With new patriarch, Bulgarian Orthodox Church turns toward Moscow

The Cathedral Saint Alexander Nevski in Sofia, Bulgaria.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

A tense election in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church on 30 June ended with the enthronement of Metropolitan Daniil of Vidin as the new metropolitan of Sofia and patriarch of all Bulgaria, giving the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow an apparent ally as the church and its sponsor, Vladimir Putin, look to strengthen its influence in the Balkans.

A 52-year-old former monk, Daniil was elected by just three votes over his main competitor, Metropolitan Grigori of Vratsa, by the 140 lay and clerical delegates on the church's electoral council. At 52, just two years older than the minimum age church law allows for the Patriarch, Daniil will likely hold the post for many years.

Since the outbreak of full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine in 2022, churches across Eastern Europe have been riven over their connections with the world's largest Orthodox body, the Moscow Patriarchate, and recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which proclaimed its independence in 2018.

Many who opposed Daniil worry that his election represents a sharp turn away from the policies of his predecessor Neophyte I, who is remembered as a unifier.

"For many of us observers, these elections were a referendum of where a Bulgarian church is heading in terms of the wider Orthodox Church," Andreja Bogdanovski, a scholar and analyst on Orthodox Christianity, told RNS. "Up until a week ago, there was a distinction between pro-Russian groups among the hierarchies and also those who want to see closer relations with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Ecumenical Patriarch."

Eastern Orthodoxy is a fellowship of more than a dozen independent churches — "autocephalous" in Greek — each led by a patriarch or other leader and ruling a defined geographical region.

In 2019, Russia broke communion with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, regarded as the "first among equals" among the patriarchs, after Bartholomew recognized the move by Ukraine's anti-Moscow Orthodox Christians to organize as a semi-independent church. The move prompted Kirill to declare the Russian invasion to be a holy war.

Since then, Bartholomew has lent his support to other Orthodox parishes seeking to exit from the Russian church and brought them under his wing. In Ukraine, the United States and elsewhere, Russia has been accused of using its church as a sort of shadow foreign service, or even a spy network. Last summer, the ROC's top-ranking priest in Bulgaria was expelled from the country on charges of espionage.

The Bulgarian Church, however, has not taken a final position on Ukraine's autocephaly, despite Neophyte I's sometimes harsh criticism of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Daniil, on the other hand, has rejected calling Russia the aggressor in the war and has spoken out harshly against the independence of the Ukrainian independent church while attacking his Bulgarian church colleagues who have supported it.

In 2019, Daniil's letter to Orthodox leaders around the world strongly criticizing the Ukrainian Church earned him a rebuke from the synod of the Bulgarian Church. Days before his election, in an interview with Bulgarian media, Daniil compared the Ukrainian Church's independence with Soviet repression of the church, comparing the Soviets' "slaughter of priests, destruction of hundreds and thousands of temples, attempt to replace the institution itself through a renewed schism," to the creation of "the so-called Orthodox Church in Ukraine."

Daniil had a close relationship with Archimandrite Vassian, the Russian Orthodox priest expelled last summer, after which he publicly defended the accused spy and lambasted the Bulgarian synod for its decision to briefly take over operation of the Russian Church.

"His actions are being perceived as very pro-Russian, giving us a hint about what the future holds for the church, which has closer ties to Moscow and Patriarch Kirill strengthening his influence in southeastern Europe," said Bogdanovski.

For his part, Kirill congratulated Daniil in a statement, saying, "Today the Russian Orthodox Church sincerely rejoices together with its beloved Sister Church, for standing at its helm is a God-wise hierarch known for his piety, firm commitment to the sacred canonical order and willingness to work selflessly, strengthening the ecclesiastical unity."

Daniil's enthronement comes at a time when the Russian church has been strongly focused on building its support in the Slavic countries of southeastern Europe. The Russian church has long had strong ties with the Serbian Orthodox Church, much as the Russian state has with the Serbian government under the presidency of Aleksandar Vučić.

While Russia had broken ties with Constantinople over the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, it backed the 2022 decision to grant autocephaly to North Macedonia's orthodox Christians who had previously been subsumed under the Serbian church. That angered Constantinople, but also Greece, which objected to the church being named "Macedonian," just as they had blocked the state from joining NATO until it added "North" to its name.

While Bulgarians have been more divided on Russia than other European Union states, a majority still view Putin unfavorably and feel that Russian influence is a threat to both the EU and NATO, according to recent polling.

© Religion News Service