Republic since 1990,
Constitution dated: 1991.
Head of state: Georgi Parvanov, since 2001
Head of government: Simeon Sakskoburggotski, since July 2001.
Area: 110, 994 square kilometres
Capital: Sofia (1,114,168 inhabitants)
Population: 7.797 million (estimate, July 2000)
People: Bulgars - 85.7%, Turks - 9.4%, Sinti and Roma - 3.7%,
Others (Russians, Armenians, Walachs, Greeks) - 1.2 % .
Around 69% of the population now lives in towns.
Language: Bulgarian (the oldest written Slavic language); also Turkish and the spoken languages of the minorities. The alphabet is Cyrillic.
Religion: Bulgarian Orthodox - 85.7%, Muslims - 13.1%, Catholics - circa, 80,000 (of whom some 30,000 are of the Eastern rite), Protestants - over 80,000, Jews - circa 5,000.
Religious freedom is guaranteed under the constitution. But in practice the government has restricted this right to just a few religious groups, although such a restriction is in fact contrary to the constitution.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is recognised as a traditional religion. But in addition, the Muslims, the Catholics and the Jewish community all receive state support.
During the migrations of the Indo-European Slavs from their original homelands to the north of the Carpathian mountains, numerous Slav tribes also reached the region of today's Bulgaria and over the course of time intermarried with the existing local population to make up the people of today's Bulgaria.
Again and again Bulgaria has been a fiercely fought over region. The battles with the Turks, the Serbs and the German Reich were not without their effect on Church development, or on the fight for the autocephalous status of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church
From 1012/1018 until 1185 the Bulgarian kingdom was under the domination of Byzantium, while from 1396 until 1877 it was under Turkish rule. In 1878 Bulgaria finally obtained its independence from the Ottoman empire.
Following the Second World War Bulgaria came under Soviet influence and in 1946 became a People's Republic. As in the other countries under communist rule, so too in Bulgaria the Church was fiercely persecuted (see below). In 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the communist leadership in Bulgaria was also forced to relinquish its monopoly of power and to allow the first multi-party elections since the Second World War. The country has now set out on a path towards political democracy and a market economy.
A high rate of unemployment, soaring inflation, corruption and crime are holding back economic development. During the 1990s there was increasing impoverishment and destitution among the population. Not only food prices but in particular electricity and heating costs rose rapidly. Before long almost 80% of the population were unable to afford heating. Among those hardest hit were the pensioners, people living alone and large families. Those who still have work today are earning less and less. Taxes are rising, while wages and salaries, and also pensions, are steadily falling.
In such a difficult situation the Church herself has to fight for her very survival. Without support from abroad, both financial and in terms of manpower, this would not be possible. The priests receive no salary, have no insurance - and hence also no entitlement to medical care. Most priests still come from abroad. And the bishops are obliged to pay the state high fees for the residence permits of these priests.
The situation of the Church
In today's Bulgaria, which once belonged to the Imperial Roman Empire, the Christian Faith was preached very early on, as the synod of Sardica in the year 343 testifies.
Owing to the vast population migrations, the population of present-day Bulgaria only settled there from the 7th century onwards. During the 9th century they were evangelised by Saints Cyril and Methodius, the "Apostles to the Slavs", and patron saints of Europe, who introduced the Cyrillic alphabet and the Slavic Liturgical language. In 864 Khan Boris I was baptised.
The Orthodox Church
Around 85 percent of the population today belong to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. During the centuries of Turkish rule the Bulgarian Church was subordinate to the Byzantine Church.
Along with the growth of national awareness in the 19th century the Bulgarian people also fought for the independence of their Church. In 1870 an independent Bulgarian exarchate was established; however it was excommunicated by Constantinople. This schism was only overcome in 1945. In 1951 the office of the patriarch was once again established.
The Orthodox Saint John of Rila (or "Ivan Rilski" in Bulgarian) is patron saint of the Bulgarian people and as such he is held in great reverence. He lived from 876 to 946 as a hermit in the Rila mountains, where he later established a monastery. St John of Rila and the monastery founded by him are known today far beyond the frontiers of Bulgaria. This monastery played an important role in the development of the Bulgarian national identity. During the Ottoman Empire the monastery became a centre of cultural and and social life. Under communism the lands belonging to the monastery were confiscated and the monastery itself was turned into a museum.
Today there is once again a small group of monks living there. And it is likely that Pope John Paul II will also visit the monastery in Rila during his visit to Bulgaria.
The Catholic Church
In Bulgaria today there are two Latin-rite Catholic dioceses and one Eastern-rite exarchate.
The Catholic Church in Bulgaria has always existed as a minority Church. The approximately 80,000 Catholics represent only around 1 percent of the total population and live predominantly in the south of the country. In the 13th and 14th centuries Franciscan missionaries established their first communities in western Bulgaria. In 1779 and 1789 the Holy See established two dioceses for the Latin-rite Catholics. The Catholics of the Byzantine rite originally came into the country between 1912 and 1918 as refugees from Macedonia and Thracia, where in 1859/1860 a union had been established. In 1926 they were granted their own apostolic exarchate. Between 1925 and 1934 Archbishop Angelo G. Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII was apostolic visitor, or delegate, in Bulgaria.
The persecution under communism
The Soviets occupied Bulgaria in September 1944. In 1946 they succeeded in establishing a People's Republic. Since the takeover of power by the communists, the Catholic Church was persecuted. The constitution of 9 December 1947 and a whole series of laws and measures were aimed at the destruction of Church life. All foreign religious were expelled from the country. The leaders of the Church were liquidated, while all the priests were arrested. Church properties and lands were confiscated, with the exception of the church buildings themselves; the Church institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) were closed. Church activities were restricted to the interior of the church buildings. Since the presbyteries had also been taken away from them, the priests themselves had to live in their churches as well - for example in the sacristy or on the organ loft. In order to survive, the Church went underground. Show trials were staged in order to intimidate the people. From 1962 the onwards the Vatican's Ostpolitik was aimed at restoring the hierarchy and a minimum of Church life once more. Following the political changes in 1989/90 the Church was finally granted religious freedom. Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Bulgaria were resumed once again.
The situation today
One of the greatest challenges facing the Catholic Church in Bulgaria today is the great shortage of priests and of other religious vocations. There are only a few seminarians. And the religious orders too have so far had only few vocations. The religious communities are still at the stage of rebuilding. Most of them do not have suitable premises for their religious life and apostolate. But despite all these adverse circumstances, the religious in the country are performing services of incalculable worth. They are working above all in catechesis and in the social field. They care for the old and the sick, for social outcasts and for all who are in need. Through their life and ministry they bring Christ to the people. And not only Catholics but also Christians of the other denominations turn in their spiritual and material need to the monasteries and convents. For they know these religious will share even the the last of the little they possess with the poor.
The planned papal visit
After prolonged difficulties and preparations, Pope John Paul II will visit Bulgaria for the first time, from 23 to 25 May 2002. While there he will meet with representatives of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church and also with the leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities in the country. The journey will take the place under the theme of "Church and society in Bulgaria".
On the side of the state, responsibility for the preparations for the papal visit lies with foreign minister Passi. He underlines that the papal visit is an event that Bulgaria has long been waiting for. Bulgaria is also hoping that this visit will help to wipe away the suspicion in world public opinion that the country was involved in the assassination attempt on the Pope in Rome in 1981.
In previous years, on 24 May - the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius - Bulgaria has always sent a delegation to Rome to take part in the papal celebrations of this feast. This year the Pope himself will be in Bulgaria for the feast of these two saints.