Religion and politics move Macedonian church into Bulgaria’s orbit

Unrecognized by other Orthodox churches, the Macedonian Orthodox Church has now approached the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, expressing its willingness to recognize it as its “mother Church” in order to receive from Bulgaria its autocephaly (independent status), according to several media reports (Balkan Insight, November 20). The Macedonian Orthodox Church had proclaimed its autocephaly unilaterally in 1967, during the Communist period, a move which at that time was also seen as an attempt in then-Yugoslavia to weaken the Serbian Orthodox Church. The declaration of independence was never accepted by other Orthodox Churches, since the Macedonian Church should have been granted autocephaly by its Serbian “mother Church.” This means that Macedonian priests cannot celebrate with other Orthodox clergy. For its part, Bulgaria’s Orthodox Patriarch stated that “We must accept the outstretched hand of Macedonia.” Bulgaria has language, historic and cultural ties with Macedonia (Novinite, November 30). Provided they can prove Bulgarian ethnicity, Macedonians can receive Bulgarian citizenship—which can bring advantages, since Bulgaria is a member of the European Union while Macedonia is not. At the same time, this shows the complex situation of Macedonia, an area viewed differently by each of its three neighbors—Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia. Greece continues to refuse to accept the name of “Macedonia,” since it considers Macedonia the name of a region of Greece.
Thus, ecclesiastical moves also have political implications, especially “in a region where religious identity is often closely linked with nationalist passions and politics” (Reuters, November 27). Bulgarians would be delighted to have their national church recognize the Macedonian church, and symbolically bring Macedonia more strongly into Bulgaria’s sphere. A few months ago, a friendship treaty was signed between Macedonia and Bulgaria. But the Macedonian Church wants acceptance by the Bulgarian Church as a prelude to autocephaly—something the powerful Moscow Patriarchate is not eager to see, fearing this might create a precedent for a similar move in Ukraine (Sofia Globe, December 3). In addition, the Serbian Orthodox Church accepted in its ranks a bishop of the Macedonian Church, creating a small parallel Church structure in Macedonia. The Synod of the Bulgarian Church has appointed a committee to examine the Macedonian request and enter into consultations with other Orthodox Churches. While doubting that this will lead to the recognition of self-rule, ecclesiastical analyst Branko Georgievski argues that this initiative and the way it has been received by the Bulgarian Church will result in strengthening relations between the Macedonian and Bulgarian Churches.