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Religion in Bulgaria

Throughout history religion has been the cause of many wars and much dispute and its influence on society still continues today. The religion of a country is not often a consideration when looking for a holiday or permanent home abroad, however with so little known about Bulgaria and its close proximity to Islamic countries like Serbia and Turkey, this topic often becomes an issue for research. We take a look at the religious make up of the country along with its interesting historic background.


Bulgarian Orthodox

Most Bulgarians (around 82.6% of the total population) follow the teachings of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.  The Church was established in 870 AD under the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which meant that its head bishop reported to the head of the Church in Constantinople. In 1950, the Orthodox Church reestablished its own Patriarchate, which meant that its head is equal in status to that of the world's Orthodox bishops. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church follows a Christian doctrine similar to Catholicism with confession, communion and the honouring of saints days. During the Communist era religion was banned except for old people and this has left the country with a deficit of churches and religious life.

Islam

It is not uncommon to see a mosque dominating the skyline of some Bulgarian towns today. Islam was introduced to Bulgaria at the end of the 14th century, when it was conquered by the Ottoman army. The Ottomans strengthened Islamic religious beliefs by encouraging many Turks to settle here and by imposing taxes on the indigenous population who refused to convert to Islam. Despite the existence of Islam as a recognised religion in Bulgaria today, there are no fundamental movements and Bulgarian Muslims do not don special clothing like many other Islamic countries. Bulgarian Muslims live mainly in the Rhodope Mountains and north eastern Bulgaria and make up around 12.2% of the population. Most of Bulgarian Muslims are Sunni Muslims, which was the type of Islam followed by the ruling Turks. Today, most followers of Islam descend from those who converted to Islam to avoid persecution by the Ottomans. They chose to belong to a Shi'a sect because it offers greater tolerance to other religions and customs. In some cases these Islamic believers still maintain Orthodox customs of confession, communion, and honoring saints. This integration of another religion playing a supporting role alongside Islam is unique to Bulgaria. Muslims were also restricted in their religious beliefs during the Communist era. Their religion was thought to be at odds with communist ideology.


Roman Catholicism

Missionaries from Rome arrived in Bulgaria during the 16th and 17th centuries to convert the local populous to Catholicism. Their work was concentrated around the towns Shishtov and Plovdiv. It is the country’s third largest religion after Bulgarian Orthodox and Islam. Those people who converted to Catholicism at this time did so in the belief that it would bring aid from Western Europe, where the Catholicism was deeply rooted in some societies, to help the Bulgarians overthrow the Ottoman rulers. Unfortunately it had an adverse effect and Catholics were persecuted and Orthodox Bulgarians were prevented from converting to Catholicism.

Once Bulgaria was liberated, the Catholic Church tried again to increase its authority. It opened many schools, colleges, and hospitals across Bulgaria and offered scholarships to those Catholic students who wished to study abroad. The first king of the new independent Bulgaria, Ferdinand of SaxeCoburg –Gotha, supported this as he was indeed himself a Catholic. In 1925, Pope John XXIII strengthened relations between the Vatican and Bulgaria and more Catholic institutions were founded.
After the Second World War, some Bulgarian Orthodox churches were permitted but Catholicism was denounced as the religion of fascism with no ties to Russia. Catholic priests were imprisoned for following orders from the Vatican encouraging them to conduct anticommunist activities and foreign priests were not allowed  into Bulgaria. In the early Fifties a number of Catholic priests were accused of being Western spies and four were executed for these crimes. Following these trials property belonging to the Catholic Church was confiscated.
After the fall of Communism relations with the Vatican were reestablished and the Pope was invited by Bulgarian government to visit the country.

Protestantism

In 1857 missionaries from America introduced Protestantism into the country. They established churches and schools, clinics, and youth groups and distributed copies of the Bible and other religious publications translated into Bulgarian. After the liberation in1878, the Protestants increased their influence but by Communist times their practices were also outlawed and the suffered greater persecution than the Catholics. Church funding was forbidden as foreign monetary transactions were forbidden. Ministers were also accused of being spies and in 1949 thirty-one Protestant clergymen were convicted as Western spies. Again all property was confiscated by the Communist government.


Religion in Bulgaria Today


After the fall of Communism, religion in Bulgaria experienced a revival with people flocking to all denominations for baptisms and weddings as well as to celebrate religious ceremonies like Easter and Christmas. Some church property like the Rila Monastery was returned to its rightful owners. Practitioners of all faiths finally enjoyed a greater degree of religious freedom; new mosques and churches were built in many cities and towns - one village built a new mosque and a church side by side. Religious education was increased although it was and still isn't included in the state school curriculum.