With this article Orthodoxy in Dialogue proposes to broaden the scope of the discussion surrounding Ukrainian autocephaly, namely, by asking the following question: To what extent is Western-style freedom of religion and separation of church and state applicable, or not, in historically majoritarian Orthodox countries in the 21st century? It seems disingenuous in the extreme to condemn the involvement of the Ukrainian government in the ecclesiastical affairs of that country when virtually every Orthodox nation in the world—including Russia most of all—practices some form of church-state “symphonia.”
Bulgaria Considers Controversial Restrictions on Church Activity
New amendments could halt training, foreign funding, and missionary outreach by evangelicals.
A controversial new law before the Bulgarian Parliament would keep Protestants and other minority faiths from freely worshiping, teaching, evangelizing, and tithing in the southeastern European nation.
Over the past month, leaders from all faith groups in the former communist country have condemned the proposed additions, which prevent minority religions from offering clergy training, restrict worship services to designated sites, and place new regulations on international missionaries and giving.
“Should the law pass, existing theological seminaries are at risk of shutting down, evangelical church pastors may no longer be able to conduct worship services, and the acceptance and use of donations will be subject to government approval and limitations,” stated the World Evangelical Alliance, which has joined with the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance to oppose the legislation.
About 2,000 Christians gathered at the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, on Sunday to pray and protest against the proposed amendments, The Baptist Standard reported, and they have continued smaller demonstrations in hopes that the law will be rejected.
Evangelical Protestants make up less than 1 percent of the population in Bulgaria, where about 85 percent of citizens consider themselves Eastern Orthodox and about 10 percent are Muslim. Because of their small size, Protestants—along with Catholics, Jews, and others—fail to meet the threshold for certain government recognition under the draft law, which legislators say is meant to protect against foreign threats but religious groups see as a threat to their own religious freedom.
Christian churches across the country—including the United Methodist Church, Bulgarian Baptist Union, Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance, Catholic Church in Bulgaria, and National Alliance United Churches of God—each released statements against the proposal, reported Vlady Raichinov, an evangelical leader and pastor in Sofia.
The European magazine Evangelical Focus summarizes the biggest concerns with the amendments:
- Only Bulgarian citizens will be able to carry out liturgical activity if they have had theological training in Bulgaria or their foreign school is approved.
- Only Eastern Orthodox and Muslim believers will be able to train clergy and run schools.
- A foreigner will only be able to preach if doing so with a Bulgarian ordained minister.
- Foreign donations will only be allowed for building construction or social aid and will need government approval. No salaries of pastors, for example, could be paid from abroad.
- No religious activities can take place outside of buildings designated for them.
- Only religious groups with +300 people will have legal status.
Two years ago, Russia adopted similar restrictions on missionary activity and evangelism, also citing national security concerns. The 2016 “Yarovaya law” bars the non-Orthodox from sharing their faith outside of government-recognized church buildings.
Though only about 60,000 Protestants live in Bulgaria, according to 2011 census figures, the population has received vocal support from evangelical leaders in Europe and beyond.
European Baptist Federation general secretary Anthony Peck and Baptist World Alliance general secretary Elijah M. Brown wrote Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyokov Borissov with concerns that “… the implementation of this law could lead to unintended restrictions on religious freedom and the direct persecution of churches and individuals of faith.”
“These efforts to interfere with theological education, restrict missionary and worship activity, and control international donations in fact wrongly extends government power into the internal life of Bulgarian religious communities,” they said. “No state, we believe, should be in a position to control the training and activities of ecclesiastic ministers, nor should a state favor one faith expression over another.”
The proposed law, opponents worry, would represent a step backwards for their country, which was under Communist rule until 1990.
“The legislative proposal is a sad reminder of a bygone Communist past, which we believed would no longer return,” Christo Proykov, Catholic bishop of Sofia and president of the Bulgarian Bishops, told SIR.
Continue reading this article at Christianity Today.
Kate Shellnutt is an associate editor at Christianity Today. She reports on breaking news and trends in evangelicalism. Her work has earned honours from the Society for Features Journalism and Religion News Association. She blogs at kate shellnutt: online journalist.
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