Address by Bishop Hilarion of Viena and Austria Moscow Patriarchate Representative to European international organizations

by Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria
Moscow Patriarchate Representative to European international organizations

Your Holiness,
Reverend Archpastors and Pastors,
Distinguished Participants in the Conference:

His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia - having read the statement of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church made on January 24 and the letter from His Holiness Patriarch of Bulgaria sent on January 30 - considered with brotherly compassion the difficulties faced by Bulgarian Orthodox again due to the Strasbourg court's decision of January 22, 2009. During his talks with the Bulgarian Orthodox delegation to his enthronement as well as Bulgarian President Georgi Parvnov, he expressed support for the Bulgarian Church and Bulgarian State in their defence of canonical Orthodoxy and their search for ways of overcoming the schism. The participation of a Russian Orthodox delegation in this conference is an expression of our desire to help the sister Church in overcoming new problems.

His Holiness Patriarch Kirill continues the policy of support for the canonical Orthodoxy in Bulgaria, which the Russian Church has pursued since the beginning of the schism in the 1990s under the late Patriarch Alexy. Being well aware from its own experience of the pain inflicted by the wounds of schism and church disorders, the Moscow Patriarchate has invariably stood for the preservation of unity in the Bulgarian Church. Earlier, guided by the same principles, the Russian Church took part in the 1998 All-Orthodox Conference. Regrettably, the wound inflicted by the schism was not healed to the full and continued to bleed, hurting both the Church body and Bulgarian society. It was only the law adopted in 2002 to fix the status of the canonical Bulgarian Orthodox Church that not only helped stabilize the situation in the country's religious and social life but was also welcomed throughout Orthodox world.

In the globalizing world, especially in Europe where intensive integration processes are underway, the European Court of Human Rights' disposition of the Bulgarian schismatics' case has acquired a totally different implication. The point is not only and not so much a specific court ruling on relationships between a particular state and a particular religious body. Rather, this decision formulates a norm to become a basis for other similar issues concerning church-state relations. It means that this norm can be applied to any traditional religious community in Europe. It creates a ground for concern to be felt not only by every Orthodox Church but also by any other traditional religious organization. We should think that in reflecting at this meeting on how we can help our sister Church, we must seriously consider the substance of the norm of religious-public relations this decision presents.

This decision of the ECHR has also vividly shown that the relations between a religious organization and a national state have seen the appearance of another substantial subject which used to have a less tangible influence in the past. I mean the factor of international organizations to which national states have delegated some of their own powers. As practice has shown, states themselves have proved dependent on outside decisions and little able to influence them. This is a serious challenge to the previous system of national and international law since the process of its development has been increasingly in the hands of international bureaucratic structures immune to the direct influence of nations. In this situation, it is especially important that an assessment should be given to the conceptual positions on which international organizations act and to their agreement with the outlook of citizens.

This criticism however is not intended to call to a struggle with international organizations. Their increased role, especially in Europe, implies the need to develop dialogue between them and religious organizations. It is very relevant for Orthodox Churches as the traditions they cherish are still little known and inadequately represented in international institutions. Any increased cooperation between Churches and international organizations is impossible without greater coordination of work between Orthodox Churches and nations. Despite the worrisome reason for this conference, I would like to thank the holy Bulgarian Church for having convened representatives of Local Orthodox Churches in Sofia so that the Orthodox world may unite efforts in defending their interests. As a result of our joint actions we could present to the world clearly and precisely the characteristics of the model of religious-public relations that has shaped in the countries of Orthodox tradition and that is capable, despite all its specifics, of ensuring the rights and freedoms of all citizens in the religious sphere.

In my remarks I would like to dwell on two principal aspects of approach to church-state relations, which were presented in the Strasbourg court's decision and which should be subjected to thorough consideration. A more detailed analysis of the ECHR's decision will be given by other members of our delegation.

The decision of the Strasbourg court is noticeable first of all for its desire to assert a certain universal model of religious-public relations prevailing in European states. In Paragraphs 81, 146, 157 the court criticizes the 2002 Bulgarian law and recognizes it as inconsistent with the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) since it grants a special status to the Orthodox Church and accepts the position of canonical Orthodoxy.

In modern Europe there is a great diversity of models of religious-public relations. Many of them take into account an interreligious balance as it established itself in a country and seek to support it by giving special opportunities to traditional religious bodies to be used in public sphere while respecting the religious freedom of other citizens. In addition, there are countries in which a predominant religious body enjoys a special status. This practice stems from a concrete situation that has established itself and seeks to respect the freedom and already-made choice of its people. It is my conviction that law cannot contradict reality and be based on exclusively theoretical notions. Its task is to interpret universal values in specific historical situations.

The court also refers to the duty of a state to be neutral - which is an arbitrary interpretation of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been developed recently and applied by the court selectively. The states signatories to the Convention have not undertaken to be neutral in their relations with religious organizations since it contradicts the existing model of church-state relations in various countries. It is already an attempt to introduce a new binding norm of international law without the consent of states.

True, religious organization should be neutral in political struggle in the modern society, for instance, during elections. It will be recalled that a church schism began in Bulgaria after the fall of communist regimes. At that time the schismatics gained the support of the political forces which played national card and played upon anticommunist heartstrings. Whenever these forces took over, as they did twice in the past time in Bulgaria, a new round of schism would begin. It reinforces the principle that an Orthodox Church should not participate in political struggle for power and should remain a force uniting a people in troubled times. This is also what the historical experience of the Russian Orthodox Church shows. For this very reason all the agreements reached by the All-Orthodox Council in 1998 ceased to be observed by Bulgarian state structures as soon as two months later when a schismatic Church People's Council took place with the support of the Government formed by the Union of Democratic Forces. The situation began to normalize only after the 2002 Law was adopted

The authorities however cannot remain neutral towards the religious sphere for other reasons and in other cases. First, power structures are called to maintain public peace, while a schism presupposes a division of a society into at least two opposing groups. Secondly, it is necessary to take good care of the spiritual and cultural tradition of a people themselves. Orthodoxy in Bulgaria is the faith and tradition which has made an enormous influence on the formation of its public and social institutions. The schism is destroying this ages-old foundation. In building a system of interaction with religious organizations, a state should take into account all these factors, which means that it cannot be completely neutral.

The most bewildering thing however is the court's opinion qualifying the status of the parties and their actions as religious organizations representing Orthodox tradition. The court does not doubt the legitimacy of His Holiness Patriarch Maxim nor does it undertake to establish the legitimacy of Metropolitans Pimen and Innokentiy. It should be mentioned that the fact that the court accepted a complaint of the so-called ‘synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church' constitutes indirect support for its right to speak for the entire canonical Bulgarian Orthodox Church. This shows that in an internal church dispute the court supports one of the sides. A possible action for the ECHR to take as impartial judge in this situation could be the processing of the complaint as coming from individuals rather than an organization.

Unfortunately, the realities of our time are such that internal problems of an Orthodox Church are often judged by outsiders. We know that all the arising issues, according to St. Paul, should be settled within the Church (cf. 1 Cor. 6:1-7). The very fact that a schismatic group appealed to a secular court instead of accepting the results of the 1998 All-Orthodox Council is a testimony to the fact that it lost its church nature and therefore the right to represent Orthodox tradition.

Indeed, Orthodox Churches have had to face situations in which a certain group of people insists that it represents Orthodox tradition and appeals to a secular court to acknowledge its claims. In these situations, Orthodox Churches should competently and intelligibly present their canonical position to the outside world. In liberal outlook, Orthodox tradition can be presented by any person who claims his or her right to do it. In fact, this approach has been inherited by a certain legal tradition from the Protestant teaching on the freedom of the individual to define the norm of faith and found a church organization. But should a secular court build on precisely this interpretation of religious freedom?

Just imagine that tomorrow each individual will want to use his right and claim leadership in an Orthodox Church and his own understanding of Orthodoxy. Then the Orthodox world will be plunged into an abyss of disorders and we will see the appearance of numerous self-proclaimed churches, resembling the picture we see in the Protestant world.

It is not for the first time in history that the Church of Christ has found herself in a situation where she has to determine who represents the true Church and who is a schismatic or heretic. In doing so, she has elaborated clear criteria, namely, faithfulness to the teaching of the seven Ecumenical Councils and patristic tradition and recognition of the canonical succession of the hierarchy. It will be recalled that this is what St. Photius, in his well-known letter, so thoroughly instructed the newly-baptized Bulgarian Prince Boris to uphold.

According to Orthodox tradition, the participation of secular authorities in religious affairs is not excluded. In the same letter the holy Patriarch of Constantinople writes that ‘it befits a prince to be zealous not only for his own salvation but to take equal care of his people and guide and call them to the same perfection of the knowledge of God'. Incidentally, the ECHR in its resolution acknowledges the competence of state power to interfere in the process of overcoming the schism in the Bulgarian Church. However it admitted that the interference of the state in the internal church dispute had been disproportionate, though the state did have a reason for legitimate concern (Par. 159). The court maintains that ‘the extra-judicial expulsion of hundreds of the faithful and clergy from the facilities occupied by them is disproportionate', but fails to notice that the aim of these measures was to restore justice. At the same time the decision does not refer to any criteria of proportionality. I should think this is the question that our conference should explain and try to outline the admissible participation of the state in the affairs of the Church.

From the Orthodox perspective, the task of the secular authorities was to give the Church an opportunity for making a free decision concerning her own life and to make this decision a starting point for their own actions with regard to the Church. As is well-known, it is this principle that was violated when the state identified with the schismatics in the 1990s, while the court sought to assess the developments in the internal life of the Bulgarian Church from the perspective of its own criteria. Thus, for all the results of the 1998 All-Orthodox Council, the court repeatedly described the schism in the Bulgarian Church as profound and maintained that each leadership put forward canonical arguments for their case (Decision Par. 136). Besides, the court fails to mention whether the action of the schismatics conformed to the then active Statute of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and to consider the legitimacy of schismatics' actions to adopt their own documents. I would like to add that the court failed to consider many facts that transpired in the history of the canonical Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the period before the schism. Among them is the absence of any protest from the future schismatics against Patriarch Maxim in the period from 1971 to 1989.

It was positive that the court recognized the right of the state to interfere in a conflict situation if its development presented a threat to public order. In the same passage the court criticizes the 2002 Law, neglecting the fact that it was adopted to rectify the consequences of state interference under another political leadership in the early 1990s. In his telegram to Bulgarian Prime Minister Philip Dimitrov, His Holiness Patriarch Alexy gave assessment to the actions of the then Bulgarian leaders, saying, ‘Reports have come that the Bulgarian Constitutional Court has identified with the separatists despite the fact that it was their position that stood in glaring contradiction to the canonical norms of the Orthodox Church'. The ECHR's decision failed to give an appropriate assessment to the role of the schismatics in organizing disturbances and seizing churches by violence in which a large number of people were injured. It also failed to analyze the current situation which reflects the extent to which the schismatics really governed the Church. The instances of many people's voluntary return to the fold of the canonical Mother Church were disregarded. These facts need to be fixed and presented to the court.

Moreover, there are other problem points in the ECHR's decision. Though to resolve them a secular court has to have an informed opinion of church life, it still lies within its terms of reference. Particularly, the schismatics used none of the legitimate opportunities provided by the then active Statute of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to change the church leaders they disliked. Nor did they try to found a separate religious organization and thus illegally owned the property that belonged to the canonical Church by right. The ECHR disregarded the procedures whereby the canonical Church and the schismatic organization were registered. The court failed to establish whether the church leadership led by Patriarch Maxim was registered before 1989. It reconfirmed that the schismatic organization was not duly registered as legitimate leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (Par. 135), but failed to state it in its decision. In a word, there are numerous realities and facts that were not considered by the court and many of them were given biased interpretation. I believe we could fill in these gaps together.

In conclusion I would like to express hope that this conference will make it possible to clarify the ECHR's decision on the case of the so-called ‘synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church'. I hope that the final documents of our conference will help both to normalize the situation in the Bulgarian Orthodoxy and promote the development of a model for harmonizing the principle of religious freedom and religious traditions in national and international law. This would be a good model for action by other Local Churches in a similar situation. I am sure it will be a real creative contribution of Orthodox nations to building a multicultural society in the European continent.