The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church with some 6.5 million members in the Republic of Bulgaria and between 1.5 and 2.0 million members in a number of European countries, the Americas and Australia.
The recognition of the autocephalous Bulgarian Patriarchate by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 927 AD makes the Bulgarian Orthodox Church the oldest autocephalous Slavic Orthodox Church in the world, which was added to the Pentarchy of the original Patriarchates – those of Rome (which became today’s Roman Catholic Church after the Schism), Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – and the autocephalous Georgian Catholicosate.
The church is led by the Patriarch of All Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has its origin in the flourishing Christian communities and churches, set up in the Balkans as early as the first centuries of the Christian era. Christianity was brought to the Bulgarian lands and the rest of the Balkans by Apostle Paul and Apostle Andrew in the 1st century AD when the first organized Christian communities were also formed. By the beginning of the 4th century, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the region and towns like Serdica (Sofia), Philipopolis (Plovdiv), Odessus (Varna) and Adrianople (Edirne) were significant centres of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
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After the fall of Bulgaria under Byzantium domination in 1018, Emperor Basil II Bulgaroktonus (the “Bulgar-Slayer”) acknowledged the autocephalous status of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and by virtue of special charters (royal decrees) set up its boundaries, dioceses, property and other privileges. The church was, however, deprived of its Patriarchal title and reduced to the rank of an archbishopric.
The period of the Ottoman rule
The period of the Ottoman rule was the hardest in the history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, to the same extent to which it was also the hardest in the history of the Bulgarian people. During and immediately after the Ottoman conquest, the vast majority of the Bulgarian churches and monasteries, including the Patriarchal Cathedral church of the Holy Ascension in Tarnovo, were razed to the ground, with most of the surviving ones being turned into mosques.
Most of the clergy perished, while the intelligentsia around the Tarnovo Literary School fled to neighboring Serbia, Wallachia, Moldova or to Russia. The Church of Bulgaria was declared independent by the decree of the Sultan, creating a canonical mess condemned at a council in Jerusalem in 1872 (by way of condemning phyletism), eventually sorted out and reconciled by 1945.
Conditions for the restoration of the Bulgarian Patriarchate and the election of a head of the Bulgarian Church were created after World War II. In 1945 the schism was lifted and the Patriarch of Constantinople recognized the autocephaly of the Bulgarian Church. In 1950, the Holy Synod adopted a new Statute which paved the way for the restoration of the Patriarchate and in 1953, it elected the Metropolitan of Plovdiv, Cyril, Bulgarian Patriarch. After the death of Patriarch Cyril in 1971, the Church elected in his place the Metropolitan of Lovech, Maxim, who is the current Bulgarian Patriarch.
The primate of the Church of Bulgaria has been His Holiness Maxim, Metropolitan of Sofia, Patriarch of All Bulgaria since 1971.