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?

God-shaped hole in story on Hong Kong protests

Every now and then, when I a traveling, I discover another layer of torn-out articles for GetReligion review buried deep inside some pocket of my shoulder bag. It’s sort of like the analog, portable version of the gigantic digital tmatt “folder of guilt” in my email program that I open up from time to time.

You see, there’s just so much to write about and so little time. There are religion-news ghosts all over the place.

Consider, for example, that recent Washington Post story about the ongoing tensions between Hong Kong and its rulers on the Chinese mainland. There was no real news hook in this one. Still I appreciated the update, since I was fortunate enough to have attended a journalism conference in Hong Kong during the final days and, literally, hours before the 1997 handover.

As you would expect, I focused — in my writing for the Scripps Howard News Service — on ways in which that great city’s future unity with the mainland could affect human rights and religious freedom. Click here and especially here, if you wish, to see what I wrote way back then. The key, according to the people I interviewed in Hong Kong, was Article 23 of the Special Administrative Region’s Basic Law, especially the part stating that the city’s new leadership:

“… shall enact laws … to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition (or) subversion against the Central People’s Government, … to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”

Of course, to paraphrase a famous statement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, during the apartheid era, one man’s street-corner evangelist is another man’s dangerous political activist. Anyone who has studied church-state history at the global level knows that governments often like to say that religion equals politics, when the religious believers in any way clash with the state. That’s a formula for conflict in the United States, as well. Ask Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Anyway, I was disappointed — to say the least — that the Post team included zero, zilch, nada, religious content in this story. Clearly, the goal of the story is to talk about tensions in Hong Kong about human rights. That’s clear, right up front, with its talk about protesters marching in the street waving flags “emblazoned with the British Union Jack.”

The number of people parading colonial-era symbols has been minuscule and doesn’t reflect any widespread hankering for a return of British rule. But, after 15 years as part of China, a population that is overwhelmingly Chinese and deeply proud of its Chinese heritage has increasingly come to view the rest of the country as a source of trouble, not pride, that needs to be kept at arm’s length.

Britain’s retreat from Hong Kong in 1997, which turned a “crown colony” into a “special administrative region of China,” marked a singular, triumphal moment in a historical narrative at the heart of the Communist Party’s legitimacy: only the party can “wipe clean the shame” of colonial-era humiliations and fully represent the national aspirations of all Chinese. Beijing used to denounce its critics here and elsewhere as “anti-communist” but now vilifies them as “anti-China,” an insult that turns any challenge to the ruling party into an assault on the Chinese nation.

What does this have to do with religion? That’s the question I would like to see addressed.

Why? Check out this crucial paragraph in this long news feature.

Promised a “high-degree of autonomy” by Beijing under a formula known as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong still largely runs its own affairs, with the exception of defense and foreign relations. Despite growing complaints of self-censorship by journalists, Hong Kong retains a boisterous free press and has developed a booming niche publishing industry that churns out books and magazines on Chinese politics, largely for sale to visiting mainlanders who don’t believe China’s tightly controlled official media.

So things are going fine, except for those issues linked to “defense and foreign relations.”

Thinking back to 1997, that leads me to ask this question: When it comes to “foreign relations,” are the Chinese authorities starting to get entangled in relations between, let’s, Catholics and the hierarchy in Rome? There are plenty of reasons — millions and millions of them — for Chinese Catholics to worry on that front. And when it comes to self-censorship, how are Hong Kong’s other religious leaders doing these days?

The bottom line: Find me a land in which journalists are worrying about freedom of the press and I will find you a land in which religious believers have good cause to worry about religious freedom. The equation works the other way around, too (and more journalists need to ponder that).

So what’s the state of religious liberty in Hong Kong? Are any of those flag-waving protesters concerned about that? I’d like to know, how about you?

IMAGE: Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Hong Kong.


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