SOFIA - The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has taken a step towards possible eventual recognition of Macedonia's Orthodox Church, a rapprochement that echoes a warming of relations between the governments of the two Balkan neighbors.
However, the move is unlikely to be welcomed by other Orthodox Churches such as those of Serbia and Greece, in a region where religious identity is often closely tied up with nationalist passions and politics.
The Macedonian Orthodox Church was formed when the country was part of communist Yugoslavia but has never been recognized by other Orthodox churches due to a long-standing dispute over its independence from the Serbian Orthodox Church, with which it was previously formally united.
This month, however, the Macedonian Church sent an official request to Bulgaria's 1,100-year-old Orthodox Church asking it to become its symbolic "mother" church. Bulgaria has close linguistic, cultural and historic ties with Macedonia.
In a statement on Monday the Bulgarian Orthodox Church said that "aware of its sacred duty... (it was) taking all necessary steps to establish the canonical status of the Macedonian Church."
"We must accept the outstretched hand of Macedonia," Bulgaria's Orthodox Patriarch Neofit said. "This is the least (we can do) because they are our brothers."
The move comes three months after the prime ministers of Bulgaria and Macedonia signed a friendship treaty in a move designed to end years of diplomatic wrangling and boost Macedonia's European integration.
The Bulgarian Church's Holy Synod, its top executive body, will consult with other Eastern Orthodox churches, including those of Russia and Greece and Serbia, before announcing its final decision, it said.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian denomination worldwide with more than 250 million members, but unlike the Roman Catholic Church it has no supreme leader comparable to the Pope but instead is composed mainly of de facto national churches, each led by a patriarch.
There was no immediate response on Monday from the Orthodox Church in Serbia, Greece or elsewhere to the Bulgarian move, but they are unlikely to be positive.
Greece is locked in a long-running dispute with Macedonia over the country's name, which is also the name of a northern Greek province, and Athens has blocked the Skopje government's attempts to join the European Union and NATO.
Russia's Orthodox Church, by far the biggest worldwide, is unlikely to do anything that might compromise Moscow's strong ties with Serbia. Moscow is also opposed to Macedonia's plans to join NATO and the EU.
But Bulgaria's Orthodox Church could unilaterally recognize Macedonia's Church, a move sure to cheer Bulgarian nationalists.
"The Bulgarian Church must recognize the Macedonian (Church)," Bulgarian Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, co-leader of the United Patriots party, a junior partner in the center-right coalition government in Sofia, said on Monday.
"The two brotherly churches speak without a translator and use the same church books," he added, alluding to the close linguistic links.
Bulgarian nationalists regard the Macedonian language as a dialect of Bulgarian.