“The world we used to know has suddenly become the world of yesterday…”, Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov said, summing up the new situation in which the main and almost the only globally relevant theme is the new coronavirus. And the central question is how we shall organize our lives in a state of emergency, with all kinds of restrictions we just couldn’t have imagined a couple of months ago.

The pandemic situation is not only turning our daily life upside down, but it’s also curbing a number of human rights – something that even (most) human rights activists are currently not opposing. Except, of course, when officials abuse their position and use restrictions for purposes other than public health or to an extent disproportionate to the risk.

Today, we can apply neither our absolute right of public gathering and freedom of movement nor even the right of private and family life. If one of our family members is in the hospital, we are not allowed to visit him/her. If we are under quarantine, our relatives cannot visit us. Currently, in many places around the world, people cannot even get married.

Human rights lawyer Mikhail Ekimdzhiev notes that according to the Bulgarian Constitution, the right of private life cannot be restricted even in a state of emergency. Art. 32 of our Constitution defines privacy as “inviolable”. Therefore, Ekimdzhiev argues that imposing such sanctions over our private life should be preceded by constitutional changes. And yet, restrictions and penalties are already a fact, although constitutional amendments are not.

In the meantime, the course taken by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) is in sharp contrast with all these limitations and self-restrictions.

On March 10, Metropolitan bishop Gavrail of Lovech announced that the Easter services in Bulgaria this year would be held as usual. Why? Because unlike other types of congregations, church services and liturgies are sacraments. This statement seems to be sufficient reason for the Metropolitan bishop to claim that one cannot catch the coronavirus during mass:

“Contamination has never been transmitted or perpetuated in churches where sacraments are performed! There have never been epidemics in the church. They lose their power here”, said Metropolitan bishop Gavrail, adding that questioning his argument would betray a lack of faith. And faith is most important if you don’t want to get infected.

There is no danger – in my opinion – in the specific act of everybody receiving the Eucharist with the same spoon. That’s what the history of the Church has demonstrated. People have been taking the Eucharist throughout the worst epidemic crises, and no contamination and infection have ever taken place. Therefore, there is no need for fear when we go to worship. Infections will never be transmitted there. Well, if someone’s faith is weak – that’s a different story.

Unfortunately, such statements do not express only the personal opinion of the priest. They are supported by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which is why not only the Easter services but also the regular services carry on as usual – with commoners kissing icons and taking Holy Communion from the same silver spoon without disinfection. In some places, icons are wiped with detergent. Or at least those icons that won’t be damaged by disinfection.

Even though security measures due to the pandemic situation are tightening almost daily, the Church seems to be suspended in time. Metropolitan bishop Naum of Ruse was one of the few who called upon laymen and priests to avoid direct contact such as kissing hands and icons or taking communion from the same spoon in churches. Parliament member Yordan Tsonev from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms has also contended that faith was immunization enough:

“It is not dangerous because we, believers, know that the Holy sacraments we will do today are Holy sacraments, and no virus or infection can be transmitted during the services. Our faith would be nothing if we do not believe in Holy Communion and consider it a possible source of contagion. I will take the Eucharist from the shared spoon today because I genuinely believe that it brings us salvation.”

Even the renowned professor of cultural studies Mr. Kalin Yanakiev, whose analysis of the Istanbul Convention disputed the position of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, joined the chorus of those championing the power of faith:

Those who believe that communion with the sacraments of faith means communion with the body and blood of Jesus Christ will be outraged by the idea that they, as well as the vessels in which they are stored, can be contagious. I emphasize that this applies to believers only.

It turns out, according to Professor Yanakiev, that only those who have little or no faith can be infected during worship. Following that logic – those 46 members of the Protestant Church in South Korea who were infected with the new coronavirus while being on duty might have issues with their faith. And also more than 1000 people who have become ill after four days of Muslim worship in Malaysia. Or maybe their “fault“ is that they were not Orthodox Christians.

The Holy Synod, however, felt obliged to do something about the pandemic. They posted a letter on their website with… prayers “in times of infections and epidemics of especially contagious and deadly diseases” to be read during worship. Thus, believers were to be “vaccinated” with the help of the holy Procomedia, the Great Litany and the Litany of the Litanies.

In the meantime, even the Vatican has abolished public worship. In Bulgaria, the Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as the mosques, did so, and the Main Mufti’s Office explicitly asked the elderly and the sick to refrain from visiting the mosque. The Orthodox Church of neighboring Greece has indefinitely postponed all services and rituals involving a gathering of people, including weddings and baptisms. A few days later, the Ecumenical Patriarch called the churches around the world to cease worship. But the BOC is still stubborn and relies on faith, similar to the Belarusian dictator Lukashenko who relies on vodka and tractor driving. The only mitigation of that position was that the Metropolitan bishop of Plovdiv Nikolay released the believers from the “obligation” to attend mass and asked the elderly not to attend the services.

The misbehavior of the Bulgarian Holy Synod is a minor problem, actually. The big issue is that

Bulgarian public institutions allow the BOC to ignore pandemic security measures.

People’s faith should be treated with respect, not with scorn. However, the faith of the Pope and the Universal patriarch can hardly be considered weaker than that of the Bulgarian Holy Synod. If those worshipers were living on a lonely island, there wouldn’t be any problem for them to test the power of their faith by taking the Eucharist from a shared spoon and, in general, to try it in any other way they find appropriate. On this desert island, one could explain away all cases of contagion and death with the weak faith of the deceased. But as the worshipers share the same world as everyone else, the Church is also responsible for the non-believers. Caring about other people is not only an essential Christian tenet – it is a core principle of prevention. It is precisely for this reason that the state should require the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to follow the same precautions as the rest of the Bulgarian society.

One could argue that such a restriction on the Church is incompatible with the Bulgarian constitution. Possible argumentation might refer to Art. 13 of the Constitution, according to which religions are free and religious institutions are separate from the state, as well as Art. 37, Para. 1: “Freedom of conscience, freedom of thought and choice of religion and of religious or atheistic views are intact.”

However, to impose a temporary ban on certain activities does not impede the freedom and choice of religion.

And not only by chance, we started this article with a short text on human rights and the restriction of the right to privacy, which is also constitutionally guaranteed.

Para. 2 of Art. 37 of the Constitution explicitly states: “Freedom of conscience and religion may not be directed against national security, public order, public health and morals, or against the rights and freedoms of other citizens.” In that context, public church services during a pandemic can definitely be interpreted as a threat to public health.

Civic activist Desislava Hristova requires BOC to implement the same measures against the spread of the virus as the rest of the public institutions in Bulgaria.

Therefore, on March 15, she reported the BOC misconduct to the Sofia Regional Health Inspectorate (RHI) via the website’s electronic alert form. She attached a link to a bTV news report about services performed at St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral after the declaration of the state of emergency in our country.

“On Monday, March 16, at about 11 o’clock, I was contacted by the RHI and being informed that they had tried to talk to the BOC, […] and also have tried to explain the situation in every possible way, but the BOC chose not to comply,” she said to Toest.bg. “There is nothing we can do,” the clerk said, responding affirmatively to Ms. Hristova’s question whether the decision to suspend church services is a political one.

Desislava Hristova did not stop her mission there: “So I have consulted with different acquaintances and decided – despite the deficits – that we are still living in a secular state so the government shall intervene. I truly believe that everyone should be able to trust what one finds appropriate nowadays. Still, we cannot go back to the Middle Ages and place religion above the measures prescribed by experts, doctors, the World Health Organization, etc.” Ms. Hristova emphasizes that

polls show a high level of trust in the Church, and this is why BOC has a huge responsibility towards the community.

That is why the activist initiated sending an open letter addressed to President Rumen Radev, National Assembly Speaker Tsveta Karayancheva, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, the Chairman of the National Operations Headquarters and Head of the Military Medical Academy Ventsislav Mutafchiiski, Patriarch Neofit and the Major of Sofia, Ms. Yordanka Fandakova.

The letter, supported by 200 doctors, experts, citizens, and activists, is calling upon the secular state to use all the possible mechanisms in their power to stop the presence of laity at church services. Here it is part of it:

“In the current difficult times, religious institutions must offer hope, strength, and faith in the measures taken, and also support the secular state’s efforts to fight the pandemic. Instead, the behavior of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church directly undermines the image of the institution, undermines the trust in institutions, and sabotages the current unprecedented actions taken.

Attending church services, especially by elderly citizens, would put them at risk, which can prove fatal, and we are deeply concerned that BOC representatives do not recognize this fact.”

How have institutions reacted to the open letter? They haven’t.

Only the administration of the Council of Ministers has given a response, albeit an utterly perfunctory one. There are three generals among the addressees, but apparently, none of them wants to confront the BOC. In the meantime, Attorney General Ivan Geshev has ordered the arrest of a Bangladesh student and a citizen of Varna city for spreading unconfirmed information about coronavirus-infected people. Still, somehow he is not able to see “fake news” in the allegations that silver spoons do not transmit viruses and that true believers and worshipers will not be infected.

In a situation of escalating emergency measures – shopping timeslots for people of different ages, a prohibition on using public parks, and talks about a possible imposition of curfew – the helplessness of the state vis-a-vis the BOC seems inexplicable. When asked by journalists how long temples in Bulgaria will be open to the public, Gen. Mutafchiiski replied that “verbal messages” were being sent to Church leaders, but there could be no interference in the activities of the Church.

The blindness of our institutions to the dangerous and irresponsible behavior of the BOC raises the question:

If the BOC is independent of the state, does this mean that the state is also independent of the BOC?

More and more facts indicate that the answer to this question is negative. Years ago, the journalist Tatyana Vaksberg noted that even though Bulgaria is a secular state, the Patriarch has attended the first sessions of each new parliament since 2001, and Rumen Radev is the third Bulgarian president to be inaugurated in his presence. When the Church objected to the CoE Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the Strategy for Children, and the Social Services Law, its position was taken into account, as well as its objections towards sexual education, for example.

In early 2020, the Holy Synod submitted to the Ministry of Education and Science its textbooks for teaching religion at school, although according to Bulgarian legislation, education is supposed to be secular. The state continues to turn a blind eye even when chapels get erected on school and college grounds.

And so, incrementally and inconspicuously,

the BOC is on its way to hijacking the state even as it adamantly asserts its independence from state structures.

And when the consequences of such behavior go out of control, the state – with all its repressive power – has not enough courage to react.

And the season of church rituals and mass congregations is yet to come. On Palm Sunday willow twigs are consecrated, which seems relatively safe. On Good Friday, however, worshipers congregate to kiss a shroud symbolizing the body of Christ, the gospel, and the cross. Then they crawl under a table. Then there is a lithium procession, during which the congregation goes around the church. Each of these rituals carries a high risk of infection. On Easter Eve, many people will gather in churches. Besides, people associate Easter and St. George’s Day with the slaughter of lambs and ritual feasts involving sharing meals and tableware. These situations are prone to exacerbate the pandemic. Although they shall take place after the anticipated end of the state of emergency, the virological situation in the country is unlikely to become very promising.

Religious fundamentalism differs from normal religiosity in knowing no boundaries and aspiring to control everything. The meddling of the BOC into the affairs of the state is already life-threatening. Literally. If no immediate measures are taken, the ultimate cost will be measured in human lives.

Special thanks to our volunteers: Rumyana Todorova for translating from Bulgarian and Zornitsa Hristova for revising the text.
Cover photo: Salva Barbera

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