- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

TROYAN, Bulgaria The Bulgarian Orthodox monks on the edge of town keep candles burning around their main treasure: the icon of the Virgin with Three Hands.

Two hands cradle the infant Jesus. The third represents the hand of God.

When Pope John Paul II visited Bulgaria in May part of his historic journeys to Orthodox Christian lands images of the famous icon were carried by those hoping to heal 10 centuries of estrangement between Roman Catholics and Orthodox.

"This is what we need the hand of God, divine intervention," said Archimandrite Augustine, one of the few monks left at the Troyan Monastery, about 60 miles northeast of Sofia. "We mortals seem incapable of overcoming this schism."

These conflicts continue as political forces draw Europe together. NATO is preparing to welcome some of its former East Bloc foes in 2004. The same year, the European Union plans to push its borders eastward, drawing in millions more Orthodox followers. Bulgaria and Romania deep in the Orthodox heartland could also join the European Union as early as 2007.

Matters of faith are not so easily mended.

Rifts between the two ancient branches of Christianity began as early as the 5th century over the rising influence of the papacy and later over wording of the creed, or confession of faith. The split was sealed in 1054 with an exchange of anathemas or damnations between the Vatican and the patriarch of Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey, and still the spiritual center of Orthodoxy.

Western crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 and the loss still resonates with many Orthodox as a huge Roman Catholic betrayal.

Today, a deep thicket of suspicion still stands between the Vatican and the various churches representing the world's 200 million Orthodox.

Some thorns have been dulled. The spiritual leader of Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, has reached out to Catholics, even though his efforts have angered Orthodox zealots. The pope's visits to Orthodox nations including Bulgaria, Romania and Greece also have helped advance discussions on reconciliation.

But the dialogue often crumbles into a rehash of grievances some theological, others historical. Mostly, though, the quarrels touch on politics and power just as they did a millennium ago.

Orthodox leaders have always complained bitterly about the various Eastern Rite churches, which follow many Orthodox traditions but are loyal to the Vatican. They are widely perceived as Vatican infiltrators trying to lure away Orthodox followers and erode Orthodox churches.

The issue has sharply escalated since the fall of Soviet-backed communism, which kept reins on the Orthodox clergy but also protected them from Rome's influence.

The Vatican, in turn, has demanded the return of Eastern Rite property seized by communist governments.

In July 2000, a meeting in Baltimore between Catholic and Orthodox envoys ended in rancor. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who then led the Vatican's commission of Christian unity, acknowledged the Eastern Rite quagmire was "too complicated" to overcome quickly.

"At the moment, I don't think there is an ecumenical dialogue," said Robert Nicholas, a specialist on Russian Orthodoxy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

No one expects either side to make any changes in dogma or tradition in the spirit of reunifying. "It would be naive to think this impasse will be cleared easily, but we still must try," said the Rev. Ronald Roberson, associate director for interreligious affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.

Tiny Bulgaria could serve as a model for cooperation between the two churches. But it also shows how bigger forces can create problems.

The Roman Catholic community in Bulgaria is small less than 1 percent of the population but it carries a point of pride. A Holy See diplomat to Bulgaria from 1925 to 1934, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, became the beloved Pope John XXIII in 1958.

Tensions over Eastern Rite practices and other issues in Bulgaria have never reached the same pitch as in other countries, notably Romania, Ukraine and Russia.

In Rakovski, part of a small Roman Catholic pocket in central Bulgaria, a twin-spire Catholic church overlooks a memorial to three priests killed by a communist firing squad in 1952. Flowers are left by followers of both churches.

"We are all Christians. It's our duty to know and respect each other," said Mika Romanova, 42, a Catholic in Rakovski. "This is how it should be everywhere. It isn't."

One of the main reasons in Bulgaria and elsewhere is the powerful Russian church, which traditionally has set the tone across Eastern Europe.

The Russian patriarch, Alexy II, has accused the Vatican of an "expansionist strategy" and refuses to grant one of the Polish pope's unfulfilled wishes: a trip to Russia.

"There is no way to go against Alexy," said Toni Radkov, a theologian at the University of Blagoevgrad, about 40 miles south of Sofia. "His views really shape much of the Orthodox world."

Bulgarian lawmakers, too, have stirred more turmoil. On Dec. 20, parliament passed a law defining Orthodoxy as the country's "traditional religion." The measure was intended to end rivalries for the leadership of the Orthodox church. But religious minorities, including other Christian denominations, claim it undermines their status.

"Europe is uniting with NATO and [the European Union]. This is undeniable. But, at the same time, I fear there is a backlash," said Bishop Christos Proykov, leader of the Eastern Rite Catholics in Bulgaria. "This takes the form of nationalism and religious divisions."

Bishop Proykov also recalled his years studying in an underground seminary during communist rule and how he never would have imagined then how Cold War enemies would someday unite. Perhaps this is a lesson for those discouraged about Catholic-Orthodox relations today, he said.

"True, we have big problems between the churches. But we should measure progress not by big leaps but by tiny steps," he said.

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