Learning Democracy: Separation of Church and State in Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a country in which I have a special interest. I am half-Bulgarian. My father was born and raised in Bulgaria. So, I tend to keep an eye out for news articles about events of interest there.

Bulgaria, like many of the Balkan countries, was controlled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries. That means that Islam is a major thread in the religious fabric of these countries. But, Bulgaria also has a long tradition of Christianity- the Eastern Orthodox variety. After decades of suppression under Communist rule, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is flexing its muscles once again (cf. Bulgaria: Religion for general info on religion in Bulgaria).

Until the Soviet army invaded Bulgaria in 1944 and forced a Communist government on the people of Bulgaria, Bulgara had traditionally been ruled by a tsarist monarchy. And the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was the state religion. That means the Church had a very influential role in state policy making. States with state religions tend toward being theocratic, in practice if not in name.

Since its move toward democracy. the official government position leans toward a complete separation of church and state, but that is not easy to achieve in a country where religion has played a major role in policy making. And it will not happen overnight.

Here’s an article about the latest attempts in Bulgaria to keep religion at arms length from state policy making.

The Bulgarian government wants history or relifion classes taught in the state-sponsored public schools. The religious leadership, both Christian and Islamic, want these classes to focus on doctrine, with teachers trained by religious institutions. In other words, the religious leaders want to use these classes to gather converts among these impressionable children.

The Bulgarian government has shown a great deal of tact in how they are handling this situation. As the article points out, the government has argued for keeping religious training – which the classes in doctrine would be – out of secular education. And they have told the religious leaders that these religion classes, of whatever nature, will not be offered until both the government and the religious leadership come to an agreement on what these classes will be.

So, it appears that this will come down to a test of wills in Bulgaria. I wish the government well in their attempts to keep the government secular. But, with both Islamic fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists to contend with, it will be very difficult. I hope that Bulgaria can come to a resolution without having the situation deteriorate into violence, as so often has been the case in the Balkans. It would be very nice to see my father’s native land become a real beacon for democracy in that region, and to become the model for the rest of the fledgling democracies in that area.

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