Spies of the Balkans

The 98-year old leader of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has died.

I guess you weren’t prepared for that bit of excitement from GetReligion the morning after the election. As many of our readers are going through news withdrawal at this moment, I thought I would help ween them from their addiction with something nice, safe and far away: a drawing room media mystery to settle their minds and hearts.

Patriarch Maxim did have the good sense to die on 6 Nov 2012 when the world was watching the American presidential election. And to be fair, I suppose that if he had passed during the dog days of August — the silly season when news is so short on the ground that just about anything can become a major story (remember Chik-fil-A?) — his story still would not have set the hearts of journalists a flutter.

De mortius nil nisi bonum is the line being taken by the Bulgarian press. Reuters and the Associated Press have also decided that it is more fitting to say of the dead nothing but good. The Reuters man in Sophia (sounds like that is from a spy novel doesn’t it) begins his report with:

Patriarch Maxim, a conservative who led Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church for 41 years in times of Communist rule and democracy, died, the church said yesterday.

Followed by the text of the official announcement, the story gives a very brief biography and offers this as context:

Patriarch Maxim has kept a low public profile but was an influential figure with a controversial past. He oversaw a major religious revival in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communist rule. Dozens of new churches were built across the country and monasteries reopened.

And what was this controversial past? Reuters does not say. Maybe the AP can help. It reports the same basic facts but offers a bit more background:

After the collapse of Communism in 1989, Bulgaria’s new democratic government sought to replace Communist-appointed figureheads, including the patriarch. The church split between supporters of Patriarch Maxim and breakaway clergymen, who tried to oust him and then formed their own synod. The division plunged the church into turmoil, with church buildings being occupied, priests breaking into fistfights on church steps, and water cannons and tear gas being turned on rebel bishops to clear the main St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Sofia. For more than a decade the two synods existed side by side. The schism ended in 2010, when the head of the alternative synod called for healing and the synod was dissolved.

So Maxim was “a Communist-appointed figurehead”, the AP reports. Yes, Maxim’s appointment was engineered by the Communist regime and following the fall of the “Evil Empire” anti-Communists sought to get rid of him. And even though Bulgarians are not Episcopalians, the ensuing battle led to a schism and lawsuits over church property.

The AP is mistaken when it reports the schism has been healed, though in 2010 Metropolitan Innokenty, the head of the rival synod which held the allegiance of a third of the country’s clergy was received by Maxim back into the “official” church. However the submission of Innokenty did not end the split. Here is a reference to a post-2010 article on the accidental death of one of the leading clergy of the Alternative Synod. If there are still rebel clergy in control of church property that is a clue the rupture has not been healed.

I am confident that at this point in our tale I have hooked the Bulgarian aficionados in our audience — the good people at Patheos have not yet told us how large a demographic this is for Get Religion though. Others might ask, “So what?”  But bear with me, all of this does play its part in solving the mystery.

The clue that has been left out — though broadly hinted at in the AP story — is the allegation that not only was Maxim a Communist-appointed figurehead, he was also considered by some of having been a spy. Twenty-two years after the fall of the Communist regime, the Bulgarian government opened the books from the Committee for State Security — the Darzhavna sigurnost or the DS. What it found was that 11 of the 15 bishops of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church currently in office were informers or agents of the 6th Directorate of the DS, which was tasked with combating political dissent.

The English-language Sofia Echo has written extensively about this scandal: the initial report, what the bishops did for the secret police, popular reaction, calls for the bishops to resign, actions to be taken by the church’s synod. It is also reported that not just the Orthodox bishops betrayed their people, the current Roman Catholic Bishop of Sophia and the present and former chief Mufti of Bulgaria were named as collaborators. Maxim was cleared by the committee investigation collaboration — to the surprise of the Alternative Synod — but suspicions remained of his guilt as his parts of his file appeared to have been mislaid.

While the canard that Pius XII was a pro-Nazi stooge continues to excite journalists — a real story of church leaders collaborating with evil was overlooked by Reuters and the AP in their report on the death of Maxim. Reuters even managed to lead with the descriptor that Maxim was a “conservative”. What can that mean in these circumstances.

After the news broke in January of the bishops’ ties to the secret police, Metropolitan Gavril of Lovech – one of the bishops not named as a collaborator — told the Sofia Echo the church was torn over how to respond to the revelations. “We cannot now think about asking for the resignations of 11 people. That is impossible. If it had been one, or two or three, that is another matter.  The Synod must remain united and these problems should be resolved in some way so as to benefit, but also on the other side, not to destroy, the church,” he said.

What Reuters and the AP seemed to have missed — apart from the disagreeable bits about Maxim’s past — is the fact that the death of the man who caused the schism may well end the schism.

The Bulgarians are not alone in avoiding scrutiny of church and state in the Communist era. Russia has yet to examine the Stalinist era. The Moscow Patriarchate — the official name for the Russian Orthodox Church — was set up on the orders of Joseph Stalin in 1943 as a front organization for the NKVD and all of its senior positions were vetted by the Ideological Department of the Communist Party, according to reports published in the U.K. following the defection of KGB Major Vasili Mitrokhin  in 1991.

In two books written with intelligence historian Christopher Andrew, The KGB in Europe and the West and The KGB in the World, Mitrokhin claimed that Russian Orthodox priests were used as agents of influence on behalf of the KGB in organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the World Peace Council.  Patriarch Alexius II was also named as KGB agent with the codename DROZDOV, whose services earned him a citation from the regime.

TMatt has discussed this question in a number of posts. In his 2007 story “Mere candlestick holders in Moscow?” he wrote that in 1991 an anonymous priest in Moscow told him the post-Soviet Russian church had four kinds of leaders:

A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

While the setting is Bulgaria and the characters are Orthodox clergy and secret policemen, the issues are of collaboration with evil and the battle for truth. Change the characters and the same story could be told of Vichy France, the Deutsche Evangelische Kirche and the Confessing Church in Germany, or the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the House Church movement in China.

In French there is an expression très balkan: meaning hopelessly confused with the connotation of labyrinthine or byzantine machinations. It would be easy to dismiss this story as being a très balkan intrigue more worthy of an Eric Ambler novel than hard news. However the death of Maxim and the saga of the Orthodox Church raises profound questions of morality.

What is the journalist’s task in all of this? Is it too much to expect a discourse of the ethical and moral ghosts that lay behind a story on collaboration with evil — or is it enough to just report the events. How should society judge those who collaborated with evil or who were agents of evil?