crucial role in preserving
Bulgarian culture during the Ottoman occupation, remained central to the sense
of Bulgarian nationhood even under the postwar communist regimes. In spite of
the official status of Orthodoxy, Bulgaria also had a tradition of tolerance
toward other Christian religions. Tolerance of Islam, however, remained
problematic under all forms of government because of that religion's historical
identification with the occupation and subjugation of Bulgaria.
In 1991 most Bulgarians were at least nominally members of the Bulgarian
Orthodox Church, an independent national church like the Russian Orthodox Church
and the other national branches of Eastern Orthodoxy. Because of its national
character and its status as the national church in every independent Bulgarian
state until the advent of communism, the church was considered an inseparable
element of Bulgarian national consciousness. Baptism, before 1944 an
indispensable rite establishing individual identity, retained this vital role
for many even after the communists took power. The power of this tradition
caused the communist state to introduce a naming ritual called "civil baptism" (grazhdansko
Although communist regimes could not eliminate all influence, they did undermine
church authority significantly. First, the communists ruled that the church only
had authority on church matters and could not take part in political life.
Second, although the constitution made the church separate from the state, the
clergy's salaries and the fees needed to maintain the churches were paid by the
state. This meant that the clergy had to prove its loyalty to the state. From
1949 until 1989, religion in Bulgaria was mainly controlled by the Law on
Religious Organizations, which enumerated the limitations on the constitution's
basic separation of church and state.
The number of Orthodox priests declined from 3,312 in 1947 to 1,700 in 1985.
Priests associated with the prewar regime were accused of engaging in illegal or
antisocialist activities, supporting the opposition, and propagandizing against
the state. Upon taking control of all church property, the state had the choice
of maintaining churches or closing them down. Thus, for example, Rila Monastery,
the largest monastery in Bulgaria, became a national museum in 1961.
In 1987 the Orthodox Church had 3,720 churches and chapels, 120 monasteries, 981
regular and 738 retired priests, 135 monks, and 170 nuns. The church was
administered by a Holy Synod. Under communist rule, the synod had the authority
to publish limited quantities of religious material such as magazines,
newspapers, and church calendars. A new translation of the Bible was published
in 1982, but in such small quantities that the size of the printing could not be
determined. By 1988 the 1982 edition was being resold at ten times the original
After the fall of Zhivkov, the Orthodox Church and other churches in Bulgaria
experienced a revival. Church rituals such as baptisms and church weddings
attracted renewed interest, and traditional church holidays were observed more
widely. Christmas 1990, the first Christmas under the new regime, was widely
celebrated and greatly promoted in the mass media. By contrast, Christmas had
received little public attention during the postwar years. The government
returned some church property, including the Rila Monastery, and religious
education and Bible study increased in the early post-Zhivkov years. The
Orthodox seminary in Sofia returned to its original home in 1990 and attracted
over 100 male and female students in its first year of operation. The Konstantin
Preslavski Higher Pedagogical Institute added a new theology department to train
theology, art, and music teachers as well as priests. The Holy Synod planned to
publish 300,000 Orthodox Bibles in 1992.
The Muslim population of Bulgaria, including Turks, Pomaks, Gypsies, and
Tatars, lived mainly in northeastern Bulgaria and in the Rhodope Mountains. Most
were Sunni Muslims because Sunni Islam had been more widely promoted by the
Ottoman Turks when they ruled Bulgaria. Shia sects such as the Kuzulbashi and
the Bektashi also were present, however. About 80,000 Shia Muslims lived mainly
in the Razgrad, Sliven and Tutrakan (northeast of Ruse) regions. They were
mainly descendants of Bulgarians who converted to Islam to avoid Ottoman
persecution but chose a Shia sect because of its greater tolerance toward
different national and religious customs. For example, Kuzulbashi Bulgarians
could maintain the Orthodox customs of communion, confession, and honoring
saints. This integration of Orthodox customs into Islam gave rise to a type of
syncretism found only in Bulgaria.
As of 1987, Muslims in Bulgaria had 1,267 mosques served by 533 khodzhai, or
religious community leaders. The Muslim hierarchy was headed by one chief mufti
and eight regional muftis, interpreters of Muslim law, all of whom served
five-year terms. The largest mosque in Bulgaria was the Tumbul Mosque in Shumen,
built in 1744.
Bulgarian Muslims were subject to particular persecution in the later years of
the Zhivkov regime. This was partly because the Orthodox Church traditionally
considered them foreigners, even if they were ethnically Bulgarian. The
Bulgarian communist regimes declared traditional Muslim beliefs to be
diametrically opposed to communist and Bulgarian beliefs. This justified
repression of Muslim beliefs and consolidation of Muslim into the larger society
as part of the class and ideological struggle.
Like the practitioners of the other faiths, Muslims in Bulgaria enjoyed greater
religious freedom after the fall of the Zhivkov regime. New mosques were built
in many cities and villages; one village built a new church and a new mosque
side by side. Some villages organized Quran (also seen as Koran) study courses
for young people (study of the Quran had been completely forbidden under Zhivkov).
Muslims also began publishing their own newspaper, Miusiulmani, in both
Bulgarian and Turkish.
Roman Catholic missionaries first tried to convert the Bulgarians during the
reign of Boris I. They were unsuccessful, and Boris I led the Bulgarians in
their conversion to Orthodoxy. In 1204 the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloian (1197-1207)
formed a short-lived union between the Roman Catholic Church and the Bulgarian
Orthodox Church as a political tactic to balance the religious power of the
Byzantine Empire. The union ended when Rome declared war on Bulgaria and the
Bulgarian patriarchate was reestablished in 1235. The Catholic Church had no
influence in the Bulgarian Empire after that date.
Nonetheless, Catholic missionaries renewed their interest in Bulgaria during the
sixteenth century, when they were aided by merchants from Dubrovnik on the
Adriatic. In the next century, Vatican missionaries converted most of the
Paulicians, the remainder of a once-numerous heretical Christian sect, to
Catholicism. Many believed that conversion would bring aid from Western Europe
in liberating Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. By 1700, however, the Ottomans
began persecuting Catholics and preventing their Orthodox subjects from
After Bulgaria became independent, the Catholic Church again tried to increase
its influence by opening schools, colleges, and hospitals throughout the
country, and by offering scholarships to students who wished to study abroad.
Prince Ferdinand of SaxeCoburg -Gotha, first ruler of independent Bulgaria, was
himself Catholic and supported the Vatican in these efforts. The papal nuncio
Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, played a leading role in
establishing Catholic institutions in Bulgaria and in establishing diplomatic
relations between Bulgaria and the Vatican in 1925.
The communist era was a time of great persecution for Catholics, nominally
because Catholicism was considered the religion of fascism. Bulgarian communists
also deemed Catholicism a foreign influence because, unlike Orthodoxy, it had no
ties to Russia. The logic was that anything anti-Russian must also be
antiBulgarian . Under the communist regimes, Catholic priests were charged with
following Vatican orders to conduct antisocialist activities and help opposition
parties. In 1949 foreign priests were forbidden to preach in Bulgaria, and the
papal nuncio was forbidden to return to Bulgaria. Relations between the Vatican
and Bulgaria were severed at that time. During the "Catholic trials" of 1951-52,
sixty priests were convicted of working for Western intelligence agencies and
collecting political, economic, and military intelligence for the West. Four
priests were executed on the basis of these charges. In the early 1950s, the
property of Catholic parishes was confiscated, all Catholic schools, colleges,
and clubs were closed, and the Catholic Church was deprived of its legal status.
Only nominal official toleration of Catholic worship remained.
In 1991 about 44,000 Roman Catholics remained in Bulgaria, mostly in Ruse,
Sofia, and Plovdiv. Another 18,000 Uniate Catholics were concentrated in Sofia.
(Uniate Catholics recognize the pope as their spiritual leader, but practice the
Eastern Orthodox rite.) Bulgaria reestablished relations with the Vatican in
1990, and the Bulgarian government invited the pope to visit Bulgaria. Uniate
Catholics began assisting Western-rite Catholics in conducting masses in
Bulgarian, making the liturgy more accessible, and prompting predictions that
the two branches would unite. Relations had not been established between the
Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in 1991, however, and
Catholics blamed official Orthodox intolerance for the continued rift.
Protestantism was introduced in Bulgaria by missionaries from the United States
in 1857-58, amid the National Revival period. The two main denominations, the
Methodists and Congregationalists, divided their areas of influence. The former
predominated in northern Bulgaria and the latter in the south. In 1875 the
Protestant denominations united in the Bulgarian Evangelical Philanthropic
Society, which later became the Union of Evangelical Churches in Bulgaria.
Besides setting up churches, the Protestants established schools, clinics, and
youth clubs, and they distributed copies of the Bible and their own religious
publications in Bulgarian. The Union of Evangelical Churches produced the first
translation of the entire Bible into Bulgarian in 1871 and founded the
nondenominational Robert College in Constantinople, where many Bulgarian leaders
of the post-independence era were educated. After independence in 1878, the
Protestants gained influence because they used the vernacular in services and in
The communist regimes subjected Protestants to even greater persecution than the
Catholics. In 1946 church funding was cut off by a law curbing foreign currency
transactions. Because many ministers had been educated in the West before World
War II, they were suspected automatically of supporting the opposition parties.
In 1949 thirty-one Protestant clergymen were charged with working for American
intelligence and running a spy ring in Bulgaria. All church property was
confiscated, and the churches' legal status was revoked. Most of the mainstream
Protestant denominations maintained the right to worship nominally guaranteed by
the constitution of 1947.
According to estimates in 1991, the 5,000 to 6,000 Bulgarian Pentecostals made
that sect the largest Protestant group. The Pentecostal movement was brought to
Bulgaria in 1921 by Russian émigrés. The movement later spread to Varna, Sliven,
Sofia, and Pleven. It gained popularity in Bulgaria after freedom of religion
was declared in 1944, and the fall of Zhivkov brought another surge of interest.
In 1991 the Pentecostal Church had thirty-six clergy in forty-three parishes,
with sufficient concentration in Ruse to petition the government to establish a
Bible institute there. In 1991 the Adventist Church had 3,500 Bulgarian members,
twothirds of them young people. The Adventist movement began in the Dobruja
region of Bulgaria at the turn of the century and then spread to Tutrakan, Ruse,
Sofia, and Plovdiv. It gained momentum in Bulgaria after 1944. Under the
communist regimes, mainstream Adventists maintained the right to worship. Some
twenty parishes with forty pastors remained active through that era, although a
breakaway reformed group was banned because of its pacifist beliefs. Some
Adventists were imprisoned for refusal of military service.
The Bulgarian communist regimes officially considered Jews a nationality rather
than a religious group. For that reason, and because nearly 90 percent of the
country's Jewish population emigrated to Israel after World War II, the Jewish
society that remained in Bulgaria was mainly secular. Under the Zhivkov regime,
synagogues rarely were open in Sofia, Samokov, and Vidin. In 1990 the Jewish
population was estimated at about 71,000. At that time, only two rabbis were
active, although several synagogues reportedly were reopened under the new
regime. Most of the Jews in Bulgaria were Sephardic, descended from Spanish Jews
who spoke Hebrew or Ladino (a Judeo-Spanish dialect). A much smaller number were
Ashkenazi, with Yiddish-speaking ancestors. However, very few Jews in
postcommunist Bulgaria remembered their ancestral languages, and frequent mixed
marriages further diluted feelings of Jewish identity. The Jews of Bulgaria
assimilated easily into Bulgarian society, partly because they traditionally
lived in cities and worked as tradesmen or financiers.
The fate of the Bulgarian Jews during World War II was a source of Bulgarian
pride. The approximately 50,000 Jews then living in Bulgaria had long been well
integrated into the fabric of Bulgarian city life. Because of this integration,
neither society in general nor Tsar Boris III was inclined to follow the
anti-Jewish policies of Bulgaria's Nazi ally. Boris tried to appease the Nazis
by passing comparatively benign anti-Jewish laws, which nevertheless were
protested widely, especially by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Twice in 1943,
Boris personally blocked orders to deport Bulgarian Jews, sending them instead
to so-called labor camps inside Bulgaria. Many Jews also received transit visas
to Palestine at this time.