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  • Septembre 2023 : The Russian Church in Sofia : from a spy scandal to contested property

In September 2023, the Bulgarian state accused of espionage activities the three foreign clerics serving at the Russian church St Nicholas the Miracle Doer in Sofia. One of them was from Russia, while the other two were from Belarus. Their deportation provoked the outrage of the Russian ambassador to Bulgaria, who locked down the small church.

This act provoked intensive debates in Bulgarian society. While some supported the behaviour of the Bulgarian government, others accused it of serving Western interests, betraying Orthodoxy, and restricting the religious rights of Bulgarians. Amidst the dispute, Bulgarian media published a copy of a notary act of 1997, which recognised the Russian Embassy in Sofia as the owner of St Nicholas Church. The new information redirected public interest from the political to the legal aspects of the case. Two questions emerged. The first was about the legal validity of the Russian Embassy ownership rights, while the second was about the canonical jurisdiction over St Nicholas Church.

As the church was originally built as part of the Russian imperial embassy in Sofia, one could assume that it belongs to the present Russian embassy. Yet, this reasoning fails to take into account the interrupted diplomatic relations between Russia and Bulgaria after the Bolshevik revolution. Besides, when Bulgaria entered into diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1934, the Kremlin Commissars did not consider themselves as heirs of the Russian Empire. Moreover, during the 1934 Istanbul negotiations between the Soviet and Bulgarian diplomats, the former did not claim property rights over the old Russian ambassadorial church. In this regard, their only condition regarding the temple was to stop its functioning as a religious centre of the Russian White Guard migrants who had found asylum in Bulgaria after 1917. It was fulfilled. As the temple was in the diocese of the Metropolitan of Sofia, he took care of it. In parallel, he offered another temple, also dedicated to St Nicholas, to the Russian migrants.

The situation changed in the last months of the Second World War II when Bulgaria found itself under Soviet occupation. The Soviets then initiated the reopening of the Russian church in Sofia as a podvorie, i.e. a representative church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Bulgaria. In parallel, the Kremlin organised the establishment of a similar podvorie of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church at the Moscow Patriarchate in one of the Orthodox churches reopened and renovated in the Soviet capital after the war. These podvories were to strengthen the ties between the two churches and guarantee the submission of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to the guidance of the major religious institution in the Soviet Union. As a rule, the clerics who served in the Bulgarian podvorie in Moscow received key church offices upon their return home. One of them was the late Patriarch Maxim, who held the leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church between 1971 and 2012.

Meanwhile, the closure of the Russian church in Sofia in September raised two important questions. The first was in the realm of canon law, which forbids a bishop to have a parish in the diocese of another bishop. It was provoked by the inability of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to provide a clear answer as to the jurisdiction of the so-called Russian church in Sofia. On this occasion, the Bulgarian patriarch even wrote a letter to Patriarch Cyril of Moscow. On October 11, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church appointed a new cleric for the podvorie in Sofia.
The second question concerns the property issue. The above-mentioned notary act confirmed the ownership rights of the Russian church only on the grounds of a nineteenth-century act of property, presuming that the present Russian embassy is an heir of the Russian imperial one. For this reason, the Bulgarian government referred to legal experts. They have to find out who is the owner of the Russian church in Sofia.

Additional Sources :
 Antoaneta Rissou, “Bulgaria Kicks out Russian Church Boss,” Politico, 21 September 2023.
 “Bulgaria expels Russian church cleric, two others, on national security grounds,” Sofia Globe, 21 September 2023.
 “Tussle over ‘Russian Church’ in Bulgaria’s capital after ‘clergy’ expelled as threat to national security,” Sofia Globe, 26 September 2023.
 “The fate of the Russian Church : Holy Synod meets on the subject, but cannot solve the problem,” Bulgarian National Television, 3 October 2023.
 “Ruskata tsarkva opredeli nov predstoyatel na ruskoto podvorie v Sofia” [The Russian Church appointed an new administrator of the Russian podvorie in Sofia],, 11 October 2023.

D 24 octobre 2023    ADaniela Kalkandjieva

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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