Column from Bulgaria: Christians pray for peace in Israel
Bulgaria and Israel share a strong bond. It is not only political, but also spiritual, columnist Vlady Raichinov writes.
It was Saturday, Israel's day of holy rest. A group of 150 Bulgarians had just spent a week in the Holy Land and was getting ready to fly home. After some sightseeing and prayer, they had joined the October parade of Sukkot: marching down the Jerusalem streets of "Hillel", "Ben Sira", and "King David", waving Bulgarian flags (among 90 other nations) and interceding for God's blessings over the world.
No one expected the explosions in the sky. They sounded like distant thunders, much too regular to be a nature storm. Even though the festival was now over and Shabbat had started, some people assumed that the cracking was some form of fireworks. As they looked up, they saw dozens of white lines in the sky. Deadly rockets were flying over their heads, being detected and destroyed by Israel's Iron Dome defence system.
Rumours of war quickly flooded the social media. Some spoke of an overnight land raid by Hamas militants. Others described attacks from the Mediterranean coast. It was October 7, 2023 – fifty years to the day since Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria during their Yom Kippur holiday in 1973. This time, the aggressors came from Gaza.
Two of the three Bulgarian tourist buses took off at 5 a.m. on Saturday, bringing a hundred Bulgarians to the airport. The other fifty pilgrims, however, remained in their hotel. Besides their tour of the Holy Land, they were planning to participate in a Messianic conference. Pastor Ivan and a few others chose to stay for another week, joining the relief efforts of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. Their conference was cancelled, of course, but many decided to remain in town to pray and help.
Traditionally, Bulgarian history has been marked by warmth and care towards Jews. In the spring of 2023, the Balkan nation commemorated that it was 80 years since it took a stand to protect the country's 48,000 Jews despite the government's alliance with the Third Reich. Unlike most European countries at the time, Bulgarian Jews were fully integrated into local society. In March 1943, Bulgarian Christians held street demonstrations in nearly every city. They were not ready to let the Nazis take away Bulgarian Jews into death camps. In the Parliament, 43 MPs led by deputy speaker Dimitar Peshev confronted the cabinet and prevented the deportation.
Since then, nationalistic sentiments have kept surging every now and then. However, the nation as a whole has a long-established attitude of tolerance and acceptance to the Jewish community. As CNE.news reported earlier, Sofia hosts an annual Festival of Religions every year. "Peace, unity, tolerance, diversity – those words were repeated by faith leaders in the city centre. In a world with swirling warlike passions and reckless hate talk, bridges like this are more than necessary," announced the National Council of Religious Communities in Bulgaria, a governmental advisory body that summons representatives of the main faith groups for regular talks, last year.
This positive support was reaffirmed by Bulgarian officials after the October terrorist onslaught against Israel. Less than a week after Hamas militants raided dozens of kibbutzim, the attack was condemned in an official declaration voted at Bulgaria's Parliament on October 13.
In the meantime, a delegation of several Bulgarian MPs visited Israel on a European Leadership Network initiative. Georg Georgiev, Ekaterina Zaharieva, Yavor Bozhankov and Valentin Tonchev, representing various political groups, witnessed firsthand some of the locations of the terrorist attack.
Exactly a week after the brutal onslaught, a dedicated prayer for peace was held in the Synagogue of Sofia. It was attended by a number of governmental officials, including Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, who said in his address, "Our full solidarity and sympathy with Israel fits in the context of the strong historical connections between the Bulgarian and the Jewish nation… We believe that human life is of the highest value. And this is why I am confident that our prayer, the prayer of everyone who believes in this value, will be heard."
Political declarations aside, on a deeper and more spiritual level, Bulgarians share concern about the war between Israel and Hamas. Many Christian groups set aside specific time for prayer and fasting, send letters of moral support and speak up on behalf of the suffering families who have lost a close person or are missing a captive. The Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance has spread along the joint statement issued by the World Evangelical Alliance and European Evangelical Alliance calling for peace in the Holy Land. In addition, it has also embraced the European Evangelical Alliance's "Call to Action against antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred" – a combination of documents that were purposely published together.
"Helping Israelis does not mean hating Arabs", Ivan Hazarbasanov says. He has led a pilgrim program for the past twelve years, taking Bulgarian groups to Israel twice a year. His ministry has provided care for elderly Jews in Sofia in the past. Lately, besides those pilgrimage trips, they have raised support for both Jewish Kibbutz restoration and Arabs living on the West Bank. "Our passion is to hasten Biblical prophesies by praying for Israel to recognize the Messiah and to fulfil their age-old task to serve as God's channel of blessing for the world."
They also bring worshippers every October to participate in Sukkot, a weeklong celebration commemorating the harvest season and the time Israelites lived in the desert after their slavery in Egypt. "Sukkot is the only festival where internationals are sharing the festivity alongside Jews", pastor Ivan describes. "This year, about 700 Christians from all over the world joined the march. And we always bring in a group of Bulgarians and pray for the peace of the city and the restoration of God's people, as we anticipate Christ's glorious Kingdom on earth centred around Jerusalem."
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