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Bulgaria's Orthodox Church elects new patriarch with pro-Russian views

People greet newly elected Bulgarian Patriarch Daniil after his enthronement ceremony at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, June 30, 2024.
People greet newly elected Bulgarian Patriarch Daniil after his enthronement ceremony at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, June 30, 2024.

Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church elected Daniil, a 52-year-old metropolitan considered to be pro-Russian, as its new leader Sunday in a vote that reflected the divisions in the church and wider society since Russia invaded Ukraine more than two years ago.

Growing divisions between pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions within the senior clergy began after some of them attempted to warm relations with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople in 2019. Russian and most other Orthodox patriarchs refused to accept the designation that formalized a split with the Russian church.

Unlike his late predecessor, who in his last prayers criticized Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Daniil has taken the side of the Moscow Patriarchy in its dispute with the Ecumenical Patriarch over the independence of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.

Daniil also criticized the expulsion last fall of a Russian and two Belarusian clerics accused of spying for Moscow, and in his prayers, he blamed people who called Russia an “aggressor."

The 52-year-old bishop, born Atanas Nikolov, studied theology in Sofia and eventually went to serve as a monk in a monastery. He belongs to the first generation of young Bulgarians who joined the church after the fall of communism.

The bells of the golden-domed Alexander Nevski cathedral in downtown Sofia announced the election of a new patriarch by the 138 delegates at the church council.

Shortly after, council speaker Cyprian said that “Vidin metropolitan Daniil was elected by the clergy and the people as Holy Bulgarian Patriarch and Sofia metropolitan.”

Daniil was clad in the green-and-gold patriarchal attire and put upon his head the white veil, symbol of his office.

In a tight second-round ballot, Daniil won support of 69 delegates against Grigory, the metropolitan of Vratsa, who was backed by 66 delegates. The patriarch is elected for life unless he steps down.

Daniil succeeded the soft-speaking and charismatic Patriarch Neophyte, who passed away in March aged 78 after leading the church for 11 years.

A church procession accompanied the newly elected patriarch to the cathedral, where he was enthroned in a sumptuous ceremony, attended by other Orthodox church representatives as well as Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

Bartholomew is considered first among equals among Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, which gives him prominence but not the power of a Catholic pope. Large portions of the Eastern Orthodox world are self-governing under their own patriarchs.

Though the church in Bulgaria is fully separate from the state, its constitution names Eastern Orthodoxy as the “traditional religion,” followed by some 85% of its 6.5 million people.