Unholy row splits Bulgaria's church

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The Independent Online
SOFIA - The sight of brawling priests has brought to a head a dispute that Bulgaria's Eastern Orthodox church had hoped to forget: allegations of collusion with the former Communist government.

The row surfaced after the 1989 revolution which brought down Bulgaria's veteran Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov. Christopher Sabev, a priest who had been a dissident under Communism, began demanding the resignation of the church's leader, Patriarch Maxim, accusing him of being a Communist agent. In May, Father Sabev barricaded himself inside the holy synod building with the help of three senior bishops.

The rest of the synod condemned Fr Sabev and sacked the bishops. Fr Sabev and his followers then set up a caretaker synod to unite opponents of the patriarch. 'It is absurd for clergymen once loyal to the Communist regime to remain in the reforming church,' said Anatoli Balashov, secretary of the caretaker body.

Eight months ago, Bulgaria's supreme court ruled that Patriarch Maxim, who has been head of the church since 1971, was not the legitimate patriarch because he was not elected but appointed by Mr Zhivkov. The patriarch's followers do not accept the decision. They have appealed against the ruling and refused to recognise the newly-registered caretaker synod, which is expected to run church affairs until the church council reaches its own decision.

In July, priests leading Patriarch Maxim in procession across Sofia's Cathedral Square attacked the synod building with sticks and iron bars. Using a wooden bench as a battering ram, they tried to break down the doors before being driven back by tear- gas fired from inside. There were similar fights at other churches and the building housing the religious academy.

Both sides are now waiting for the decision of the church council either to elect a new patriarch or re-elect Patriarch Maxim. The election may be held within the next few months.

Fr Sabev's supporters say they have evidence that both the patriarch and one of his leading supporters, Bishop Neophit, collaborated with the Communists' secret police. But Bishop Neophit said the church actually ministered to Communists who were 'religious at heart but too afraid to show it'.

During 40 years of Communist rule, many churches were closed, others were turned into museums and people were prosecuted for attending services.