Friday, June 6, 2008

Anti-Mormon Bigotry In Bulgaria: Orthodox Priests Ask Their Government To Evict All LDS Missionaries And "Decertify" The Church

According to a report filed June 5th, 2008 by the Sofia News Agency, two LDS missionaries allegedly "rushed Thursday into Saints Cyril and Methodius Orthodox church in Bulgaria's coastal city of Burgas to interrupt the morning service, held to mark the Ascension of Jesus". The missionaries entered the temple and announced in Bulgarian before the people inside they were going to preach.

The young men refused to leave even after a priest named Zahari asked them to. The scandal lasted for about half an hour before the Mormons were taken out of the church almost by force.

"Such an incident happened for the first time and that aggressive behaviour was a precedent," Father Zahari said. "I have ceased [sic] all responsible institutions and will insist on removing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Bulgaria's creed register as well as extraditing of its missionaries," he added. [Ed. Note: All religious organizations in Bulgaria are legally required to be registered with the Bulgarian government to operate. The LDS Church is legally registered. Consequently, removing the LDS Church from the country's creed register would be, in effect, "decertifying" them from operating in the country.]

The Focus Information Agency quoted the full statement of Father Zahari Dechev as follows: “It is absolutely inadmissible [for] Mormons to enter the church and to walk around. Besides extradition of these foreign citizens from Bulgaria we also insist for abolish registration of this creed. We also have some questions to the U.S Ambassador to Bulgaria”, Father Zahari Dechev said.

But according to a story posted by KSL Channel 5, the incident appears to be hysterically overexaggerated. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released this statement: "Contrary to erroneous media reports, two missionaries serving in Burgas, Bulgaria, did nothing to disrupt the services of a local church, and when asked to leave, did so immediately. The missionaries were invited to attend the church service by a member of the congregation."

Other information gleaned about this incident further buttresses my own belief that this incident not only was over-exaggerated, but was driven by anti-Mormon bigotry on the part of the Orthodox priests. An individual identfied as Wadeche posted the following comment to the Sofia News Agency story:

From 2005-2007 I was a missionary for the church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints (mormons) and we are taught repeatedly to respect others religions. If we ever enter another church we were told to remove our name tags and we werent allowed to preach anything of our own religion. I find this article hard to believe because while I was in Bulgaria I was persecuted myself by a number of people INCLUDING Orthodox priests who would call us a cult and tell us to leave to country even if we were just in the city square minding our own business. I met people personally who told me that a priest had told them we were a cult and to stay away from us and they were actually suprised how untrue that was when they met us. While I do not know what exactly happend in this case i would hope that all of us would wait and want to hear both sides of the story before we "know" what truly happened.

A comment posted by Beech T. to the KSL story illustrates the political, cultural, and religious mindset prevailing in Bulgaria at this time as part of the country's Communist legacy and sheds light on why the Orthodox priest reacted so vociferously:

My brother is serving in Bulgaria right now and he says all the time that the people there seem to be without hope. The government used to be communist, but since that government fell, the people HAVE been free to worship as the please. But the reign of communism was so awful, and destroyed so much of their hope and faith in themsevles and God, that it's hard for them to see other points of view, or to accept anything that would make their lives better or bring them happiness at all. So it's not that they are all about getting rid of other faiths and being small minded and judgemental, like so many comments have pointed out, it's just that they don't enjoy the liberties and freedom that we do, they live very different lives, and basically just need a good reason to hope.

And a comment posted by Hazelskye to the KSL story shows that it is not uncommon for LDS missionaries to visit other churches when invited by prospective converts from such churches, and that the missionaries abide by a code of etiquette designed to discourage confrontation:

Often missionaries teaching people discuss common beliefs. It is not uncommon for a person who is investigating the church to invite the missionaries to their church as insight. I often went to other churches and 99% of missionaries are respectful and educated about other religons. Awesome. So, no prosyletizing goes on....however, they do go in their suit and tie attire w/ name badge. That is worn everyday on ones mission and has nothing to do with visiting another church. But if people were looking for something to bug them, maybe that would be it? I LOVED going to other churches. It made me feel well rounded, educated, and supportive of people I loved and cared about.

And finally, the LDS Church wasted little time in issuing a public statement debunking the story. No whitewash is suspected; in a recent incident involving LDS missionaries in Colorado earlier this year, the Church did not whitewash it, but took full responsibility and issued a public apology for the misconduct of the Colorado missionaries.

Consequently, the weight of the circumstantial evidence presented here points more toward a hysterical overreaction on the part of the Orthodox priest and a reflection of residual anti-Mormon bigotry rather than any misbehavior on the part of the LDS missionaries.

There has been no reaction yet from the Bulgarian government. This incident is also being discussed in the Catholic Answers Forum.