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Religion and Forced Displacement in Bulgaria

Article by Daniela Kalkandjieva

July 23, 2020

Religion and Forced Displacement in Bulgaria


The modern Bulgarian state emerged on the map of Europe in 1878. Since then, it has experienced a series of forced displacement acts, either as the receiving state or as the country of origin. Yet whereas the political and economic aspects of these displacements have attracted serious scholarly attention, the religious ones remain unexplored. This knowledge gap is largely the result of the militant atheism that until recently dominated in Bulgarian social sciences. Although the collapse of communism triggered a growing interest in religion, researchers continued to neglect its role in cases of forced migration. The situation changed in 2015 when the influx of thousands of migrants to Bulgaria provoked intense public debates centred on the religious identity of newcomers. Careful reading reveals that the host society is inclined to approach this identity through the prism of historical memories about the experience of its traditional religious communities rather than through the lens of abstract theology. Furthermore, Bulgarian citizens, living in a globalised world, have also been influenced by images and notions stirred by the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the more recent Islamist terrorist acts in Europe.


Religion, ethnicity and population

The modern Bulgarian state was created as a tributary principality of the Ottoman Empire, with the population of two million inhabiting a territory of 64,000 square kilometres situated between the Danube River and the Balkan mountain range. In 1885, the Principality of Bulgaria united with Eastern Rumelia – an Ottoman autonomous province where the majority of the population was also Bulgarian. This act augmented the territory of Bulgaria to 95,704.5 square kilometres and its population to 3,154,375.[1] Later, the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), the First World War (1914-1918), the Treaty of Craiova (1940), and the Paris Peace Treaty (1947) caused further modifications to the state borders. Today, Bulgaria has a territory of 110,371.8 square kilometres and is inhabited by a population of 7,000,000.[2]


The territorial changes were not the only factor determining the dynamics of Bulgaria’s religious and ethnic demography. No less important were the minority policies of the national governments as well as those of neighbouring states towards the Bulgarian minorities there. All these factors have left their imprint on the development of the ethnic and religious composition of modern Bulgaria (Tables 1 and 2). Interpretation of the numbers presented, however, needs to take into account the specific methodologies used in the date gathering. Until 1905, the censuses did not register the ethnic profile of citizens, but only their religious affiliation and mother tongue, e.g., as it used to be under the censuses conducted by the Ottoman authorities. In its turn, the communist regime excluded information about religion from the census.


Finally, the 1992 Census introduced the collection of such data but approached religion as ‘a historically determined belonging of a citizen or that of his/her parents and ancestors to a given group with a specific religious worldview’. Therefore, it is unclear whether the figures registered reflect the family background or the personal religious identity of citizens. In 2001, the census methodology was harmonised with European Union (EU) legislation, and Bulgarians were no longer obliged to register their ethnicity, mother tongue, or religion. Due to the insufficient publicity given to this new situation, however, they took advantage of this right only in 2011, when 21.8 per cent of them declined to answer the questions concerning religion in the census questionnaire. At the same time, Bulgarian citizens were much more open to declaring their ethnicity and mother tongue; less than ten per cent of them omitted the corresponding sections in the questionnaire.[3]


 Table 1. Ethnic Demography[4]


Table 2. Religious Demography[5]


Church-state relations

The role of religion in acts of forced displacement has varied throughout the history of modern Bulgaria, just as the status of local religious traditions and their institutions altered under the successive political regimes. An essential factor in social life after the Liberation of 1878 but suppressed under communism (1944-1989), religion has been gradually regaining its position in society after the fall of the atheist regime. If pre-communist legislation distinguished explicitly between the majority and minority faiths by granting the status of ‘dominant religion’ to Eastern Orthodoxy (1879 Constitution, Article 37), post-communist law-making has adopted a different approach. It expresses a respect for religious freedoms (1991 Constitution, Articles 13.1 & 37), while considering Eastern Orthodoxy as the ‘traditional religion’ of Bulgaria (Article 13.3).[6]  In this regard, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) deserves special attention as the local institutional representative of this religious tradition. Before the communist takeover, its holy synod had exceptional authority in not only within its community of believers, but also generally in the religious affairs of the Bulgarian Kingdom (1879 Constitution, Article 39). Although the communist regime introduced the constitutional separation of the church and state (1947 Constitution, Article 78.2; 1971 Constitution, Article 53.2), it defined the local Orthodox church as a body linked with the history and traditional faith of the Bulgarian people (1949 Law on Religions, Article 3). This vision underwent a further development in 2002 when the newly adopted Religious Denominations Act emphasised ‘the special and traditional role of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the history of Bulgaria to establish and develop its spirituality and culture’ in its preamble. Moreover, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was granted ex lege the status of judicial entity (2002 Religious Denominations Act, Article 10.1), while other religious minorities can obtain this status only via court registration (Articles 14-20).


The new legal status allows the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to act as a partner of the state in the sphere of social policies. The position of this religious institution in society is additionally enhanced by its image as the saviour of the Bulgarian people throughout history, especially during the five-century Ottoman rule. This new capacity became evident during the recent refugee crisis when the call of the BOC’s holy synod to stop incoming migrants, who were framed as a threat to Bulgarian national identity and state sovereignty, found broad support in society. The BOC has also emerged as an essential player when it comes to shaping the attitudes of people on issues linked with legislation on family affairs, and played a substantial role in blocking the ratification of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence by the National Assembly of Bulgaria.


Religion and forced displacement

An analysis of the role of religion in forced displacement would be incomplete without taking into consideration the previous experience of Bulgarian society. Between 1878 and 1945, 806,000 people found asylum in Bulgaria; 698,000 of them were ethnic Bulgarians who had remained outside the borders of their kin state upon the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.[7] Initially, they continued living in their settlements in the hope that these territories would be unified with Bulgaria in the future. Later on, however, they abandoned their homes due to persecution or military conflicts. As national refugees, all of them were granted Bulgarian citizenship and received significant material support from the Bulgarian state. In its turn, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church took care of their spiritual needs. If they belonged to a different faith, however, they often became subjects of attempts at forceful conversion to Orthodoxy.


This division of labour between church and state was also used in the case of foreign refugees. They consisted mostly of Armenians and Russians. The former sought asylum in Bulgaria after the massacres initiated by the Ottoman authorities in the mid-1890s and the early 1920s, while the latter fled the Bolshevik regime established in Russia. Both were met with empathy by Bulgarian society: the former shared a similar destiny with Bulgarians as victims of Ottoman rule, while the latter were exiles from Orthodox Russia that had liberated Bulgaria from that rule and was now suffering under the godless Bolsheviks.


The Bulgarian state also reached out to help these incomers. It assisted them in receiving Nansen passports (internationally recognised travel documents issued to stateless refugees by the League of Nations from 1922 to 1938). It also offered them the opportunity to obtain Bulgarian citizenship. At the same time, the diverse profile of these refugees resulted in different policies targeting the various groups. The Armenians had generally emigrated with their families and often with their neighbours and priests, and were thus able to establish self-reliant parish-based communities. Their members additionally benefited from the financial support of Armenian diaspora organisations and the Armenian Apostolic Church. They were also skilful craftsmen, who easily found a place in the domestic economy.


The Russians presented a different case: two-thirds of them were former military personnel who lacked the skills necessary for integration in a predominantly agrarian society. Their survival became possible thanks to annual subsidies secured by the Bulgarian state. The money was transferred to such organisations as the Russian Red Cross and the Union of Russian Military Veterans, which in turn distributed this aid among their members in the form of free soup kitchens, medical and educational services, housing and accommodation, etc. After having been defeated in World War I, however, Bulgaria was no longer able to provide the necessary financial support to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were arriving. Thus, many Russians and Armenians continued to the west to settle in the wealthier victorious states.


In its turn, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church provided moral and material support to both groups of foreign refugees, even though the Armenians belonged to a different branch of Christianity. At the same time, due to its schismatic status, the BOC was not able to offer pastoral care to Orthodox Russians. Therefore, it allowed them to establish a parallel network of parishes under the jurisdiction of the Russian Synod Abroad, which had been set up in interwar Yugoslavia. Additionally, the Bulgarian Church provided them with the churches and monasteries necessary for their religious life.


Table 3. Major Immigration Waves (1878-1945)[8]


Another type of forced migration appeared as a result of the bilateral population exchange agreements which Bulgaria had concluded with Turkey (1913), Greece (1919, 1927) and Romania (1940). They were facilitated by the reciprocal presence of Turkish, Greek, and Romanian minorities in Bulgaria, and of minorities of the corresponding countries in Bulgaria. As a result, the ethnic and religious profile of the displaced persons had a twofold effect: it facilitated their integration in the host state and increased the ethnoreligious homogeneity of its population. In the case of the Orthodox displaced persons (DPs), this exchange also allowed them to leave the jurisdiction of an ‘alien’ Orthodox Church and to join the national one, where they were able to attend liturgy in a familiar language. A no less noteworthy feature of this type of displacement is the settlement of the DPs alongside the state border that was closest to their previous homes.


Table 4. Population Exchange and Forced Resettlement[9]


The next form of forced displacement was influenced by the anti-Semitic policy of the Nazi regime. As an ally of Hitlerite Germany, Bulgaria was involved in the deportation of Jews to extermination camps. During World War II, Bulgarian citizens of Jewish origin were taken from their homes, although their deportation was blocked by the active opposition of the Orthodox Church and many Bulgarians. Unfortunately, this resistance did not prevent the deportation of 11,343 Jews from the areas under Bulgarian occupation (Aegean Thrace, Vardar Macedonia, and Eastern Serbia).


Finally, religion also played a role in cases of forced emigration. According to Bulgarian scholars, about 954,000 people left Bulgaria from 1878 to 1945; about 574,000 of them were Muslims who sought a better standard of living, first in the Ottoman Empire and later in the Turkish republic.[10] Initially motivated by the disadvantageous change in their social status, their exodus continued over the next years for various reasons (discrimination, war, and population exchange), causing constant annual flows amounting to several to tens of thousands of DPs. Most of these émigrés were Turks, but there were also many Tatars, Circassians, Pomaks and Roma. After the Treaty of Neuilly (1919), however, the Bulgarian state started limiting the emigration of Pomaks (Bulgarian speaking Muslims), and took measures to integrate them by means of education. In parallel, the Orthodox Church abandoned its previous policy of forceful conversion of Pomaks to Orthodoxy and focused its efforts on diminishing the influence of Islam on them.


Despite subscribing to a different ideology, the communist regime continued the policies of previous Bulgarian governments towards the Turkish minority, which it regarded as threatening state sovereignty. The Cold War closure of the Bulgarian-Turkish border did not stop Turkish emigration but replaced the annual flows with several big refugee waves. The last of them occurred in the mid-1980s when Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin were forced to adopt Bulgarian names. Officially justified as a means to recover of some alleged Bulgarian roots of this minority, the so-called ‘revival process’ aimed at the assimilation of this group. As a result, in the summer of 1989, 320,000 Turks left Bulgaria; half of them returned after the fall of communism.



Table 5. Major Waves of Turkish Minority Emigration and Forceful Displacement[11]


The fall of communism stimulated a new type of emigration from Bulgaria. In the last 30 years, about 1,300,000 citizens of working age (20-59 years) have left Bulgaria, mostly for economic reasons.[12] This high level of net emigration has caused a serious demographic imbalance, which has affected the age profile of the population and its labour force potential. Thus, the quality of immigrants to Bulgaria has become a burning issue. In this regard, special attention is paid to such potential resources for solving the demographic crisis as the post-1989 Bulgarian emigrants, the historical Bulgarian diaspora (especially from Ukraine, Moldova, and North Macedonia), and highly skilled third-country nationals.[13]


From this perspective, the educational level of refugees is far from optimal. According to the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees, in 2016 only 23 per cent of migrants over the age of 14 had secondary or higher education.[14] Also, they regard Bulgaria as a transit country. Until 2012, there was a low influx of migrants, and the annual number of asylum applications was below 1,000. In 2013, however, the refugee crisis caused a rapid growth in the number of asylum seekers, which reached 20,391 applications in 2015. Under these circumstances, Bulgaria’s responsibility as a country that has an external EU border grew as well. The change had a significant impact on the local political elite, shifting its attention to the security aspects of the migration pressure rather than the humanitarian ones. It also stimulated the spread of anti-immigrant rhetoric: initially used by the populists to expand their influence on society, it was soon adopted by mainstream parties as well. Meanwhile, the drop in the migration levels to the pre-crisis ones in the last three years has not stopped the misuse of the refugee issue for political ends.[15]


Table 6. Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees: Data on Asylum Seekers (01.01.1993 – 31.12.2019)[16]


The recent refugee crisis also pointed to a return of religion as a factor in forced displacement. On the one hand, the statements issued by the BOC’s holy synod and individual bishops between 2015 and 2017, played a substantial role in shaping a reserved, and even hostile, attitude towards refugees in Bulgarian society.[17] In particular, the church’s call to close the state borders to migrants from the Middle East and North Africa as religiously alien people who could present a threat to the national identity and state sovereignty of Bulgarians found significant support in society.[18] The impact of this vision was increased by the intertwining of the historical memory of Bulgarians about the five-century subjection of their forefathers to the Ottoman Empire with more recent impressions of the acts of Islamic terrorism in Europe and other parts of the world.


At the same time, the Bulgarian case reveals an alternative involvement of religion in the recent refugee crisis, which was motivated by the ethos of Christian hospitality. It was associated mostly with minority religious communities. Especially active was the Catholic community, where the priests, believers, and religion-based structures such as Caritas played an active part in alleviating the suffering of refugees by providing humanitarian aid. Furthermore, the migrants received moral and material support from non-religious civil society structures such as the Council of Refugee Women in Bulgaria or local branches of international organisations such as the UN Refugee Agency.[19]


Policy perspectives

The analysis of the role played by religion in forced displacement acts throughout the history of modern Bulgaria outlines three major patterns: pre-communist, communist, and post-communist.


The first of them took shape between 1878 and 1945 when the incoming and outgoing flows of refugees in the Balkans emerged as after-effects of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of young independent states whose governments pursued the creation of ethnically and religiously homogenous nations. As a rule, these processes of migration affected neighbouring states and concerned communities whose centuries-old coexistence had brought about specific modes of collaboration as well as of religious tensions. Besides, the discussed displacements often embraced entire parish/mosque-based neighbourhoods. As a result, their members were able to reproduce their religious and social infrastructure in their new settlements. The fact that most refugees were agrarians who moved together with their families from one rural society to another allowed them to establish self-reliant communities which thus needed less support from the host state and/or international organisations. The refugees from Bolshevik Russia presented the main deviance from this pattern.


From a comparative perspective, the experience described might offer new insights into the understanding of post-Cold War migration as an outcome of the decolonisation process and the collapse of the Soviet Union and Tito’s Yugoslavia. In this regard, the Bulgarian experience points to new directions of research linked with: a) the potential of refugee religious structures to assist or impede the sustainable socialisation of asylum seekers in the host society; b) the role of the institution(s) of the majority faith in the host country as a factor shaping public attitudes towards the newcomers; and c) the division of labour between the state and the religious authorities in dealing with refugees.


Furthermore, while the previous cohorts of refugees contributed towards greater ethno-religious homogeneity of Bulgarian society, the new ones would increase its diversity. This new phenomenon presents a serious challenge to many Eastern European societies, whose pluralist traditions were uprooted under communism. At the same time, the post-1989 democratisation and EU membership of Bulgaria have established a new balance between the local majority and minority religions, thus allowing the development of alternative responses to the refugee challenge.


Daniela Kalkandjieva is a Bulgarian scholar affiliated with Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski. She is the author of The Russian Orthodox Church, 1917-1948: From Decline to Resurrection (Routledge 2015); ‘Russian Ecclesiastical Geopolitics between the Two World Wars’, CAS Sofia Working Papers Series, No. 10 (2018); ‘Eastern Orthodoxy and its Churches in Central and Eastern Europe’ in András Máté-Tóth and Gergely Rosta (eds.), Focus on Religion in Central and Eastern Europe: A Regional View (De Gruyter, 2016), ‘The Bulgarian Orthodox Church at the Crossroads: Between Nationalism and Pluralism’ in Andrii Krawchuk and Thomas Bremer (eds.), Orthodox Christian Encounters of Identity and Otherness: Values, Self-Reflection, Dialogue (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); and ‘А Comparative Analysis on Church-State Relations in Eastern Orthodoxy: Concepts, Models and Principles’, Journal of Church and State, 2011, 53 (4), pp. 587-614.


Cover photo: ‘’Clergy and faithful pleading for mandatory religious education in Bulgarian public schools, St Nevski Cathedral, Sofia, September 2010′. Copyright: Daniela Kalkandjieva.


[1] Annuaire statistique du Royaume de Bulgarie, 1909 (I’année), Sofia: Imprimerie d’état, 1910, pp. 4 & 38.

[2] Statistical Reference Book 2019, Sofia: National Statistical Institute of the Republic of Bulgaria, 2019, pp. 14 & 21, available at All websites accessed on 12 December 2019.

[3] Dimitar Arkadiev, ‘Nyakoi problemi okolo dannite za etnicheskiya sastav na naselenieto v Balgariya ot preboryavaneto 2011 godina’ [The 2011 Census: Some problems related to the ethnic composition of Bulgaria’s population], Paper presented at the National Statistical Institute Conference on the 2011 Census (Sofia, June 17th 2014), available at

[4] The 1887 Census did not collect data related to ethnicity but only about the mother tongue; Table 1 includes information about the major ethnic groups in Bulgaria which have been affected by acts of forced displacement. Sources: Annuaire statistique du Royaume de Bulgarie, 1909 (I anneé), Sofia: Imprimerie d’état, 1910; Ibid., 1923-1924 (XV-XVI années), Sofia: Imprimerie d’état, 1925; Ibid., 1929-1930 (XXI-XXII années), Sofia: Imprimerie d’état, 1930; Rezultati ot prebroyavane na naselenieto na 31.XII.1946 godina [1946 Census results], Sofia: Darzhavno upravlenie za informatsiya, 1970; Struktura na naselenieto po veroizpovednie [An overview of Bulgaria’s religious demography (1887-2001)], Sofia: National Statistical Institute of the Republic of Bulgaria, available at; 2011 Population Census: Main Results, Sofia: National Statistical Institute of the Republic of Bulgaria, [2012], available at

[5] Table 2 uses the same sources as Table 1.

[6] Daniela Kalkandjieva, ‘The Bulgarian Orthodox Church: Authoring New Visions About the Orthodox Church’s Role in Contemporary Bulgarian Society’ in Sabrina P. Ramet (ed.), Orthodox Churches and Politics in Southeastern Europe: Nationalism, Conservativism, and Intolerance, London: Palgrave, 2019, pp. 53-83.

[7] Vesselin Mintchev, ‘External Migration and External Migration Policies in Bulgaria’, South East Europe Review for Labor and Social Affairs, 1999, 2 (3), p. 125.

[8] Data collected from the following sources: Mintchev; Detelina Dineva, ‘Bulgarian migration in a historical perspective’ in Anna Mazurkiwicz (ed.), East Central European Migrations During the Cold War: A Handbook, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019, p. 74; Tsvetana Kyoseva, ‘Ruskata emigratsiya i balgarskata darzhava (20-te – 50-te godini na XX v.)’ [Russian Emigration in Bulgaria in the 1920s –1950s], in Georgi Markov, Tatyana Shamray, Luiza Revyakina, Lizbet Lyubenova, Ganka Rupcheva, Ani Zlateva (eds.), Byalata emigratsia v Balgariya [The White Emigration in Bulgaria], Sofia: IK ‘Gutenberg’, 2001, p. 52.

[9] Data collected from the following sources: Nikola Stanev, Nay-nova istoriya na Balgariya, 1912-1920 [The newest history of Bulgaria, 1912-1920], vol. 2 ‘Voyni za obedinenie’ [Unification wars], Sofia: Pechatnitsa S.M. Staykov, 1925, p.140; Dineva, pp. 70-71.

[10] Mintchev, p. 125.

[11] Data collected from Valeri Stoyanov, Turskoto naselenie v Balgariya mezhdu polyusite na etnicheskata politika [Turkish population in Bulgaria between the poles of ethnic policy], Sofia: Lik, 1998.

[12] Anna Krasteva, The Bulgarian Migration Paradox: Migration and Development in Bulgaria, [issued within the MIND Project and with the support of Caritas Bulgaria, Caritas Europe, and Global Migration Policy Associates (GMPA)], Sofia: Caritas Bulgaria, May 2019, p. 9, available at

[13] National Strategy for Migration, Asylum and Integration (2011-2020) of the Republic of Bulgaria, p.12, available at

[14] Albena Nikolova and Nina Chernicheska, Refugees in Bulgaria: Labour Market and Budgetary Costs, Sofia: Ministry of Finances of the Republic of Bulgaria, August 2016, pp. 9-11.

[15]A.  Krasteva, pp. 16, 34-35; Daniela Kalkandjieva, ‘The Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Refugee Crisis’ in Lucian N. Leustean (ed.), Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World, London: Routledge 2019, p. 243.

[16] The presented data is announced by the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees with the Council of Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria on its official website at

[17] D. Kalkandjieva, ‘The Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Refugee Crisis’, p. 243.

[18] Special Address of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox with Reference to the Migration Crisis, September 25th 2015, available at


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