Church at centre of diplomatic conflict


Eastern Europe


Patriarch Neophyte in 2013. Photo AFP, Nikolay Doychinov

Russia and Bulgaria are in diplomatic conflict after several incidents. A church is now at the centre of the discord.

According to the Bulgarian authorities, the leader of the Orthodox Church in the country, is a threat to national security. That is why they booted him out along with two employees of the St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker church in Sofia. The Russian state-owned press agency TASS reports that, according to the Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria, the priests were called to the migration office on Thursday, "where they were told that they pose a threat to the national security of Bulgaria and must leave the country today." According to the ambassador, the clergymen were "put in a paddy wagon and taken to their homes so that they could collect their things, then they would be taken to the church and then to the border with Serbia."

The Russian embassy in Bulgaria reacted with outrage to the decision. "It is clear that the current Bulgarian leadership has set itself the task of not only destroying socio-political, cultural and humanitarian ties between our states, but also breaking relations between Russian and Bulgarian sister churches and setting Russian and Bulgarian peoples against each other." The Russian church also reacted angrily. It called it "an outrageous act, dictated by Russophobic motives and the desire to erase the glorious pages of the common history of Bulgaria and Russia."

The protagonist, Archimandrite Vassian, also refers to history in his complaints about the Bulgarian treatment. "I could never have thought that Orthodox Bulgaria, which Russian soldiers liberated almost 150 years ago, would expel Russian priests in such a humiliating and insulting manner, without presenting any significant guilt." In his role as Archimandrite, Vasian leads various abbots.


Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said only last Thursday that the Russian church in Sofia, which "for many years served as a place of common prayer between Russians and Bulgarians", would be closed in retaliation. However, that did not seem to impress the Bulgarian church.

According to Russian authorities, Bulgaria claims that the clergymen are a threat to the national security. Photo AFP, Nikolay Doychinov

On Monday, the Bulgarian patriarch, Neophyte of Bulgaria, appointed new clergymen to provide services at the Russian church. According to the Union of Orthodox Journalists, the Bulgarian Church guarantees “that no part of the church’s property will be lost or damaged.” The Orthodox news website also reports that the Bulgarian patriarch had informed his Russian counterpart, Patriarch Kirill, of his decisions.


In an interview with Politico in June, former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, whose reformist alliance is currently the main force in a new government, said Bulgaria had to flush out Moscow-backed agents if it hoped to succeed with ambitious plans to root out organized crime and corruption.

Relations between Bulgaria and Russia quickly deteriorated after the Russian full-scale invasion in Ukraine. Bulgaria, as one of the EU countries, imposed sanctions on Russia. In June 2022, the then-Prime Minister Petkov announced the expulsion of 70 Russian diplomats over concerns of espionage. As Bulgaria increases arms exports to Ukraine, an explosian happened at an arms factory in June. Finance Minister Bogdan Bogdanov then suggested that Russia was behind it.



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