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Religion et COVID-19 en Bulgarie

On 13 March 2020, the Bulgarian government introduced a series of emergencies measures aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the country. The requirement of physical distancing challenged the traditional ways in which the local religious communities profess their faith. In particular, they had to secure a 2-meter distance between each of their believers as well as to ensure the regular disinfection of their temples and prayer houses. On this occasion, the corresponding religious leaderships took special measures.

Patriarch Neofit of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) reacted two days after the registration of the first cases of infection with the new disease. On 10 March, as diocesan hierarch of the Sofia Diocese, he issued an instruction to the local clergy and believers. A day later, Neofit issued another appeal addressed to his peers – the metropolitans of the other dioceses of his Church. Both documents called for physical distancing between the believers while in the church. The churches had to be kept open and regularly disinfected, including all objects of veneration inside. Meanwhile, believers who felt sick were to stay and pray at home.

In addition to these general measures, Neofit also issued a set of specific ones. In particular, he appealed to all members of the Church to receive communion. According to the Patriarch, the holy sacraments cannot transmit diseases but are a cure for any spiritual and physical illness. Thus, the clergy was obliged to not decline the requests of parishioners for communion under the pretext of fear of contamination with the coronavirus. Those of the believers who are sick but wish to receive communion are able to do so. For this reason, their priest had to visit them personally. As the corona-crisis has coincided with the Orthodox Lent, Patriarch Neofit invited the BOC’s members to intensify their fasting and prayers. The main innovation was the permission given to believers to ask blessing by making obeisance to their religious fathers, instead of the traditional custom of kissing the cleric’s hand. In the next few days, other Orthodox metropolitans issued their encyclical letters addressed to the clergy and believers in their dioceses. In general, they repeated the patriarch’s recommendations.

When the emergency state was announced by the government, many citizens launched sharp criticism against the BOC’s position on the corona-crisis and called for the closure of churches as this has happened in the neighbour Orthodox countries, especially Greece. At the same time, the other religious communities complied with the anti-epidemic measures imposed by the secular authorities. As the BOC, they introduced new rules about hygiene in their temples and prayer houses as well as about the distance between their adherents during the religious services. At the same time, they took some further steps. The Grand Mufti’s Office cancelled the Friday collective prayers and invited Muslims to pray at home. Still, mosques have remained open for individual believers who need to visit them. The Muslim leadership also issued an official statement in which the proposed changes were supported by references to the Quran and hadiths. The Protestant denominations also called for physical distancing and stopped the religious services at their churches but left the buildings open. Meanwhile, the Catholic and Armenian churches began to perform their services at closed doors and to transmit them online.

Meanwhile, the new circumstances did not bring about significant changes in the BOC’s position. Still, they motivated the Holy Synod to introduce special prayers against the COVID-19 pandemic and to issue another encyclical to clergy and laity. Some metropolitans did the same for their dioceses. This time, however, the encyclicals contained references to the Holy Scriptures, which is a new development in the communication of the Orthodox episcopate with their flock as the previous ones did not include such texts, e.g. the Synod’s statement on the refugee crisis of 2015. In this regard, Metropolitan Gavriil of Lovech compared the corona-crisis with a “fiery ordeal”, while his peer, Metropolitan Yoan of Varna, searched its roots in the secularization of the world. In their turn, the two hierarchs responsible for the Orthodox Bulgarians abroad, which parochial churches throughout Europe, the two Americas and Australia had to be closed, called their clerics and laymen to turn their homes into family churches.

In parallel, some diocesan administrations introduced additional measures, e.g., parish educational centres were closed down, free telephone lines for psychological support were opened at some metropolitan’s offices, church bells started ringing at selected hours, etc. Meanwhile, some Orthodox believers were not satisfied with these initiatives. Some objected to the distribution of communion by the same spoon and called for changes. Some of them referred to some ancient practices that were more secure, while others refer to the decision of the Russian Orthodox Church to use individual plastic spoons for this purpose. The debate has intensified with the growing proximity of Palm Sunday and Orthodox Easter. On this occasion, the representatives of the government had two meetings with the BOC’s Holy Synod – on 30 March and on 9 April. The first did not lead to significant changes in the Church’s position. It was followed by a new Synodal encyclical that added new details such as the requirement for clerics and lay believers to use medical masks. There was one more measure included about the funeral rite which now had to take place in the open air and to be attended by a minimal number of relatives. Another novelty concerns the Synod’s expression of gratitude to the medical personnel, policemen and civilians involved in the struggle with the disease.

Regarding the custom of distribution of willow and flowers on Palm Sunday, the Synod decided to do this outside the churches, thus allowing people to stay at a safe distance from each other. After the second meeting with the government on 9 April, however, the BOC’s hierarches changed their minds and decided to cancel this ritual. They also agreed to start their Easter liturgies outside the temples, as their first hours are the most attended ones. They also decided not to send a church delegation to Jerusalem to receive the so-called Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but to use the one preserved from the previous Easter. They also donated the money saved from the cancelled trip to fight the pandemic.

Sources : official websites of the BOC, Grand Mufti’s Office, the Catholic Episcopal Conference in Bulgaria, and Orthodox e-media, dveri.bg and pravoslavie.bg.

D 14 avril 2020    ADaniela Kalkandjieva

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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