Eastern Orthodox Church recalls importance of humanity

Iana Vladimirova

Today, the Eastern Orthodox Church has more than 150 million members worldwide.

Orthodox Christianity emerged as a result of a disagreement between the Greek Eastern and Latin Western churches.

According to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, God exists in the three persons of father, son and Holy Spirit. Humanity is believed to be created in God’s image. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which regards the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the father and the son, the Eastern Orthodox Church claims the Holy Spirit proceeds from the son. The Eastern Orthodox Church has an extremely rich history of icons, which often depict a Bible scene, the Virgin Mary, local saints or Jesus.

An important element in the history of Bulgaria was the adoption of Christianity. Eastern Orthodox religion was imposed in 864 as an official religion, and in this way, Bulgaria became part of European culture. Bulgaria is the first Balkan country to accept Orthodox Christianity, and in 927, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was recognized as an independent Eastern Orthodox patriarchate.

On March 12, 2002, at Yed Vashem, two leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church received recognition as “Righteous Gentiles.” Bishop Stephan, who was a head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Bulgaria during the Holocaust, and Bishop Cyril, who headed the church in Plovdiv, strongly resisted the anti-Jewish policy of the Bulgarian regime, and actively worked against the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the death camps.

Yed Vashem is not the only place where Stephan and Cyril are remembered. The Jewish survivors I interviewed in Plovdiv and Dupniza will forever be grateful to the efforts of these bishops. Immediately after the first arrests of Jews in Plovdiv, one of the senior bishops, Bishop Cyril, threatened to lie on the rails if the train, loaded with Jews, was to depart for Poland. Cyril stated, “he no longer felt himself bound by the decrees of the government and that he would act henceforth according to his conscience as a minister of Christ.” On the 9th of March, the Jews in Plovdiv were gathered in the yard of the local Jewish school waiting to be deported. Albert Alkalai was hiding in the bushes when Bishop Cyril arrived in his carriage. The police who were standing in front of the school did not even try to stop him. Cyril promised the Jews who gathered around him, “Wherever you go, I’ll go with you.”

Bishop Stephan, head of the church, was born in a small mountain village in southern Bulgaria, and as a young man he had the reputation of being a brilliant student and a rebel. Calling Hitler insane, Stephan bitterly opposed the alliance with Germany. He was the one who gave instructions to all the priests in the country to convert any Jews who wished to convert. In that way, he tried to save as many as possible. There were even fake certificates of baptism issued by the church. Stephan sent a telegram to the Bulgarian Tsar, Boris, “Do not chase, if you do not want to be chased. You will be judged the way you have judged. You should remember, Boris, that your deeds are watched by God.” Eventually, Tsar Boris ordered the death trains to be stopped.

Survivor Stela Erera remembers, “On the 3rd of March, the Bishop came to Dupniza, Bishop Stephan. He was walking on the main street, and on both sides people crowded to see him. He turned and asked them, ‘Are there any Jews here? I did not see any?’ And the people answered him, ‘They are gathered and locked.’ The same evening when he got back to Sofia, he organized a delegation, called the king, and on the next day they let us go.”

It is especially significant that the influential Bulgarian Orthodox Church opposed the deportations, as Christianity has historically sometimes bolstered anti-Semitic propaganda. A letter to the king and the prime minister the Holy Synod states, “The Bulgarian Orthodox Church cannot hold beliefs like racism. Racism creates only hatred and atrocities…”

Compared to the Catholicism in Rome, which operates separately from the state, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is quite connected and dependent on the Bulgarian government. However, when the interior minister ordered all churches in Sofia to close, and in this way to prevent mass christening, Stephan responded, “The Church will not obey the order.”

In contrast, the Pope in Rome did nothing to aid the Jewish population in Italy.