Bulgarian police have forcibly expelled members of the alternative Orthodox synod from an unconfirmed number of churches they have been using for over 10 years, causing deep concern in Bulgaria. While some sources have reported the number of churches closed to be 25, others say that many more were shut down around the country. The police raids follow a long-standing split in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and a controversial religion law favoring one side in the split.
The raids, which began early on July 21, were carried out by police in Sofia, Plovdiv, Smolian, Bansko, Chepelare, and other places across Bulgaria with a prosecutor's warrant. "Some 25 churches have been closed," interior ministry spokeswoman Sonya Momchilova was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
The spokeswoman added that more could follow in the future.
The priests of the alternative synod disputed the numbers, saying many more churches were shut down around the country.
Ivan Gruikin, the lawyer representing the alternative synod led by Metropolitan Inokentii and head of the Bulgarian Lawyers' Association condemned the seizure of the churches stating, "The main responsibility lies with the government, which works with the prosecutor's office.
"The order to seize the churches was taken by prosecutors, not by a judge. The prosecutors are trying to play the role of judges," Grukin told Forum 18, a Norway-based organization that monitors religious freedom in Communist and former Soviet states
Gruikin was particularly concerned by the level of police violence, citing more than ten priests and more than 100 lay-people attacked in churches in Sofia alone. He is also concerned about the police detention of Fr Khristo Piserov. "The police want to keep him in prison without giving any reasons," he complained. Also initially detained were Fr Kamen Barakov and Bishop Gevrasy of St Paraskeva Church in Sofia, as well as the secretary of the church, Milena Shtereva, but they have been freed.
Baptist pastor Theodor Angelov, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, was blunt in his support for the ousted Orthodox parishes. "We have full sympathy for our Orthodox brothers and sisters. This is a very difficult moment for all the Churches and the whole population of Bulgaria." He told Forum 18 that he condemned what he regarded as communist-style methods not seen in Bulgaria since the end of the communist period. "Using violence in a time that pretends to be democratic is unacceptable."
He complained of what he saw as the government interference in church affairs. "It is old-style communist thinking that the state should interfere in what should happen within religious communities," he told Forum 18. Angelov was highly critical of what he saw as the failure to use proper judicial process. "The police arrived at churches across the country at six o'clock in the morning, sealing them, dragging out priests by force if they are inside and in some cases beating them – there's nothing legal in that."
Angelov said that while other religious minorities have encountered some problems with places of worship, most obstructions have been from the local authorities, often under pressure from Orthodox priests. "There's been nothing to compare with what's happening now."
A decade after the split in the Orthodox Church, some 250 of Bulgaria's estimated 600 Orthodox churches were in the hands of the alternative synod, led by Metropolitan Inokentii. The rest remained with Patriarch Maxim, who is recognized as the canonical leader by the world despite the alternative synod's claims that his election as patriarch in 1971 was uncanonical because it was decided by the then communist government.
Human rights and religious freedom activists have condemned the forcible expulsion on July 21 of members of the alternative Orthodox synod from the churches they have been using for more than a decade since the Orthodox Church split in the early 1990s, reported Forum 18. "This is a brutal violation of the religious rights of Bulgarian priests and people," Emil Cohen, head of the religious freedom group the Tolerance Foundation, told Forum 18. "It is the most serious violation of religious rights in Bulgaria in the recent past."
In defending the explusions, Professor Ivan Jelev, director of the Religious Affairs Directorate of the Council of Ministers, told Forum 18, "These churches belong to the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate. These others separated from the Orthodox Church, so they have no right to use Orthodox Church property. That's why the police ousted them."
However, Cohen argues that the government's move was not about property. "This is just an excuse for the government's brutal measures," he told Forum 18. "There is a problem over Orthodox property, but this should be resolved by the courts, not by police evicting people from churches. The state have been taking Maxim's side only."
Similarly, Gruikin said many priests and lay-people attacked by the police are lodging complaints with the prosecutor's office. "Many people want to defend their rights, but the problem is that the prosecutor's office is defending Maxim and his synod," he told Forum 18. "So people have little hope they will do much." He said that they will continue their case as far as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.